Family and faith transcend generations of runners

Hesston College men's cross country runners Jacob Landis and Kenny Graber

Kenny Graber, Stryker, Ohio, and Jacob Landis, Sterling, Ill., are two of the top men’s cross country runners at Hesston College. A generation ago, their fathers also ran on the Hesston campus. Collectively, their competitiveness, ties to family and faith and support of a small liberal arts college in the heart of Kansas has lead to four similar stories.

Seeds of this story were first planted when Joe Graber and Keith Landis, fathers of Kenny and Jacob,  met during Joe’s visits to his grandmother’s home in Sterling, Ill., in the 1970’s. They both decided to attend Hesston from 1981-83. Decades later, it has been gratifying for each of them to watch a similar story unfold for their sons.

“As parents, we hoped Kenny would attend Hesston,” said Joe Graber, whose wife Karen also attended Hesston. “When Hesston reintroduced the cross country program last year we thought it was an answer to prayers. To have Kenny run with the son of a former classmate who I ran with is truly a joy.”  

“Jacob heard about Hesston from both his parents (Jacob’s mother, Lois, is also a Hesston graduate) and his aunts, all who were Hesston graduates,” Keith Landis said. “He enjoyed the stories we’d tell and picked up on the connections we maintained with our own Hesston friends. When we talk about college in our family, a response might be ‘You mean there are other colleges?’”

Although Hesston didn’t field a varsity cross country program when the elder Graber and Landis attended, they did offer a running club, of which both were involved. It’s apparent now that the fathers’ time at Hesston influenced their sons’ college decisions.

“I would say that the family ties definitely provided some motivation for me to attend Hesston and run here,” said Jacob Landis, who is a freshman. “I guess it felt like taking over the family business in a way. There is a feeling of nostalgia and pride when you follow in your parents’ footsteps and support something they supported. I’ve wanted to come to Hesston ever since I was little. I grew up with my parents and their friends’ stories about Hesston and all the fun they had, and it only made sense for me to come and make my own stories.”

“I think it’s cool that I get to compete at the college level at a place that meant so much to my parents,” said Kenny Graber – a sophomore runner for the Larks who as a freshman qualified for the National Junior College Athletic Association national meet in Spartanburg, S.C. “The motivation to compete is something that I got from my dad. It’s the will to be part of a team and the will to want to always improve.”

Aside from competing with the cross country team, Graber and Landis have found other interests on campus. It turns out running isn’t the only thing that the teammates have in common. Both list an interest in music and an opportunity to explore and grow their faith as key components of their time at Hesston College.

“Hanging out with the guys in the mod, playing intramural sports, participating in the choir and Monday night hymn sings in the racquetball courts are generally what keep me busy when I’m not studying or running,” Graber said.”

“I was thrilled when I found out that there are hymn sings every Monday night,” Landis said. “One of the things I love about Hesston that you won’t find at every college is that it helps students grow spiritually as well as academically and socially. I just don’t think there are many schools out there that are as intentional as Hesston about developing the whole person.”

Looking back a few decades, their fathers have a similar story to tell.

“Choir tours were amazing and music has been a big part of my life ever since Hesston,” Joe Graber said. “But what I valued most about Hesston was that, as a student body, our one common goal was to serve God wherever our profession took us. We had people who came from all over the world to have this experience. I don’t think you can say that about other colleges.”

“The friendships I built at Hesston were life-long,” Keith Landis said. “Discussions in the mod with the guys were some of my best memories there. It was a positive experience for me and it’s gratifying to see my son attend the school that my wife and I attended.”