Small College Sports

From Kenya to Coe and back, Kip Korir is a difference maker

Kohawks' NCAA track champion of 1974 is Coe commencement speaker Sunday

Kip Korir was a standout track and field athlete at Coe College in the early 1970s. (Coe College)
Kip Korir was a standout track and field athlete at Coe College in the early 1970s. (Coe College)
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He didn’t come from Kenya to Cedar Rapids in 1970 to become an athletics star, but that’s just what happened to Titus "Kip" Korir.

Yet, it turned out to be just one segment in his accomplished life. However, he said his experience in track and field at Coe helped make him what he became.

“In athletics you have to be disciplined and determined,” Korir said this week. “You can be so tired and have other commitments, but if you have discipline in your life you can succeed. Discipline got into my blood at Coe, and it’s been consistent throughout my career. It’s what I learned from athletics.”

Sunday, Korir and his daughter, Karen Korir, will give the commencement addresses at Coe’s 2019 graduation ceremony. Karen is one of Kip’s six children, and one of four who also are Coe grads. Her story is great, too. She is the managing aviation planner in the Houston Airport System.

Speaking at the graduation, 69-year-old Kip said, “is a great honor. I’m really humbled to do so. Basically, I’m going to talk about my stay of four years at Coe College and how I benefited from Coe College in my life after that.”

In 2007, Korir retired after 34 years with James Finlays Kenya Limited, a British tea and flowers company. He was the deputy CEO and director of corporate affairs in charge of 18,000 employees.

“I was the first black executive in the company,” Korir said. “I eventually rose to the post of second-in-command.”

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Tea is a major crop in Kenya, particularly where Korir grew up in Kericho. In 1970, he left Kericho for a faraway place called Cedar Rapids.

“A man named Robert Anderson came to my school as a teacher in 1966,” Korir said. “He was with the Peace Corps. He was from Beloit, Wisconsin, and he was a 1965 graduate of Coe College.”

Anderson encouraged Korir to move to the U.S. and give Coe a try.

“Initially, I would say it was a shock. But it took me less than a year to get used to it. The people of Coe and Cedar Rapids were very friendly. The only thing I didn’t enjoy was the snow.”

Korir majored in biology, minored in psychology, and was a phenomenon in track. He remains regarded as Coe’s best all-around trackman. He won 10 Midwest Conference individual championships (440-yard dash, 200-yard dash, triple jump, javelin) and was part of six conference-champion relay teams. He never lost in the 440 or triple jump at a league meet.

On the 1974 day before his graduation, he won four individual conference titles and ran a leg on two relay winners. He set an NCAA Division III Championships record in the 440.

Then there was football. Kohawks head football coach Wayne “Phiz” Phillips, who also was the school’s track coach, knew Korir had played some soccer in Kenya, and asked him to join the football squad as a kicker in Korir’s senior year.

A man who had never before kicked a football in a game made seven field goals that season, including a 45-yarder that was then a Coe record.

“I got an audition with the Dallas Cowboys as a kicker,” Korir said. “Coach Phillips came from Dallas and connected me to them. I wanted to go home for a little while and then come back, so I asked the Cowboys if I could do that, and they said yes. But after I got home I became employed by the British company.”

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Korir has lived in Kenya since graduation. “I retired in 2007,” he said, “to have more time to give for my family and community.

“There are a lot of issues that need attention in the lives of Kenyans, improving living standards, health, education.”

He helped start a high school near his home. It has 465 students who have far less to travel to school than those in the area that came before them. There was a need for a health center in his community, and he helped get that up and functioning.

“Politics is not my game,” Korir said. “I like to work in my community in a quiet way. If I see something that’s not really right, I try to take a step to rectify it, to petition politicians or the governor to assist.”

He and his wife have raised six children who are now adults “in six different fields,” he said. Some live in the U.S., some in Kenya. Karen, a 2002 Coe graduate, will join her father in speaking to the school’s Class of 2019 Sunday.

“It’s come full cycle for me,” Korir said. “Given this opportunity to speak, what else could I ask for?”

Oh, Korir also plans on attending this weekend’s American Rivers Conference men’s and women’s track and field championships at Coe.

“Coach Matthew (Barreau) has said there are a lot of runners asking for me to talk to them.”

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They see Korir’s name still is among Coe’s list of track record-holders. They see his name in the school’s Athletics Hall of Fame. They’ll soon learn this isn’t a person who was someone. This is someone.

l Comments: (319) 368-8840; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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