[dropcap]E[/dropcap]LKHART, Ind. — There’s a white-sided, pitched-roof building along a main north-south drag here that is home to a family tradition more than 40 years in the making.
The converted post-World War II dwelling, a block south of the Cock-a-Doodle Cafe, is where husband-and-wife Ball State graduates Bruce Outlaw and Sonya Hill-Outlaw maintain an insurance agency. The business — among the fewer than 9 percent in Elkhart County that are minority-owned, according to 2012 census data — helps protect people’s homes, automobiles and lives.
“My job is to educate people on what they’re buying and what their needs are,” said Outlaw, who owns the agency. “It’s needs-based selling, what I do. I give you the information; you make the decision.”
Ask Outlaw, a State Farm agent, about ads that portray people in his line of work as in-the-nick-of-time heroes or guardian angels and, serious man that he is, he demurs.
His job in part, he explains, involves talking about why it matters how much a person’s jewelry is worth and whether basements have sump pumps that, in turn, have battery backups, in case the electricity goes out.
His wife knows the terrain well. Her father, the late Curtis Hill Sr., was also an insurance agent. She began working for him long before she left home for college, doing filing and cleaning up the office. After college, and following the diagnosis of a life-changing disease, she got her own insurance license.
“I was just a child when I learned to type in my dad’s office”
The parents of two and grandparents of five met in 1975, married and had their first child the following year, moved to Anderson, Indiana, in 1979 before having their second child and then settled in Elkhart, in northern Indiana in the early 1990s. That’s when Outlaw became an agent. Soon after, he hung his own shingle in the same building as his father-in-law.
History of working together
Before they were husband and wife, they met as tutor and pupil. Both were taking a Ball State health science class in a large lecture hall, where then-Sonya Hill was doing well. She said her overachieving husband was hovering at a low B but wanted to do better.
In a recent conversation, they described what happened next.
“We got to talking, and he was like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m catchin’ the blues in this class I’m in,’ ” Hill-Outlaw recalled. “And I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, what class is that?’ He’s like — I think it was health science?”
“I think it was,” Outlaw said.
“I said, ‘Health science? That is so easy.’” Hill-Outlaw said. “And he said, ‘Well, what are you getting in it?’ I said, ‘An A. What are you getting in it?’ He says, ‘I don’t know.’ ”
Outlaw finished the course with a B-plus, studied criminal justice and corrections and was hired while still an undergad for a job as a juvenile probation officer in Madison County. He continued his studies at Ball State part-time and went on to graduate in 1985.
The family stayed in Anderson about a dozen years, during which time Outlaw also worked in mental health, first with mentally disabled children and then with adults who have severe mental impairments. In 1992, they picked up and moved to Hill-Outlaw’s hometown, Elkhart, where they’ve been ever since.
He credits his time at Ball State — in the classroom and in leadership positions with his fraternity and other organizations — as helping him succeed.
“Having to deal with different personalities, different people and different situations, learning how to interact with them, being a leader as well as a follower, because when I was in Omega Psi Phi, I was vice president for two years,” he said. “Going out in the community and doing community involvement with young kids, mentoring.”
Protecting what matters
His wife’s path since the couple wed has been full of unexpected twists and turns, starting with a lupus diagnosis while she was still at Ball State, just after their first child was born. The chronic autoimmune disease is most common among women of childbearing age and is far more common among women of color than white women, according to the Lupus Foundation of America. Hill-Outlaw was told she would be lucky to live another five years.
If any good came from the situation, she said, it was a clarity about what mattered most in her life.
“You’re thinking, ‘Oh, my God,’ you know? I have this young family, and you’re telling me I’m not going to get to see them grow up? That’s when I kind of refocused, and I said, ‘I’ve gotta get these kids raised. Everything is about these kids. Nothing else matters.’ ”
She has spent her life since balancing her health against her ambitions. That has included raising her children, selling and servicing insurance policies at both her father’s and husband’s agencies and spending significant time in hospitals.
Another health-related accommodation she made was leaving Ball State a few credit hours short of graduation.
Hill-Outlaw has lived a challenging and rewarding life. She got to a point in her 50s, though, when she could afford to care about school again, and she didn’t miss a beat.
She reached out to Ball State and ultimately re-enrolled through Online and Distance Education. Once she graduated, in fall 2013, she had not only sewn up her bachelor’s degree and a minor in dance, she also picked up a second minor, in criminal justice.
Why go so far to complete a degree, with all she had accomplished and overcome?
“Because I earned it,” she said. “It was something that was mine, and I wanted it.”
In the more than 40 years since the two Ball State students bonded over a health science class, Outlaw has been on billboards and has otherwise made a name for himself in the community. Hill-Outlaw was raised in a civically engaged family. Her father, who died in 2001, was president of the city’s NAACP chapter and served on Elkhart’s school board. Her brother, Curtis Jr., was sworn in this month as Indiana’s attorney general.
She and her husband stay connected with their children and grandchildren, abide by their faith in God and have navigated the good and the bad — together.
“Life happens, and sometimes it happens in a big way,” said Hill-Outlaw. “No regrets, though. It’s been a rocky life sometimes, but it’s been a happy life.”