One of Emporia’s most ardent supporters received the Lifetime Achievement Award, Friday evening, during the Emporia Area Chamber of Commerce’s 124th annual meeting.
Steve Sauder accepted the award at a meeting held virtually because of constraints caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Chamber plans to recognize award recipients at an in-person formal meeting on June 25. Awards also were given for Volunteer of the Year, the Community Impact Award, and Business of the Year.
Sauder was stunned by the honor, announced Jan. 20 near the end of his On-Air Chat program on KVOE-AM radio. He’d been expecting General Manager Ron Thomas to come into the studio to talk about an upcoming United Way of the Flint Hills event.
Instead, Chamber President and Chief Executive Officer Jeanine McKenna, wife Bobbi Sauder, and incoming Board of Directors Chairman Nic Roth walked in to announce the award.
“I was surprised,” Sauder said. “I said I was speechless, which I was. Then my next reaction was, ‘This makes me feel old.’”
McKenna said Sauder had earned the honor and, through his successes, the community has benefited too.
“He talks about his love for community and I think that definitely shows in all that he does,” she said. “Not just the university, but with investments they’ve made, the risks they’ve taken in business, and that all, I think, shows he has a love for community and wants what’s best for it.”
She also admires Sauder’s ready praise for those who have been an essential part of his endeavors.
“He said in our video that if he’s done one thing right in his life, he’s been smart enough to find the right people to get the job done,” McKenna said. “He said, ‘It hasn’t been me.’”
There’s little doubt that Sauder is one of Emporia’s most-vocal promoters and activists.
Even as a child, Sauder had looked at Emporia as the “shining spot on the hill” its founders had claimed it would become.
He lived his first 13 years in Gridley, where his father ran the Sauder Elevator Company and became an oil producer. He and his family sometimes came to Emporia, to shop or to visit a dentist’s or doctor’s office, before they moved here in 1959.
“One of my highlights was coming to Emporia,” Sauder said, “so getting to move to Emporia was awesome.”
That opinion never changed. Instead, it grew stronger as years passed.
After graduating from Emporia State University in 1968 and working out-of-state for about three years for Procter & Gamble, Sauder and his family returned to Emporia.
He worked for a year as circulation manager for The Emporia Gazette, owned and operated Sauder’s Ltd. clothing store for three years, then spent about six years selling real estate and life insurance before opening Steve Sauder Real Estate in 1976.
Sauder hit his stride as an entrepreneur when he and his father started Valu-Line in 1982, with partners Stormy Supiran, Bobbie Agler and Rick Tidwell, who died Nov. 7, 2020. The small, local telephone company flourished beyond expectations. It merged into Birch Telecom in 1998.
Sauder entered the hotel business in 2001, buying or building Candlewood Suites and Marriott hotels in Arkansas, Missouri, and Wichita, then sold all but the Emporia Candlewood Suites.
In 2011, the original Valu-Line team, this time without the late Earl Sauder, came together again in 2011 to form Valu-Net LLC, which brought fiber optic broadband for television, Internet and telephone service to Emporians. The company recently merged with Sparklight.
Throughout those earlier years, Sauder’s leisure time often was spent coaching his sons’ baseball and wrestling teams through the Emporia Recreation Center. “Hustle and do your best” had always been his mantra and, he said, that was the most important lesson he passed along to the youngsters he coached.
Additionally, Sauder created the Valu-Line Developmental “Hustle and Do Your Best!” camp dedicated to teaching and honing the youngsters’ baseball skills.
“I’m as proud of Valu-Line Developmental Baseball as anything I’ve ever done,” he remarked. “… I had so much fun with that.”
He served as president of the youth wrestling program and was inducted into the Emporia Kids Wrestling Hall of Fame. He also donated significantly to start the Junior Spartan Football program and more recently has helped with youth golf.
Sauder’s involvement in radio broadcasting has been an ongoing source of satisfaction. The original single radio station has been expanded into three, and emphasis is placed on delivering news, sports, and multiple local talk shows and features to promote local activities, organizations and events.
Sauder credited Lea Firestone, former general manager of the stations, with introducing the major change in focus, “and Ron, he ran with it” after Firestone’s retirement.
“The radio station, that’s probably what I’m most proud of,” Sauder said of his businesses. “We think the station should be a servant to the community. “
Sauder has been a servant to the community and its people, too.
During his year as The Gazette’s circulation manager, he organized and executed a drive to fill Christmas gift boxes for all the local military service members serving in Vietnam during the war.
He is a 50-year member and past president of the Rotary Club, past chairman of the Emporia Area Chamber of Commerce and the Regional Development Association of East Central Kansas, past president of the Emporia Public School Foundation, the Emporia State Athletic Club, the Emporia Jaycees and the Emporia Country Club.
He also is a past director of the boards of the Kansas Technology Enterprise Corporation, the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the ESU Alumni Association. He has served two terms as a trustee at Baker University and was media relations chair for Clean Air Emporia.
He was chairman of a record-setting fundraising drive for the United Way of the Flint Hills’ annual campaign.
Sauder was named Businessman of the Year in 2003 by The Emporia Gazette; Emporia’s Radio Stations, Valu-Line, Valu-Net, each have been named Small Business of the Year by the Emporia Chamber.
The Sauder family’s dedication to Emporia State University is deeply embedded. In addition to scholarships established at Emporia State University by Earl Sauder, Steve and Bobbi Sauder have made a 10-year pledge to donate an equal amount to his father’s scholarship, and Bobbi Sauder has established a scholarship for nursing students.
“There’s a lot of gratification in being able to help someone,” he said. And helping others was something Sauder learned from his parents at an early age.
“I think I was raised right,” he explained. “My dad believed if you were blessed, share it.”
Sauder has been the “Champion for Athletics” in the ESU Foundation’s record-setting Now and Forever capital campaign; currently serves as a trustee on the ESU Foundation board and has served on the Executive Committee, the Finance Committee, chaired the Real Estate Committee and was part of the ESU Presidential Selection Committee.
He received the ESU Joe Cannon Service Award in 2014, was named a Distinguished Alumni in 2014 and 2016, and was selected to the ESU Athletic Hall of Honor in 2020.
“I think the university is so important,” he said, mentioning its contributions to the local economy and culture through students, educators, and other staff members, and their families who may move here.
He believes it is vital that employees who work in Emporia also live in Emporia.
“If you want to be in my organization, you need to live in my town,” he said, explaining his attitude. But he understands that when two wage-earners in a family hold good jobs in different cities, one of them is likely to commute, if the other cannot find a comparable job here.
He also hears too often that prospective employees may turn down jobs here on the grounds that their spouses wouldn’t want to move to Emporia.
Sauder scoffs at that excuse.
“You wife comes here and lives here for a year, she won’t want to leave,” is what he tells them. “We have so many assets.”
An inherent community spirit is only one of them. Emporians seem willing to do or to give whatever it takes to make the town or a special project successful. He cited the recent Disaster Relief Fund drive as a prime example. Other towns this size boasted about raising $10,000 or $20,000 for their funds. Emporia area residents raised $200,000.
“I think we’re an incredible small town and I’m proud,” Sauder said. “I’ve never been ashamed to say I was from Emporia.”
Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect that Lea Firestone is not deceased. We regret the error.