Through business dealings and health trials, power couple rely on positive attitudeBY WAYNE HEILMAN
Kent Fortune turned down Stephannie Finley the first time she asked the question.
Not that question — which would come months later from Fortune during a family gathering.
In the first case, Finley was asking for a donation from USAA, a financial services provider to military and their families, where Fortune, 53, is vice president and general manager, to support a new program at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, where Finley, 54, is executive director of university partnership and public policy.
Fortune last month was named Business Citizen of the Year, the top award given by the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce & EDC.
“I said no in a nice way,” Fortune recalled as he described how their relationship began over a lunch Finley had set up at the request of former UCCS Chancellor Pam Shockley- Zalabak.
Finley recalls that while they were talking about the new program, “He tells me he is divorced, and I wonder why he is telling me that. I thought it was because he might be interested in me.”
While Fortune and Finley had known each other from nonprofit boards on which they served, the future couple spent the next three months getting to know each other, attending family gatherings and eventually dating for four and a half months before they were engaged in mid-May 2015. They married a year later in what both call a storybook romance.
“We were meant for each other,” Finley said.
But the relationship of the Colorado Springs power couple would soon be tested.
Two months after the wedding, the first shock came with the death of Fortune’s father.
Two months later, Finley was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer that had reached Stage 3 of 4.
She described the initial prognosis as “scary.”
“When you are faced with that word, your mind floods with the experiences of family and friends,” Finley said. “I left the doctor’s office shell-shocked. How to find the love of your life and then get something so shocking. I know that we had a lot of work in front of us. It turned out to be an incredible partnership. He asked me what do we need to do, then said, ‘Let’s go.’ ”
The road to cancer-free was hardly smooth.
“One night just a few days after my diagnosis, I got angry and asked, ‘Why does it matter?’” Finley said. “Kent stopped me short and told me not to go there. He said, ‘No anger. We will attack this, and we will be OK.’ ”
Fortune stayed close by Finley’s side for five months of doctor appointments, chemotherapy and radiation treatments, tumor-removal surgery and to “keep my mind in the right place.”
Finley’s doctor told them a positive attitude would play a major role in her prognosis and that if she did “what we tell you, the outlook could be promising,” Fortune said.
“I had the easy part — encouragement, cheerleading — my job was to be positive for her,” Fortune said. “We went on a joy ride. It helps you reprioritize your life — what is important, what is not important. A side benefit was that our friends, community and family rallied around us. People asked us how we were doing, how they could help and they brought food. It was humbling to see how many people truly care about you.
“Our job was to do the best we could to overcome this. She was at work every day expect for when she had chemotherapy treatments.”
Finley recognizes that other cancer patients have gone through worse.
“Our story is different because everyone’s story is different. Through it all, there was just love. We were pretty confident after the surgery. If I could get through the chemo and the radiation, I thought I would be in good stead. I never thought we were in big trouble.”
She avoided doing research on her diagnosis or looking at statistics on her type of cancer — “I relied on faith, friends and naturopathy (which emphasizes diet, exercise and massage to treat medical conditions). I had a dark moment in the beginning, but a friend, Kate Beatty, told me she had the same surgery. She told us that none of us have guarantees. You have to understand that and life will be richer. You can read and hear those words, but when you get a cancer diagnosis, you really connect with it and know you have to do it.”
Finley received a clean bill of health in July and had another positive report after a checkup in October.
But the yearlong battle changed her outlook to refocus on her values and priorities to have fun and help people. She has reduced her UCCS role to part time and started a small business called Life Design with Betsy Brown and Tamara Moore to help people better articulate their priorities and design a path to get what they want out of their life and career. Finley also is serving as executive director of Colorado Springs Promise, a branch of the Pikes Peak United Way, to help raise graduation rates in Colorado Springs School District 11.
Coming from different paths
Fortune and Finley came from nearly opposite backgrounds.
He was born while his father, a command master sergeant, was stationed at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss., and moved nine times in 18 years, including three times while he was in high school. He graduated from Mitchell High School in eastern Colorado Springs before heading off to college at Texas Tech University, where he completed three years before he had to leave because of his father’s declining health. He moved his father to the Springs and continued his education at UCCS, where he played basketball during the team’s first season.
“I graduated at 25 years old after seven years because I lost 30 hours of credit (by transferring from Texas Tech) and did work and go to school full time, also taking a semester off. If you do work, school and life, it takes longer,” Fortune said.
After he graduated and was looking for a job, “My dad had said he had heard really good things about USAA (though he couldn’t be a member at that time). I applied and was hired as an auto insurance representative in Colorado Springs.”
He has been with the financial giant for 28 years, working in five locations (Colorado Springs, Seattle, Phoenix, Sacramento, Calif., and the nonprofit’s San Antonio headquarters). During the past seven years in Colorado Springs, he led an expansion that included a multimillion-dollar renovation of USAA’s Briargate offices and grew the workforce by 65 percent to nearly 1,800. USAA has been ranked as the state’s top workplace by The Denver Post twice in the past three years.
USAA recently added responsibilities to Fortune’s job. Although he said titles aren’t important, he won’t get another promotion unless he moves back to San Antonio, and USAA may require a move to fill its executive ranks after retirements or other personnel moves. But Fortune wants to finish his career in the Springs “if I have a choice. … If we continue to raise the bar and do great things here, the likelihood is that I will stay here.”
Fortune wants to keep expanding the Colorado Springs office because “it gives employees opportunities so they can stay with the company instead of moving to another company (to advance their careers). If we offer good jobs, great pay and benefits with the mission we have, we have a chance to keep them longer.”
Finley was born in Wheat Ridge and grew up in Springfield, Mo., returning to the Denver area after graduating from high school.
She worked in the office of Midwest Food Distributors, a business owned by her parents, which served the Air Force Academy, Fort Carson and Peterson Air Force Base as well as Denver area military installations.
She didn’t start college until she was 38 (her father earned his GED at age 72).
After spending three months working for a food broker, she moved into politics as assistant to the campaign manager for former U.S. Rep. Ken Kramer, R-Colo.
“I loved working with my mom; it was the best experience around,” said Finley, who is studying communications and strategic leadership at UCCS. “I’ve had a successful career, and I credit my father for teaching me a strong work ethic. You didn’t need a degree when I started in politics, but I would never encourage people today to take the route that I did.”
Finley mostly ran errands for the Kramer campaign, but it led to a job in the state Capitol, which “changed my life.” She spent six years as the administrative assistant to the House majority leader — first Chris Paulson and then Scott McInnis — later becoming co-campaign manager when McInnis ran and was elected to Congress.
She spent the next six and a half years as chief of staff for McInnis, setting up his office and hiring staff members. Her mother’s death was a “reality check,” prompting Finley to return to Colorado to be closer to family. She spent less than a year at Colorado Ski Country USA but wasn’t a good fit as a nonskier. She then returned to the political world as policy director for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. After three years with the department, the University of Colorado recruited her to work in its government relations office, where she helped get legislation passed to build the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora.
She left CU after two years to become chief of staff for then-Lt. Gov. Jane Norton, her former boss at the state Health Department, spending two years before the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce hired her to head its government affairs and public policy arm. After six years, she was recruited to UCCS.
Despite their different career paths, Finley said she and Fortune “share a desire for people to find their greatest potential and live out their best lives.” Although she is working three jobs now, she said her most important job “is being a wife to Kent.”
“Our story is different because everyone’s story is different. Through it all, there was just love.”
Stephannie Finley, on husband Kent Fortune’s support