Anyone hoping to get a few minutes with Kent State University President Lester A. Lefton knows they have to make it past the ultimate gatekeeper â€” his assistant, Debra Drake, â€™08.
In just five years with the university, the personable Drake with the contagious laugh has experienced it from nearly every angle: parent, staff member, student, alumna and donor. She began working in the Office of Diversity before moving to the presidentâ€™s suite. She watched her daughter graduate from the nursing program, while her son enrolled in the computer technology program. And in 2008, she completed her own bachelorâ€™s degree.
â€œI guess my first love of Kent State came when my daughter decided to go here. Honestly, my imagery of Kent State had always been from when I was a little girl, of May 4,â€ she says. â€œSo when my daughter said she wanted to go here, I said Iâ€™d rather you not because that was my only image.â€
In time, that fear vanished â€” first, when activist and speaker Tom Hayden took her on a tour of the May 4 site in 2007, and later, during the 40th commemoration last year.
â€œWe paid real attention to the wounded students and the families,â€ Drake says. â€œI think it just gave me a greater appreciation for what Kent State stands for. Weâ€™ve been fair, and inclusive, and understanding â€” which is kind of what Kent State is generally.â€
Education is important to the two men she calls father figures in her life: her father, who was a minister, and Lefton. When Drake was in school, both men demanded she excel â€” and both wanted to see her grades.
Upon examining her grades, â€œthe president said, â€˜Good, Iâ€™m proud of you,â€™â€ she says. â€œWhen I finished my degree, I could tell he was proud of me because it was not only something I wanted to do; it was something I needed to do.â€
Now, Drake is creating a permanent legacy by endowing four scholarships through a gift of life insurance.
When Drake became a widowed mother of two, she ensured her children would be taken care of through insurance in the event of her death. Now that theyâ€™re older, those policies are the foundation for her significant gift to four scholarship funds.
The first is a scholarship for nontraditional students in honor of her grandmother, who completed her mass-communication degree at the University of Akron when she was 72 years old, taking courses one at a time while working as a beautician and real estate broker.
â€œShe just turned 90 in December,â€ Drake says. â€œI gave her this scholarship; she didnâ€™t know what to say. I told her I wanted to give her the scholarship because sheâ€™s such an inspiration.â€
Another scholarship provides emergency funds for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students and honors a friend of Drakeâ€™s who passed away.
The third scholarship honors her children, while the fourth is named for her parents and provides last-dollar support for students who have run out of other financial options.
â€œI want the scholarship for my parents to be meaningful,â€ she says. â€œItâ€™s nice to know that no matter what I need, theyâ€™ll always be there for me, just as this last-dollar scholarship will be there for future students.â€
President Lefton offers high praise for his assistantâ€™s generosity.
â€œDebra was a quintessential Kent State student â€” going to school, working full time, committed to family, and embodying a strong work ethic that is exceeded by no one,â€ he says. â€œWhat a great legacy to leave in honor of her grandmother, parents and children. Debra is the best.â€
This story originally appeared in the summer 2011 issue of the Kent State Magazine.