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Detroit to Paradise
The Story of
Donald R. Tapia

On he second floor of the Paradise Valley Country Club, just minutes north from downtown Phoenix, iconic oil paintings of golf ’s most popular scenes are scattered across the room, eclipsing any color the walls may hold. The various collectables that include Swilcan Bridge at St. Andrews and Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus are accompanied by strategically placed windows highlighting breathtaking views of Camelback Mountain to the south, Phoenix Mountain Preserve to the west and McDowell Mountain to the east. Nestled in one of the most affluent areas in the nation, the Club is in a premier placement and is considered to be the finest in the United States.

It’s 11 in the morning in the middle of November; lunchtime for early risers like Donald R. Tapia—or Don, as he’s known around here and everywhere else. The waiter, Louie, asks what it’ll be today. Don knows what he’s getting, which is helpful, because there’s no menu and there’s nothing off limits. Newcomers to the Club, however, often find themselves overwhelmed at first with the minimal amount of restrictions.

“If they don’t have it in this kitchen, they’ll get it from the kitchen downstairs,” Don explains. “And if they don’t have it downstairs, they’ll run out and get it.”

Adhering to an almost ritual-like amount of playful banter and wordplay regarding the day’s soups, specialties and political matters, Don and Louie are peers, and more accurately, friends. It’s an inside look at the way he treats everyone, no matter their status in life. As he later explains, you don’t look down on anyone, just as he hadn’t when he was turning Essco Wholesale Electric into a powerhouse.

“You never feel that you’re better than the people who are serving you. When I pulled up to a warehouse and each facility had anywhere between 15 to 50 people, I entered through the warehouse door where the employees did. I talked to the shipping clerk, the warehouse man, and the guys picking the orders about their families, what they wanted to do, where they wanted to go. The employees loved when I came, because they knew that I cared about them.”

The care that he demonstrated to his employees is the same that he does for today’s Tekes at his home chapter at Saint Leo University. Because Thanksgiving is just around the corner, he makes a note that he needs to schedule a chapter dinner for the Saint Leo Tekes who are unable to make it home for the holiday. As he explains, the guys love it. As for Don, it’s an opportunity to connect with a chapter he’s financially and emotionally invested in. It’s a tradition he won’t break anytime soon.

As for the present moment, where there’s not a cloud in the sky and it’s a mild 70 degrees outside the Club’s picturesque interior, the time to cast a vote for lunch has arrived. Opting to forgo the foie gras, truffles or smoked salmon, Don will have a grilled cheese with fries, because he hasn’t forgotten the time when a grilled cheese was a luxury. 

WHEN DON IS relaxed, he’s hilarious. The tough magazine-cover look is replaced by a boyish grin, softening all his features. But when he’s focused, he becomes quiet. And while discussing his past, he displays the latter. He leans in and articulates his story. He’s told it several times, but each time looks like the first to the unsuspecting. He doesn’t shy away, because he embraces that his humble beginnings made him the man he is today.

“I’m the American Dream,” he says, pausing with a plain look as if he need say more, which he doesn’t until prompted. His gaze alone tells far more a story than could ever be written. He doesn’t break eye contact.

The way he looks, slightly leaned in, he’s expressionless, yet it’s that exact expression that tells his story. Then, he continues.

“I’m the American Dream from the slums of Detroit to Paradise Valley. It was a hell of a ride from a one-bedroom flat with a Murphy bed shared by my mother and sister while I slept on a couch; a father who disappears; and a mother who’s strapped to make the rent and feed [my sister and I]. I used to tell people we had a lot—a lot of potato soup with very little potatoes.”

As the man of the house at a young age, Don took the responsibility and ran with it. He hawked newspapers, sold magazine subscriptions, and performed odd jobs to supplement the basics for his mother and sister. All he ever wanted was a new life for himself and his family.

Then, years later, everything changed. Don’s mother became ill and Don was sent to live with his uncle in Terre Haute, Indiana, in his early teens.

“I went to live with an uncle who wasn’t excited about me coming to live with him. I lived in the basement next to the coal bin and it was my job to stoke the fire. Everyone would tell me how terrible it must’ve been, and I would say, ‘No, it’s really not that terrible, because I had my own room for the first time in my life. I don’t want to say it built character, because I was a character. And I am a character, even today.’ ”

During high school, he reminisces about climbing out the basement window and walking down the street to meet up with friends. His uncle was never the wiser because he always made it back before sunrise. Summers, however, were a completely different story. He started spending weekends working at his family’s 10,000-acre farm in Bloomington, Indiana. Days consisted of shoveling corn and wheat while the combine made its way through the rows. He explains in grueling detail how each day consisted of waking up at four in the morning, having breakfast and being in the field until it got dark. Then, by the time he would get home, it was time for a shower and straight to bed. Each weekend was the same as before for weeks on end.

