Loss and Legacy
Honoring a son and employee's dedication, respect and devotion
by Tom Wilson, writer/editor-PCToday. Photos by the author, except as credited.
To his parents, Steelyn G. Kanouff was a strong, big-hearted soul, an outdoorsy kid who was "never clean until bedtime."
To his employer, he was a peerless blend of competence and dedication, a "contagious team spirit that made us all better – professionally and personally."
And to the first Pennsylvania College of Technology student to benefit from a scholarship established in his memory, he will be a continual and conscientious guide, a daily reminder to "adhere to the personal qualities on which my selection was based."
They all came together in early April at the college's Schneebeli Earth Science Center, turning heartbreak into hope. After walking through the same diesel-scented labs where Kanouff earned his degree, meeting the students who have followed in his formidable bootsteps, the group gathered for a historic announcement.
Amerikohl Mining Inc. had endowed a $1 million fund in memory of Kanouff, who graduated from Penn College in 2007 with an associate degree in heavy construction equipment technology: technician emphasis. A July 2013 Indiana County workplace accident claimed the life of the 28-year-old, who cherished his job as a heavy equipment technician with the western Pennsylvania company, and whose positive and ethical demeanor moved owner/president John Stilley to purposeful response.
"The scholarship fund will provide significant financial support to many students who aspire to continue their education in diesel or heavy equipment technology," college President Davie Jane Gilmour said. "Amerikohl's unprecedented generosity pays such a meaningful tribute to Steelyn, and will provide important assistance to students who will follow in his educational and career path."
"I want to keep on making them all proud and to live up to Steelyn's character and his reputation."
On hand were Steelyn's parents, Gary and Ramona, and his fiancée, Hailey Fink, as well as Stilley and other Amerikohl representatives: Stilley's sons Jake and Jamie, and Todd Fiedor, who worked closely with the Penn College Foundation to formalize the scholarship.
During the brief and bittersweet Earth Science Center ceremony, Gilmour also introduced the first recipient from the fund: Forrest S. Martin, a dual diesel technology/heavy construction equipment technology major from Greencastle.
"According to the faculty and administration of this campus, Forrest shares many of the qualities that were so important to Steelyn," the president said of Martin, who exhibited some of those commendable attributes before he ever met his benefactors.
Where a simple thank-you note might have seemed wordy to some college students, Martin wrote double-sided page after page of gratitude and introduction to the Kanouffs. When he strode across the ESC lobby, flowers in hand for Steelyn's mom, one of life's meaningful moments seemingly slowed for onlookers to savor.
"I was extremely anxious to meet Steelyn's family and to try to get to know him better through all of them," Martin said. "We shared interests, and I learned more about the person Steelyn was, in exchange for a little bit of who I am. This was a very emotional and heartfelt time for all of us; there were tears, but also much joy and laughter. They gave me so much inspiration, motivation and courage to do my best – not only in school, but in all of my endeavors.
"It was a wonderful opportunity to meet them and, for sure, a memory that I will never forget."
The Kanouffs, too, were bolstered by the experience.
"We are relieved that Forrest has such good character, manners and work ethic," said Mrs. Kanouff, who had compiled a proud tribute to her son in hopes of attracting the most inspired students to submit scholarship applications. In relatively few, but well-chosen words, she encapsulated Steelyn's too-short life.
She recounted his idyllic boyhood of Tonka trucks and tools, of tearing apart a tractor transmission because he'd seen Dad do it. He flirted with high school football; enjoyed hunting, fishing, tubing and four wheeling with his younger brother, Brandon; and – always – was a kind and kindred presence wherever he went.
"When neighborhood farmers needed a helping hand, they called Steelyn," she said. "He made himself available and worked tirelessly. Neighbors knew that they could depend upon Steelyn without any need to supervise. Simply identify the task and let Steelyn roll."
That attitude carried over into his job, which his mother said was performed with "dedication, respect and loyalty to others, devotion, and sheer love for the work."
Martin is gratified that the scholarship rewards such integrity as much as it does academic performance, and he vows to use similar criteria if he's successful enough to pay it forward. He said as much in his first face-to-face with the Stilleys, genuinely impressed that a business owner would be so personally affected by an employee's death that he would endow a $1 million scholarship.
"That really made an impact on me and showed how much of a personal and sincere business owner he is," Martin said. "To care for employees of your company at that level is almost unheard-of anymore, and it imprinted on me right away the type of company Amerikohl is and the type of businessman Mr. Stilley is."
They talked quite a bit about Steelyn – "They told me what a great employee he was. Always up for anything, always with the best attitude" – and the Stilleys advised Martin to continue his education and hard work. They also answered a number of questions he had about the business, a key exchange for someone with similar aspirations.
Martin hopes to put his degrees to work in a heavy-duty diesel truck shop for a few years and, as his experience accrues, to dive into a full menu of entrepreneurial options. His ultimate goal is to own his own company, perhaps a small trucking line, and to "pass this blessing on to future students, the same way that it has been given to me."
The Stilleys, Fiedor, the Kanouffs and Fink all attended a reception that evening on the college's main campus, on hand when Amerikohl's name was added at the top level of the Donor Wall. Martin and his family were unable to attend, but – like the abiding spirit of Steelyn Kanouff – the scholarship recipient was represented in the evening's message: Philanthropic aid to students pays dividends far beyond the immediate contribution.
"I want to keep on making them all proud and to live up to Steelyn's character and his reputation," Martin said. "I personally feel as though I have an unspoken agreement with them to do the best in all I do and to become all that I can be." ■