Support from relatives helped this first-generation college graduate find his way
By TERESA KILLIAN TATE
When Errol Kilgore ’99 was a child growing up in Asheville, college graduates were like multimillionaires: He knew they existed, but had no personal relationships with any. “I noticed that the adults I knew who had never left the city didn’t have a college education,” said Kilgore. “For all I knew, Asheville was the best place on earth, but I wanted to have options, and going to college was something I knew I wanted to do to give me greater opportunities.”
The first time he came to Western Carolina University was orientation before his freshman year, and the campus seemed daunting. It was his mother, Sylvia Kilgore, a preschool teacher who had not gone to college herself, who calmed him by simply telling him how proud she was. Four years later, the sight of her had the same effect. Sad about leaving his friends at WCU and wondering what the future held, Kilgore saw his mother, grandmother and sisters coming into Ramsey Regional Activity Center just as the lights dimmed before commencement. “Those are very special memories for me – like bookends,” said Kilgore.
Between them was hard work. In the classroom, he studied toward a bachelor’s degree in industrial distribution with a concentration in marketing. He volunteered as a peer counselor for other African-American students and as a leader with WCU’s chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, the nation’s first African-American Greek letter organization. In addition, Kilgore worked 25 to 30 hours a week at Taco Bell or jobs on campus. During the summers, he also took on temporary jobs at factories or, once, digging ditches.
Landing his first job after college was work, too, including arriving early enough to be at the front of a 200-person line at a job fair. He was elated when the temporary job he interviewed for with Johnson & Johnson was instead offered as a permanent, full-time job in pharmaceutical sales. “A week after I walked across the stage at graduation, they called to offer me the position. My mom and grandmother were there, and we were all very excited. I was the first generation in my family to graduate from college, and I was going to work for a Fortune 500 company.” He quickly racked up accolades and national awards, including “Rookie of the Year” and “Sales Excellence,” and promotions led him to the Chicago area. Now he is a biopharmaceutical representative in the Bone Health Division of Amgen and plans to learn Spanish so he can serve even more communities, perhaps abroad.
His success came as no surprise to his friends from WCU. Stacy Morris ’98 describes Kilgore as consistent and genuine, and Joseph Hyman ’01 as goal-oriented and strong-minded. “He doesn’t just work hard. He works smart. He’s always there when you need him,” said Hyman. “He loves God and family, and is inspired by them.” Although Kilgore’s mother, who died in 2001, could not be with him at WCU this fall when he was honored with WCU’s Young Alumnus Award, his older sister, his grandmothers, an aunt and friends were by his side. “I am lucky to have such a large and supportive family,” said Kilgore. “They played a major role in helping me to develop into the man I am today.”