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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Robert and Katharine Garff Friday, Sept. 20, 2013, in Bountiful.

BOUNTIFUL — Ten years ago, Bob and Kathi Garff, having arrived at that enviable stage in life where they could stop worrying about making money and start worrying about spending it, summoned their five grown children to the kitchen table in their home in Bountiful and spelled out what they wanted to do with their inheritance.

They wanted to give away cars.

But not to their kids. To other people’s kids.

Thus was born a program that has evolved into the Success in Education Foundation, a remarkably successful public charity with widespread public sector support that a decade later is used by more than 300 Utah schools to motivate their students to reach for the stars … or at least the car keys.

If the words “Garff” and “cars” ring a bell, then you have not spent the past century in a Utah cave. Few automobile dealerships have been around longer than the one Kendall D. Garff started in 1932 in downtown Salt Lake City when he was 26 years old. At first he sold used cars, but as the Great Depression shifted into World War II he acquired an Oldsmobile franchise, and the Ken Garff empire was begun. Eighty-one years later, there are more than 80 branches of the Ken Garff Automotive Group in eight states, making it the fifth-largest private car business in the country.

Understanding that background is essential to know not only how Bob Garff, Ken’s son and current chairman of Ken Garff Automotive Group, and his family were able to provide funding to start something as ambitious as the Success in Education programs, but why Bob Garff’s initial brainstorm was to entice students with cars.

All his life — he started working in his dad’s dealership in 1945 when he was 13 — he has appreciated the one ingredient that never fails to get results in the car business: incentives.

Dangle something in front of a salesman or customer that they find appealing — a bonus, a trip to Hawaii, higher commissions, zero percent interest, leather at no added cost — and it’s amazing how many cars you sell.

In dealership lingo: “That which you reward gets done.”

If the goal was to motivate students to pay attention in class, get better grades and move on to college, it only made sense to Bob Garff to dangle something that would pique their interest.

What better motivation than a car?

And what better cause than education?

Like all married couples, Bob and Kathi Garff don’t agree on everything. But there are two things they agree on unequivocally. One, education is vitally important for everyone, and two, education in Utah could use some help.

They came to these views independently while traversing parallel paths within the system, as it were, Bob as a state legislator who served as speaker of the house in the 1980s and Kathi as a member of the State Board of Education, where she served a term as chairman, and later as a member of the State Board of Regents, the body that oversees higher education.

From these respective perches, the Garffs became intimately acquainted with the realities of public education in Utah. They saw what was working and what wasn’t in a unique place that ranks last in the nation in money spent per student yet ranks first in money spent per family.

The biggest problem, as far as they could see, was that there were far too many programs with good intentions that were accomplishing next to nothing.

Conversations with education insiders — teachers, counselors, principals, superintendents, parents — confirmed their suspicions. The universal complaint they heard from these educators was that most programs forced them to do things a certain way rather than giving him the tools they needed to work out their own solutions. They wanted help, not mandates.

All this feedback paved the way for the Garffs' original car-giveaway program known as Keys to Success.

At first, the idea was to give away a used car to one lucky student whose name would be pulled out of a hat at an end-of-the-year drawing held at each participating high school. All students who satisfied “Key” requirements — such as a certain grade point average or enrollment in math or science classes or achieving a high attendance — would be eligible for the drawing.

Over time, the Keys program transformed into what it is today. Five new cars are given away statewide in an end-of-the-year drawing, along with more than 30,000 additional Key-connected prizes, including iPads, ski passes, tickets to professional and collegiate sporting events, movie passes, restaurant gift certificates — you name it — that are awarded at various intervals during the school year. More than 250 college scholarships are also awarded annually.

The monetary value of all these incentives adds up to well beyond $1 million.

Some 65 Utah high schools and 115,000 students have signed up this year. There is absolutely no cost to the schools and no administrative work. All details and follow-up are handled by a staff headed by Rick Folkerson of the Garff Automotive Group. And school principals, counselors and faculty have complete control of the program. It is entirely up to them how to use the hundreds of Keys they are given to motivate their students.

Typically — and no one disagrees this is the program’s intended greatest strength — the schools use the Keys program to motivate kids who are not the academic all-stars, who don’t bring home straight A’s on their report cards, who aren’t already on the honor roll.

“The A students are motivated already,” Bob Garff says. “The focus is on the majority of kids who could use some motivation, all the way down the ranks to the at-risk kids.”

Follow-up studies show that students who earn Key cards raise their GPAs on average by more than half a point; significantly improve their scores on the standardized language, math and science exams, and average 1.4 points higher on their ACT college entrance exams.

The success of the Keys program inspired another Garff-initiated program aimed at elementary school students called Road to Success.

The Road program, which began in 2007, rewards students for consistent reading. When grade-school kids reach reading goals that they and their teachers have established, they become eligible for savings certificates and a wide variety of prizes; plus, their names go into an end-of-the-year grand-prize drawing.

