COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - People who know and work with Gene A. Keluche like to talk about him. And when they talk about him, they usually end up using words like "brilliant" and "humble" - sometimes even in the same sentence.
All of which, no doubt, would embarrass the soft-spoken Wintun businessman from Colorado, who says he just wants to be of assistance to Indian country any way he can.
A former commissioner of the IBA and now co-chairman of the National Museum of the American Indian's International Founder's Council, Keluche brings to Indian country the skills and business experience garnered over a long and busy life.
With his wife Freita, he founded the non-profit Native American Sports Council in 1994. An organization that assisted many Native American youths to achieve their dreams of Olympic-class sports competition, the NASC is a powerful presence on the United States Olympic Committee. The NASC has also modeled sports wellness programs which are now being implemented in tribes all across the country.
A more recent endeavor by Keluche has been the Native Communities Development Council, a consortium of Native American professionals and entrepreneurs who serve as resources for tribes that want to learn how to do master planning, economic modeling and development.
With the passage of 1A in California, Keluche is turning his hand to helping tribes involved in gaming develop destination resorts that can further increase their income potential.
"I'm in contact now with several tribes," Keluche says. "We're trying to work with selected tribes that we think we can help."
As founder, chairman and CEO of International Conference Resorts Inc., the meeting industry's acknowledged quality and performance leader since 1976, Keluche knows the resort business inside and out.
ICR provides superior meeting facilities and service to Fortune 1000 companies and manages many resorts including the Scottsdale Conference Resort in Scottsdale, Ariz., the Cheyenne Mountain Conference Resort in Colorado Springs, Colo., and the Palm Springs Conference Resort in California. ICR Technologies, LLC provides software and advanced technologies for the multi-billion dollar meetings industry. ICR Marketing Services, Inc. is the advertising and direct-marketing arm. And, Meeting Management Services Inc. manages meetings that range from exclusive executive retreats to multi-million dollar product introductions and trade shows.
"That's kind of my day-job, still," chuckles Keluche, referring to ICR. "But ... in the last years, 30 to 40 percent of my time has been on economic development in Indian country. And I'm trying to restructure my time so I can do more of that."
Born in the town of Mount Shasta, Calif., in 1933, Keluche was raised in a foster home, completely ignorant of his Indian heritage. At age 12, he went to live with his mother, a Wintun Native, and continued living in the same town. It was a confusing time and a shattering experience for the young man.
"I was very angry that people had lied to me all my life," he says, obviously still deeply moved by the experience. "That's how I felt. So I ran away. I started going to the mountains after school, running triathlons and just being out there.
"I had to reinvent myself. And I had the mountains to help. ... Beyond that, hardly anyone knew where I was going or what I was doing. I was just very fortunate. My mom always said that her dad (a Wintun shaman) looked after me. But I didn't know that then."
A "big little guy" at 14, Keluche got jobs at sawmills and lumber camps during World War II by lying about his age. After the war he had his first educational counseling experience.
"One day I was working in a lumber yard and a guy said, "what are you doing here kid?' And I said, "well, hell. I'm drinkin' my chocolate milk and layin' in a pile of lumber.' And he said, "didn't you notice everyone went back to school?'
"Nobody had ever talked to me about college," he laughs. "So I got on a bus and went to the nearest college, California State University in Chico."
After working his way through school, Keluche graduated from CSU with a bachelor of science degree in Applied Engineering Science. With the Korean War in full swing and military duty pressing, he enrolled in officer candidate training school with the United States Navy, discovered he hated ships and applied for flight duty. Trained as a jet pilot, he flew for the Navy for five years, stationed out of San Diego.
"Then I realized that all I'd learned to do was fly jets, chase around and have fun. And so I thought maybe I should go back to graduate school - I had a habit of going to night school anyway - and, lo and behold, Harvard accepted me."
Graduating from Harvard Business School in 1964, Keluche, a self-professed renegade, decided the best thing he could do was be an entrepreneur. His first company, Basic Systems, developed self-instructional educational materials, training systems and facilities. After a number of years he sold the company to Xerox Corp. and then managed Xerox's Education Division's industrial and government operations.
His next endeavor was Agrigenetics Corp., an agricultural genetic research firm which eventually grossed over $100 million in revenue and which Keluche sold to Lubrizol Corporation in 1986. Then he got involved in aerospace science and remote sensing technology.
Next was NetSage, a computer software company delivering educational materials over the Internet, and "a few other" weather related companies such as WeatherWindows.com, which he recently sold.
"Those were kind of my commercial enterprises," he says, modestly wrapping up three decades of entrepreneurial genius. "Then about 30 years ago my Indian friends started introducing me to various economic development projects. So I've been informally consulting for a long time with tribes, developing master plans and economic models and trying to figure out how to help them move forward in their own development."
Ever the student of life, at 66, Keluche is also still moving forward, discovering more about his tribe and heritage, and more about himself. Reconnecting with Wintun tribal shaman and healer Florence Jones, 90, has been another important turning point in his life ... bringing him full circle and into a new cycle.
"I went to visit her. And I asked her if she knew my grandfather, who I knew was a shaman. She said "yes, I was his interpreter when I was a young girl.'
"That connection I didn't know existed in my life and in my people. And so now I have a new grandmother and she's inviting me back. And now I'm trying to learn."