“I NEVER WANTED to go back to Detroit. I never wanted to go back to that life,” Don says. “My friends—rather, the kids I grew up with at that age—most of them had jail time. I never wanted to go back.”

Facing high school graduation and left with a decision to make, Don carefully reveals his thought process at such a young age. “You’re influenced by the people you are around. You want to be one of the guys, but you don’t want to be in the same predicament as them, so you have to think, ‘How do you get yourself out?’ So I never looked back.”

Fresh out of high school, Don made the decision to join the U.S. Air Force. A bright, eager and energetic student, he took advantage of the opportunities provided to him. And after four years, he left the military for a position with the Federal Aviation Administration to be an air traffic controller.

Although Don spent his time working air traffic control towers, he might as well have been on the planes themselves. He started out at Erlanger, Kentucky, before moving to Cleveland, Ohio; then Oberlin, Ohio. By the way he lights up when talking about his days with the FAA, you can tell it’s one of his fonder memories.

He goes on to describe every minute detail of his days as an air traffic controller and later an air route controller—the difference being the caretaker of planes in the sky as opposed to arrivals and departures at the respective airport.

His experiences are reflective in the way his tempo picks up while telling his stories. “People always talk about stress. If you’re a stressful person, it was stressful, but I enjoyed it. It was a constant adrenaline rush, because I went to work excited and left excited.”

In all the years since being an air route controller, it’s safe to say the excitement has never left Don. And like the planes he guided, Don’s professional career was preparing for launch. He married, had kids and enrolled at the University of Kentucky, although he left school prior to the conclusion of the first semester. “I’m not sure if they asked me to leave or if I left on my own accord,” he says with laughter.

In the end, it didn’t matter. Don may have been the student in the classroom, but he was a teacher off campus. “I sold insurance the one semester I attended the University of Kentucky. I must have had a line of bull because I was selling more homeowner and health insurance policies than the old guys.” As a part-time salesman, Don was earning more awards than he knew what to do with.

Then, it was time to go.

Kentucky experienced one of its coldest winters on record. Seeking warmer weather, Don decided it was time to move to either Florida or California. He had relatives who lived close to Disneyland, and while he wasn’t sure where they lived exactly, those were only details.

He ultimately decided to head west with his friend from the Air Force, Glenn Edwards. The plan was simple: Don would find a steady job in California, then move the family over. It was supposed to only have been a three-day trip to the Golden State, but detours to visit the dozen-plus attractions between Kentucky and California made for a longer-than-expected journey. As Don says, “We weren’t in a rush.”

BY THE TIME Don and his trusty copilot Glenn crossed the California state line, they had $147 left after making a donation to the Las Vegas craps tables, but still weren’t exactly sure where Don’s family lived. “I just remembered they were in Buena Park near Knott’s Berry Farm and Disneyland. As we made the turn to I-5, there was a sign that said Buena Park. We pulled over at a gas station and looked them up in the phone book.”

Where a million things could have gone wrong at that particular moment, the stars aligned for Don. “That was my savior,” he says. His family was listed in the phone book. They welcomed the duo to stay with them for a couple days.

After a spending a month with Don’s family, the pair moved to their own one-bedroom apartment. Don landed a position at General Electric. Despite saving money by renting only a one-bedroom apartment—each rotating every other week between the bed and the couch—Don was sending money back home every month to his wife and two kids.

“So because neither of us had any money, we knew every place that had hors d’oeuvres at happy hour,” Don says. “I remember going to the bowling alley because they had pizza and meatballs. Then the next day we’d go to the bar that had sandwich sliders. We did that for two or three months. We had it made.”

By the time six months had passed, Don had saved up enough money for his wife and two children to make their way to California. And after five years, he left General Electric to join International Telephone and Telegraph. “Keep in mind, I’m 27 years old with the responsibility of consolidating local warehouses. I was dealing with presidents of their divisions, telling them I’m taking away their warehouse. It didn’t make me a very popular person.”

Despite Don’s unpopular role, his compelling personality and “there is no try, only do” attitude kept him moving upward in the climb to success. “And during all this, nobody ever asked me about my education,” he says. “I just interviewed really well. Everyone assumed that I had a college degree.” Where Don had lacked in college degrees, he made up in an unrivaled ambition. In his spare time, he went to the library to read countless finance and business books and journals.

“If you’re going to run a business, you need to know about finance,” he says, plainly.

From then on, it seemed Don was unstoppable. A brilliant proposal to cut the sales overhead for ITT some 15 percent earned him the opportunity to develop Cal-Neva Electrical Products.