But since elementary school kids can’t drive, their incentive isn’t cars.

It’s bicycles.

Every year, 1,000 lucky kids — make that lucky kids who have been reading at least five times a week all year long — win a bike, scooter or iPod.

This year, 246 elementary schools throughout the state, comprising more than 165,000 students, are participating in Road to Success, again, at no cost to the schools and with complete autonomy for principals and teachers to run the program as they see fit.

The success of the Road program isn’t as easy to quantify in the short run as it is with the Keys program. What is easily identifiable is thousands more kids reading more often and at an earlier age, greatly increasing their chances of success as they continue in school. “Reading is the basic, the fundamental of all learning,” says Kathi Garff. “First you learn to read and then you read to learn.”

Stories. The Keys to Success and Road to Success programs have as many stories as they have prizes to give away.

There’s the one about the boy with a drug problem at Cottonwood High who almost never came to class; when he did come he came late, and he had the 0.0 grade point average to prove it. Then a counselor told him if he improved his attendance and raised his GPA he could win a day pass to ski at The Canyons. He’d always wanted to ski, so he came to class, on time, and raised his GPA, which, granted, was not difficult. The next thing he knew he was at The Canyons, courtesy of the Key card he redeemed, where he spent all day teaching himself to ski.

Next, he focused on winning another prize, tickets to a Grizzlies hockey game, something else he’d never experienced, which kept him in class and further raised his grades. By the end of the term he had a 3.1 GPA for that quarter, and for the first time in his life he was thinking more about college than about drugs. Jon Huntsman, who was governor at the time, learned about the boy and recruited him to go around the state and speak to at-risk students about the importance of laying off drugs and staying in school.

There’s the one about the third-grade boy in Tooele who was one of 10 lucky kids whose names had been put in the hat for the bicycle drawing. The entire school was summoned to an assembly to watch the drawing. But when the boy’s name was drawn he didn’t laugh or cheer; instead, he started to cry.

When the principal asked him why he was so sad about winning a brand-new bike, he wailed, “I already have a bike; I wanted her to win. She doesn’t have one,” and pointed to a girl sitting near him on the floor. The principal made a command decision on the spot and told the boy he could give his bike to the girl, which he did.

There’s another about the refugee from Ivory Coast who came to America with his mother, brothers and sisters after their father vanished fighting in his homeland’s civil war. The family landed in Utah with nothing but each other. The boy started over, learning a new language, culture and school system. A math teacher took a special interest in him, tutoring him after school and making sure he participated in the Keys program.

At the end-of-year drawing, he won one of the cars. He traded it in for its cash equivalent, $15,000, and used the money to buy the family a cheaper used car for transportation and to pay for his tuition at Salt Lake Community College, where he’s studying to be a dentist.

The program Bob and Kathi Garff laid out for their kids that day in 2003 at their kitchen table has grown and multiplied well beyond their grasp.

Ten years later, it takes Folkerson and a full-time, year-round staff of 10 to monitor and manage Keys to Success and Road to Success. Dozens of sponsors are now involved, ranging from Chick-fil-A and Wal-Mart to O.C. Tanner, Questar and Fox13, and many more. Ken Garff Automotive Group remains a title sponsor, but it’s now joined in that capacity by Zions Bank and Mountain America Credit Union. Success in Education is a public tax-exempt 501(c)(3) foundation with its own board of directors, including but certainly not limited to the Garffs.

All of which makes the Garffs ecstatic.

“To do it right, we couldn’t do it all ourselves,” says Bob. “We’re just thrilled that so many others are helping it grow.”

“It’s not just our work of passion anymore, it’s a work of passion for everyone involved,” says Kathi.

She thinks back to the rather humble beginnings and laughs at the memory.

“I was thinking we’d give away a pencil, or maybe an eraser,” she says.

To which Bob responds now as he did then: “I mean, really, what motivates a high school student more than a car?”

By the numbers


65 participating high schools, including eight alternative schools, in Box Elder, Weber, Davis, Salt Lake, Tooele, Utah, Carbon and Emery counties

115,000 students, 7,000 faculty and staff

593 total scholarships awarded to date, value $649,000

More than 30,000 prizes awarded each school year

iPad tablets awarded to one student at each participating high school; 192 awarded to date

5 new cars awarded at end of each school year. To date, 530 used and 15 new cars awarded


246 participating elementary schools, including 88 Title I schools, in Cache, Box Elder, Weber, Davis, Salt Lake, Tooele, Utah, San Juan, Sanpete and Daggett counties

165,000 students, 11,000 faculty and staff

1,000 grand prizes awarded each year, total value more than $60,000

480 savings certificates awarded each year

1.5 million weekly incentives awarded each year

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. EMAIL: [email protected]