TOPEKA — While Robert Gates left Kansas at 17 for college and eventually became Secretary of Defense, Kansas never left him, he told a crowd Friday night.
He credited his Kansas upbringing for his success in life and said that no matter how far he travels, he still views himself as "a kid from Kansas who got lucky."
The Native Sons and Daughters of Kansas honored Gates as the Kansan of the Year at a banquet in Topeka that celebrated Kansas' 149th birthday.
"Whatever I have accomplished I believe has been due to my Kansas roots and heritage — a heritage of family, friends, mentors and values," Gates said in the 20-minute speech, which received a standing ovation from the crowd of about 500.
His childhood in Wichita revolved around family, church, school and Boy Scouts. Gates said he had many amazing role models and was surrounded by "good, modest people."
"Surrounded by such people, character and integrity, Kansas values and Kansas common sense became the bedrock of my life, a bedrock that has been my touchstone no matter how far I have traveled or how long I have been gone," he said.
Gates was born in Wichita and graduated from East High School in 1961. He visited his alma mater last May as the graduation keynote speaker.
He was nominated as secretary of defense by former President George W. Bush and continued in the position when President Obama took office last year. Over his career, Gates has served eight presidents.
Republican Sen. Pat Roberts and former Sen. Bob Dole sent letters praising Gates as an exemplary Kansan and honoring his integrity and hard work.
Gates singled out his former Scoutmaster, Forrest Beckett, who taught him about leadership, character and persistence. Gates also singled out former East High coach Bob Timmons — who coached cross country and track before moving on to the University of Kansas — as having lasting impact on his leadership skills.
Gates worked for Timmons for three years as a team manager.
"No amount of screaming was as effective a motivator as Bob Timmons putting his arm around a student's shoulder and quietly saying, 'I'm disappointed you didn't give your best effort, your all,' " Gates said.
"I carry Bob Timmons' life lessons in leadership, integrity, discipline, motivating people and treating all of them respectfully to work with me every day," he said.
People like Beckett and Timmons were not uncommon in Kansas, he said.
"Many Kansans over the decades have provided ballast and balance to the American ship of state," Gates said.
Joining Gates on stage was former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of Health and Human Services.
"The boy left Kansas, but Kansas never left the boy," Gates concluded, his voice choking with emotion.