Don later divorced and promised never to be 30 minutes away from his children, which prompted him to buy out a partner in a troubled business relationship. He was officially part owner of Electrical Surplus Sales Company located in a 2,500 square foot warehouse.

“In six months, our sales more than doubled,” Don says. “Keep in mind, I knew nothing about the electrical business. We were doing so well that we took over the 2,800 square foot unit right next to us. We took it over and took a forklift through the drywall into the next building. That was our expansion.”

Two years later, they outgrew the space they were in and expanded to another 15,000 square foot warehouse. Had it not been across the street, Don likely would have taken the forklift through that building, too. It’s been an analogy for life: breaking barriers as a young Hispanic from the streets of Detroit to Paradise Valley.

In the years that followed, Don continued to find success. He sold Cal-Neva Electrical Products and focused on the development of Essco. The business grew from Orange County, California, to Lake Havasu, Arizona, to Phoenix and several other areas between the California-Nevada border, all while building a reputation as the premier go-to for wires, cables, tools and equipment in the construction industry. At its height, the company employed roughly 300 people in 14 offices and warehouses across Arizona and California.

Essco even went on to become the largest Hispanic company in Arizona and was ranked 56th nationally in the Hispanic 500, which prompts Don with a memory he can barely express between spirited laughter.

After accepting the award on stage presented by the Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Don pronounced his gratitude by compiling the most Spanish he knew: “Gracias! Viva la Mexico!”

Without hesitation, he walked off the stage and made his way through the door and out the exit where his son and president of the company stood in disbelief. “That just tells you some of the fun experiences I’ve had in life” he says. “It’s been a fun life, a good life.”

FRATER DONALD R. TAPIA is never intimidated. At his home just a stone’s throw from the sixth tee box at the Paradise Valley Country Club, photos of him shaking hands with Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford, and Bush 41 and 43 proudly occupy his “Presidential Bathroom” just off the main entrance. In his study, a filing cabinet of memories lay hidden away in a plain folder. He pulls out photos with celebrities and politicians, each a memorable story that Don can’t help but smile about.

He’s proud of his shared time with other well-accomplished individuals; he ought to be, it’s significant no matter where your political allegiances reside. But it’s not long until he moves to his real accomplishments, the things he’s truly proud of: the worn covers of finance and business management books he’s read and reread; his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Saint Leo University; and his medals and membership certificate from Tau Kappa Epsilon.

His journey to earn his college degree didn’t come until late in his career, and nearly hand in hand with earning a degree came his introduction to the Fraternity for Life.

“I ran [Essco Wholesale Electric] for 25 years without a degree,” he says. “Nobody knew the difference, because I understood the business and I could talk to presidents of companies without any intimidation. Nobody ever intimidated me. That’s the main thing.”

As he explains, it wasn’t until his granddaughter graduated from high school that he ultimately decided it was time to earn his degree.

“I told each one of the grandkids—all six—that I would pay for their education. Well that day of reckoning came when my granddaughter said she wanted to go to San Diego State … I decided I needed to practice what I was preaching and earn my degree before she did—and I did so three months before her.”

Determined to receive his education while continuing to run his titanic-sized company, Don, then 62, took to the Internet to explore his options. A popup for Saint Leo prompted him to do more research. It had a campus, athletics program, and offered bachelor’s and master’s degrees in his preferred field.

“I thought, ‘That’s it!’ So I enrolled at Saint Leo online. They didn’t know who I was or whether I had a dime or a nickel. I just was another student.”

For the next three years, Don left his office mid-afternoon to read his lessons and complete his assignments. Nobody, not even his kids or grandkids, knew he was working double-time running a multi-million dollar company while earning his degree.

WITH GRADUATION NEARING, Don recalls telling the only two people who knew about him taking online classes—his assistant and his friend, a Catholic priest—“I’m going to get my black cap and robe and I’m going to walk.” The day before graduation, Don and his two guests headed to Saint Leo. “At the airport, I dropped 10 envelopes in the mail to my family that I was receiving my diploma at Saint Leo that Saturday. Before then, nobody knew.”

Don received his bachelor’s degree in 2005 and recalls saying at commencement, “They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. I’m a living example that you can.” He went on to earn his master’s in business administration in 2007 with a 3.48 grade point average. His love and passion for Saint Leo blossomed over the years and led to his further involvement with the university following his time as a student.

Highly noted for his business acumen, Don went on to serve on Saint Leo’s board of trustees and later as chairman. And by 2010, after meeting with the university’s top administrators over a glass of wine, he committed to a $4 million lead gift to the university, propelling the development of the state-of-the-art, 48,000 square foot Donald R. Tapia School of Business. (see photo below)

“They were shocked I agreed to it and asked if I wanted another glass of wine,” Don recalls, laughing about the series of events. “I said, ‘No thanks, the first glass of wine cost me $4 million and I don’t know what the second would cost,’ so I got up and left the meeting.”

