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Robert Craves, a founding officer of the Issaquah-based wholesale giant Costco and, later, a nonprofit devoted to helping more students attend college, died Wednesday after being diagnosed with cancer a month earlier. He was 72.

Family and friends described Mr. Craves as a larger-than-life entrepreneur unafraid of tackling big ideas and as a family man with a self-deprecating sense of humor. After helping build Costco, Mr. Craves cofounded the College Success Foundation, a nonprofit that provides mentors and scholarships to low-income and first-generation college students.

Mr. Craves was born in Bay City, Mich., in 1942, the oldest of five children. At age 13 he left home to join a seminary, intending to become a Catholic priest, but later decided to pursue a career in business. He earned an undergraduate degree in philosophy and a master’s in international studies from Catholic University in Washington, D.C.

After college he moved to San Francisco to work in hardware stores, where a mutual friend introduced him to his wife, Gerri, whom he married on April 28, 1973.

Mr. Craves helped start Costco after working with Jim Sinegal, another Costco founder and former CEO, at a home-improvement business in California. Sinegal hired Mr. Craves as a merchandise manager at that company in the late 1970s, and Mr. Craves moved to Seattle around the time Costco opened its first warehouse in 1983.

Like the other Costco founders, Mr. Craves wore many hats at the young company — working in everything from human resources to membership services.

“He could always find the good thing in every situation,” Sinegal said. “Most people couldn’t.”

Mr. Craves was a welcoming presence at Costco, said Richard Galanti, chief financial officer, recalling dinners at Mr. Craves’ house when Galanti was a young employee at the company in the 1980s.

“Nothing was small in Bob’s eyes,” he said. “I’ll always remember a big smile on his face.”

Mr. Craves had a positive attitude whether he was expanding membership and marketing for Costco or trying to fill financial gaps for students who wanted to go to college but couldn’t pay, Galanti said.

After he retired from Costco, Mr. Craves cofounded the College Success Foundation in 2000 with Ann Ramsay-Jenkins, whom he met while they both were on a higher-education board appointed by then-Gov. Gary Locke.

The foundation emerged out of long talks as the two carpooled to board meetings throughout the state. The organization started with three employees. Now, including a branch in Washington, D.C., 143 people work there. Overall, it has raised an estimated $600 million.

Mr. Craves “wasn’t just big thoughts,” Ramsay-Jenkins said. “He really moved forward to put those big ideas into actions that benefitted thousands of low-income students across the state.”

It was hard to say no to Mr. Craves, said Tricia Raikes, a member of the College Success Foundation’s board since its beginning.

“He was so passionate and so committed and so capable of making things happen,” Raikes said. “He was able to get a lot of people on board.”

Riley Haggard, 29, attended Western Washington University on a scholarship from Mr. Craves’ foundation. Now Haggard works at the nonprofit, keeping the organization’s roughly 4,000 alumni connected.

At Mr. Craves’ suggestion, the alumni group has morphed into a career-services program to help graduates find jobs.

“ ‘This recession has been killing college graduates,’ ” Haggard recalled Mr. Craves saying in 2013. “ ‘Let’s get these kids jobs.’ ”

Mr. Craves retired as CEO of the foundation a year ago but remained a member of the board.

Larry Wright, the foundation’s chief of staff, visited Mr. Craves at his Phoenix-area home roughly six weeks ago. They talked about the future, he said.

“He was talking about what we were going to do, all the big ideas and all the plans,” Wright said.

To his two young grandchildren — Siena, 5, and Sabrina, 2 — Mr. Craves was “Papa,” who would talk about Seahawks football, bring pretty dresses and play puzzles with the girls on the floor, said Kris Moore, Mr. Craves’ son-in-law.

When it came to Costco or foundation business, Moore said, Mr. Craves’ mind was always on. He was often jotting down notes or following up on ideas.

“But when it came to the kids, he put that aside,” Moore said.

Mr. Craves is survived by his wife of 42 years, Gerri; their daughter, Stacie, of Seattle; sisters Teri Renz, of Napa, Calif., and Mary Holland, of Des Moines; and brother Jim Craves, of Portland, Maine. He was preceded in death by another brother, Tom Craves.

A Mass will be held at St. James Cathedral, 804 Ninth Ave. in Seattle, at 10:30 a.m. on Nov. 13, Moore said. A reception will follow. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Bob Craves Endowed Scholarship Fund, in care of the College Success Foundation, 1605 N.W. Sammamish Road, No. 200, Issaquah, WA 98027.

Leah Todd: 206-464-8246 or ltodd@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @leahktodd