Robert Garff, chairman of the massive Salt Lake City-based Ken Garff Automotive Group, remembers his father, Ken, as a people person.
"He had a lot of energy," says Robert, 68. "I sat next to him in the business for 45 years. I was included ever since I was 15."
He says Ken, who started as a Studebaker and Oldsmobile dealer in 1932, also had a keen interest in the community and in "sharing the blessings."
Today, that legacy can be seen in one of the most extensive public service programs any dealership group has ever undertaken.
Seven years ago -- at one of its frequent dinners together -- the extended Garff family decided to focus the attention of its charitable foundation on education and literacy in the state of Utah.
"In Utah, 47 percent of school-aged children are not reading up to grade level by the fourth grade, and 61 percent of low-income families nationwide do not own a single book," says Robert's son John, 42, the group's current CEO.
The Robert H. and Katharine B. Garff Foundation soon launched programs called Road to Success for grades K-6 and Keys to Success for grades 10-12.
Altogether, 125,000 students in 62 high schools in northern Utah -- more than half of the state's high school student population -- participate in Keys to Success. It is an academic achievement program that uses a tool car dealers know something about: incentives. Each year, students can win one of five new cars, 62 iPads and one of 25,000 other prizes.
Students are encouraged to set individual goals with school counselors. When goals are reached, they get a Key Card that can be redeemed online for one of 25,000 prizes.
Each school randomly selects 50 Key Card holders who've shown they are on track for college by taking standardized tests and submitting college applications. The 50 are then highlighted at a year-end assembly held at each participating school. From that group a single student is selected randomly to win an iPad and a chance at a new car.
Garff Automotive then sponsors five separate car giveaways and broadcasts each event live on TV.
The Road to Success program focuses on elementary school students. Launched in 2007 in 50 pilot schools, the program encourages students to read every day for 20 minutes. Participating schools set reading goals. The program provides monthly incentives "as a gentle reminder to read each day," John Garff says.
The big prizes are transportation, but the two-wheeled kind: new bicycles.
"This school year, our Road to Success K-6 literacy program has grown to include over 240 elementary schools and more than 175,000 students in the northern half of Utah," says John Garff. "As an added incentive to read daily, we give away four bicycles to students in each of the 240 elementary schools each year."
The Garff foundation also recently announced a monthlong fundraiser, the Utah Story Literacy Event, to provide low-income Utah students with books.
"For many, it will be the first book most of them will own," John Garff says.
Says Robert Garff: "One of the biggest issues we've faced is that educators are pessimistic about having businesses involved in the schools. We are not there to market, and we've delivered on all our promises."