BY THE WAY Don speaks of Tau Kappa Epsilon, you would assume he was born knowing he would be a Teke. His passion, conviction and altruism have been unrivaled in helping local chapters and the Fraternity as a whole. However, it wasn’t until Don was approached by a friend for a modest contribution to help a small group of men recharter Sigma-Theta at Saint Leo that he was introduced to the Fraternity.

The following year, in 2008, after connecting with the men he helped achieve their goal in chartering, Donald R. Tapia was formally initiated at Saint Leo into the Sigma-Theta chapter of Tau Kappa Epsilon Fraternity. Since then, he hasn’t missed a beat.

What started with a $100,000 contribution to the TKE Educational Foundation upon meeting TEF President and CEO Gary Reed has evolved into further significant contributions to the both the local chapter at Saint Leo and the International Fraternity.

In 2015, following a $250,000 contribution to the TKE Educational Foundation, the Midwest Regional Leadership Conference was renamed the Donald R. Tapia Regional Leadership Conference. For all Fraters and friends of the Fraternity, the generosity of Don’s gift has significantly offset the cost of attending the world-class educational program designed and orchestrated by the Fraternity’s Professional Staff.

Since then, Don has followed up with a $1 million planned gift to the TKE Educational Foundation, which has spurred the renaming of the Fraternity’s International Headquarters in Indianapolis to be recognized as Donald R. Tapia TKE International Headquarters.

On Saturday, April 16, 2016, from 5–7 p.m., a formal, rededication ceremony will be held in the TKE Educational Foundation Courtyard to honor Frater Tapia’s generous contribution and the renaming of the Fraternity’s International Headquarters. 

“It was never my intention to have the building renamed, even at Saint Leo,” says Don. “It’s not about the recognition. What you find is when people see that somebody has done that, you are hoping other people will follow.”

People will follow, but not only because Don is a world-class philanthropist. As he said upon being recognized in 2014 as an award winner by Caring Institute, an organization dedicated to promoting the extraordinary and lasting efforts of individuals benefitting society, “You have to give of yourself, not just money, but your time and advice to help those who are in need.”

At the 2016 Donald R. Tapia Triangle Summit held in February—while Don himself was unable to attend—a letter was read in his absence that challenged individuals to work hard, get involved and make a difference. At the end, he gave out his personal number for every participant in attendance. “If you ever need anyone, or need someone to talk to, you call me,” the letter read.

Despite his countless involvements with organizations such as the Arizona Animal Welfare League, the Foundation for Blind Children, the Childhood Language Center, Saint Leo University, the TKE Educational Foundation and many, many others, he has always made time for Tekes.

In one instance, he describes receiving a call from a young Frater he had known for some time. “His mother had cancer and he couldn’t make his dues, so I helped him out. You have to. Isn’t that the obligation you took when you became a Teke? To help when you can? That’s what you do.”

Don says that people may think he gives simply because that’s who he is, a successful businessman ready to give it all away, but he says it’s different; it’s personal. “I’ve lived the life. I know that when a teen wants to talk to an adult, you need to listen.”

AS LUNCH CONCLUDES at the Paradise Valley Country Club, Don looks around the room and briefly reflects on his life and his legacy.

“Never forget where you came from, but never look back,” he says. “There are a lot of people who know my name, but they’ve never met me. I was the largest Hispanic business owner in the state of Arizona.” At that moment, he stops, points to the 2014 CARING magazine he brought with him to lunch that pictures President Bill Clinton and President George H.W. Bush on the cover. He goes on to say that a great amount of his life’s work is encompassed in a four-page spread of that magazine. Sure enough, it describes his humble roots, rise to success and philanthropic endeavors, but it’s his closing statement in the feature that truly exemplifies Frater Donald R. Tapia.

“I’d like to be remembered as someone who always spoke his mind, even if it wasn’t politically correct. I want to be remembered as the one who defied all the naysayers in my life and actually made something of himself. I want to be remembered as the person who is proud to have grown up in the slums of Detroit and yet was able to build something out of nothing. I want to be that role model for today’s young people who says yes, you, too, can make it if you have a dream and the will to get there. And, finally, I want to be remembered as that person who never forgot where they came from, what it was like, and that giving back to those less fortunate fulfills a personal need to share the good fortune he’s had.”

In the years ahead, Don will continue to support the Fraternity for Life and serve as a role model for tens of thousands of Tekes. He knows how important it is to help others. Just before standing from the table and heading back to his busy life, he smiles and leaves with his closing remark.

“You’ve heard about people having an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other? I had to have a flock of angels because they had to do shift work.”

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This story appeared in the spring 16 edition of THE TEKE Magazine. 
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