Don Collins dedicated 32 years to the United States Army, retiring as a colonel. He saw plenty of battles overseas, but it turned out his most hard-won fights have been stateside. He’s a 16-year prostate cancer survivor, and his wife beat breast cancer 28 years ago. Naturally, veteran and cancer research organizations are close to their hearts.
For almost six years, the 75-year-old veteran has spent most of his weekends working the aisles of Lowe’s store 731 in Chesterfield, Missouri.
That part of Collins’ story isn’t unique. After all, Lowe’s employs more than 13,000 veterans and members of the Guard and Reserve, and has a history of recognizing the value of a veteran’s leadership, experience and expertise.
But Collins and Lowe’s have something else in common: a dedication to giving back. For nearly six years, Collins has taken every penny of every paycheck he’s earned from Lowe’s and donated it to cancer research and veterans organizations.
What prompts someone to give away his entire earnings? Well, when Collins first retired, he didn’t plan to turn a weekend job into a source of support for local cancer research and veterans organizations. In fact, he really hadn’t planned on taking on any new job.
“You know how it is,” he said. “You get out and you think you’re going to enjoy (retirement), and then it gets kind of boring without anything to do.”
So, Collins did what many retirees do: He found projects around the house. Soon, he became a regular at Lowe’s, and his easy-going personality led to a few conversations here and there.
“I came in and bought quite a bit of building materials, pesticides, fertilizer,” he said. “(The store manager) found out that I was retired and have the background in (chemicals). He said, ‘How would you like coming to work for Lowe’s?’ And I said, ‘That sounds good to me.’ ”
Customers don’t often realize they’re getting fertilizer advice from a man who holds a doctorate from North Dakota State in pesticides and agronomy and has researched biological weapons in Iraq.
When he’s directing customers to the right product in the right aisle, they have no idea he once flew helicopters in Vietnam, finding much more camouflaged destinations amid dense jungle.
When he’s bantering with colleagues planning for college, and sharing memories of the 1946 World Series, won by his revered Cardinals, there’s little talk of his work at the highest levels of the Department of Defense.
But Collins’ loyalty to the military is always on his mind. “You see all the wounded soldiers and the like coming back,” he said, his voice trailing off.
Once he started earning his Lowe’s paycheck, the idea began to form. “I found out, ‘Hey, we can get along without this paycheck,’ ” he explained. “We want to give back. You’ve got the blinded, hospitalized, wounded, disabled – and I like to contribute a little bit.”
Collins grew up on a livestock farm in central South Dakota. “We didn’t have a whole lot growing up and were very frugal, but we’d donate to worthy causes, church and the like,” he said.
He tried to instill those same values in his son, the baby he nearly lost in 1971. “He was born with the Rh factor and had to have a complete blood transfusion,” Collins said of the medical condition that can lead to life-threatening complications.
Today, his son lives in Fargo with Collins’ two granddaughters, and Collins already has ideas about how the girls can give back, visiting retirement homes when they get a little older. “People in retirement homes like to see young kids and the like,” he said, “and maybe when they get a little older, get them interested in donating.”
Collins has a history of taking commitments seriously. “I can remember World War II, and I can remember some of my relations who were in the world war and also in Korea,” he said. “One of the things they instilled in me is that we’ve got to understand our freedom and we’ve got to participate.”
“I can remember World War II, and I can remember some of my relations who were in the world war and also in Korea. One of the things they instilled in me is that we’ve got to understand our freedom and we’ve got to participate.”— Don Collins, Lowe’s employee, Chesterfield, Missouri
Collins’ Midwestern roots have never lost their hold on his humility. Until only recently, when a local reporter managed to uncover the story, no one knew Collins was donating his entire earnings to organizations like the American Legion and the Susan G. Komen foundation.
While his post-retirement career has evolved into a way to make a difference, Collins takes putting on the Lowe’s red vest quite seriously. “To me, it means providing good customer service to our customers who are coming through that door,” he said. “I really want to find out what they want and need, and it makes you feel good to help them out.”
What does Collins’ wife think of all this? When asked, he chuckled and thought back to all that time he used to spend at home after retirement. “My wife thanks Lowe’s every Saturday and Sunday morning – no problem,” he said, laughing.
It’s fair to say the gratitude goes both ways.
Those He Helps
A look at the nonprofits and causes that Don Collins supports:
▪ American Legion
▪ Blinded Veterans
▪ Disabled American Veterans
▪ Help Hospitalized Veterans
▪ Paralyzed Veterans
▪ USO Veterans of Foreign Wars
▪ Vietnam Veterans of America
▪ Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall
▪ Wounded Warrior Project
▪ Breast Cancer Research
▪ Prostate Cancer Research
▪ St. Luke’s Hospital, Chesterfield, Missouri
▪ Susan G. Komen