A "Big" Legacy Lives On
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Dane County builds on a Madison man's commitment to his "Little"
When Mark Rounds was twelve, he scored big on his big. The year was 1972 and a serendipitous match with Big Brothers Big Sisters volunteer Dan Gribbon, who would later serve as one of the nonprofit’s most revered leaders, forever altered the course and quality of his life.
Rounds’ story of a hard-knocked boyhood is not unique. He grew up on Allied Drive “where the unwanted kids and families lived,” he says. “It was all we could afford and so we made the best of it.”
He and his brother were raised by his young, divorced mother, who worked hard but wasn’t in a position to give her kids everything she had hoped for. So she took advantage of the free youth mentoring program. In its early years, the BBBS mission was simply to provide a positive role model for healthy behaviors and lifestyles until a boy (at the time, the program wasn’t co-ed) turned eighteen. But Gribbon wanted those relationships to be lifelong.
“He wanted them to endure so that littles always had another family,” says Rounds.
As a big to Rounds, Gribbon provided that stability, cheering him on at football games and wrestling matches, teaching him how to fish, even how to drive.
“The best part was, he was always there,” says Rounds. “He trusted me in everything that I did.”
Over the years Gribbon included Rounds in everything from family vacations to home remodeling projects, where the boy learned the basics of building and construction. It’s no surprise Rounds chose a degree in civil and environmental engineering from UW–Madison. What is surprising, though, is that Rounds made it to college at all. No one in his mother’s family had a four-year undergraduate education. But his relationship with Gribbon and his exposure to what life could be like if he pushed himself beyond the boundaries of his own circumstances changed all that.
“You got your diploma, then you got your union card and you went to work,” he says. “That wasn’t the life I aspired to and a lot of that had to do with Dan and his family.”
At Rounds’ high school graduation, Gribbon gave him a gold pocketwatch on a chain. It was just like the one Gribbon carried around with him that Rounds had always admired, but with a special inscription: “Forever Friends.” Though Rounds left Madison for a career that took him all over the country, the two remained close until Gribbon died three years ago.
Today Rounds, a vice president with the largest construction contractor in the state, The Boldt Company, finds it difficult at times to reconcile his transformation from a poor kid raised without a father to a married father of two. His daughter is a high school junior and his son is a junior at UW– Madison. Pursuing higher education, Rounds believes, is a key way to break the cycle of poverty.
“You’re breaking a very strong bond to what you know going into a new way of life,” he says. “It takes a tremendous amount of energy and determination because there’s a lot of pull to get you back to where you were.”
It also takes money, which is where Rounds and Gribbon’s successor at BBBS, Dora Zuniga, have teamed up. Building on Gribbon’s legacy of lifelong commitments to littles, Zuniga has taken the organization’s mission a step further with education as a key component. At last spring’s high school graduation reception with sixteen littles, BBBS gave each graduate $100 in the hopes that they would use the modest gift to continue their education.
“I looked at Dora and said, ‘We gotta get bigger than this,’” Rounds says.
To that end, BBBS has created the Dan Gribbon Scholarship Fund with a goal of raising $100,000 to provide substantial grants to encourage littles to attend college or pursue advanced technical training.
“You never know what you’re going to say or do that can spark somebody’s interest in the future,” says Rounds.
And he of all people would know.
For more info on how you can become a “big,” or contribute to the fund, visit bbbs.org/danecounty or call (608) 661-5437.
Brennan Nardi is editor of Madison Magazine. Comments and letters can be sent to 7025 Raymond Rd., Madison, WI 53719, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters we publish may be edited for space and clarity.
Find more columns here.