Making a Difference: The Horatio Alger Awards
The applause in Constitution Hall stilled as retired U.S. Army Gen. Tommy Franks stood before the lectern.
Blue and red stage lighting illuminated the words behind him: Horatio Alger Awards Induction Ceremony. The crowd of 850 distinguished
guests hushed as Gen. Franks—former commander in chief of the U.S. Central Command, the man who led American troops
into Afghanistan and Iraq, and the winner of three Purple Hearts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom—prepared to speak.
He reached into his tuxedo jacket and unfolded a piece of paper. Then he looked up at the crowd and said, “Y’all
pardon me if I don’t use the teleprompter deal. I never figured it out.”
As the guests chuckled, they, along with 104 high-school students, got a glimpse of the individual behind the icon. They
saw the man rather than the legend. They learned about Franks’ upbringing in Midland, Texas, his education, his pursuit
of excellence in the military, his perseverance in the face of overwhelming obstacles on battlefronts around the world. They
learned what made him and 10 others worthy of membership in the Horatio Alger Association.
The largest private donor of scholarships, the Horatio Alger Association honors outstanding individuals who have succeeded
in spite of adversity and encourages young people to pursue their dreams through higher education. Since 1984, the organization
has given more than $70 million in scholarships to nearly 14,300 students who demonstrate perseverance and optimism in the
face of daunting adversity. This year, 104 students received national scholarships of $20,000 each. The association also awards
state, military and—new this year—graduate scholarships.
The newest scholarship winners were among those attending the April fundraising event co-hosted by broadcast personality
and author Lou Dobbs and actor Tom Selleck, both Horatio Alger members.
The event celebrates induction of the new members. “To me, it’s one of the ultimate life-achievement awards by
your fellow awardees,” Horatio Alger Association Chairman Joseph Neubauer told SUCCESS. “This award is
voted on by the whole membership. It is an amazing group of individuals who really have a common purpose in raising money
and enriching young people’s lives.”
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, this year’s recipient of the association’s Norman Vincent Peale Award,
said, “The Horatio Alger Association has been a home to me.” Since becoming a member in 1992, Thomas has hosted
the private annual induction ceremony in the Supreme Court. “This organization has allowed me to see my dreams come
true,” he said.
Franks described his fellow members as “men and women who know that for every challenge we face in this country, there’s
going to be an opportunity.” Indeed, each member has a history that reads, well, like the proverbial Horatio Alger story.
They are, for the most part, entrepreneurs and achievers who have pulled themselves up out of adversity and into prosperity,
in every sense of the word. As new member William Cook said, “Tonight we gather to honor Americans who are self-made
successes. You can find a lot of people who would be considered successful, but you don’t find many who are self-made.”
Self-Made Successes: The 2010 Inductees
New member James M. Seneff Jr., CNL Financial Group founder, chairman and CEO, followed the call of entrepreneurship to build
his success. While serving in Vietnam, young Seneff drafted a 50-year business plan. Returning home after the war, he took
out a $5,000 loan from his father and started CNL Financial Group, riding his bike each day to a makeshift office that consisted
of a folding chair and a typewriter. Over the last 30 years, he has created more than $23 billion in assets.
Seneff still follows his entrepreneurial 50-year plan. “I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to strike a blow
for free enterprise,” he said. He encouraged others not to give up on their goals. “If you have less talent than
others, but are intentional with your time, you can accomplish anything.”
Another entrepreneur inductee, Alan Miller, was the son of a factory worker and a milliner. He grew up during the Depression
and began working at 13. His determination and work ethic helped him found Universal Health Services in 1978. “He gave
our children very important values, and he did it by example,” said his wife, Jill Miller.
Bill Cook, who founded the Cook Group in 1963 with $1,500 in capital, also came from humble beginnings, often sleeping three
in a bed, “and that’s probably the reason I’m an only child,” he said. After serving as a medic in
the Korean War, Cook started his own medical instruments company. “Success is found in the soul of you and not in the
realm of luck,” he said.
Cook and his family faced the unthinkable when his wife was kidnapped and held for ransom in 1989. After a traumatic couple
of days, the FBI located her, and her kidnapper was arrested. The next few years were difficult, and the Cooks relied on their
large support group of family and friends. Cook credits his loved ones with his success: “They made me what I am today.”
Jenard Gross is one of the best-known apartment developers in his native Houston, with his own community of supporters and
friends. He has owned 24,000 apartments and rehabilitated many more, and giving back is part of his inspiration: “That
really is what life is all about: Give others the chance to do what you have done.” He said his passion for real estate
and development helped him succeed. “Because I loved it, it wasn’t work. If you love something, the success will
follow.” And he sees the same success potential for the next generation: “Frankly, I believe the greatest days
of America are ahead of us.”
When UNITEC founder Earl Stafford was growing up in poverty, he learned the same kind of indomitable optimism and belief
in the American dream. “We weren’t allowed to call ourselves poor,” he said. “We didn’t have
much, but we had a lot of spirit, a lot of love.” After a 20-year career in the Air Force, he founded UNITEC, a company
that makes tactical engagement systems for military training, and in 2009 sold the company to Lockheed Martin. Today, Stafford
helps others achieve their goals as CEO of both the Wentworth Group, which helps small businesses in the federal market, and
the Stafford Foundation, a faith-based nonprofit that supports programs in health, education and training for the underserved.
Stafford encouraged those in attendance “to do just a little good as we go along in life.”
This attitude pervades the membership of the Horatio Alger Association. Each new member sees giving back as integral to their
success. Richard D. Holland, philanthropist and retired founder of Holland, Dreves and Reilly Advertising, has devoted his
life to helping others. “Giving back is the only thing to do…. This weekend has been a reminder to me that we
are the luckiest people in the world,” he said, expressing his gratitude for being born in the United States, “where
countless opportunities exist and millions of people rise from small beginnings to free and enriched lives. We are very, very
fortunate for this accident of birthplace.”
Joseph M. “Jody” Grant, founder of Texas Capital Bank, knows something about seizing opportunities. When the
U.S. economy crashed in the 1980s, Grant was chairman and CEO of Texas American Bank. By 1989, his stock value went from the
mid 40s to 0, as the FDIC took over the bank. Grant was broke. “This was the low point of my life,” he said. At
50, he was starting over.
“Adversity is a great teacher,” he said, and he eventually founded Texas Capital Bank, whose startup was the
largest in U.S. history.
Lawrence Higby, retired CEO of Apria Health Care Group, was thrown a curveball in his career as well. After his dad was killed
in World War II, he went to college on a war orphan scholarship, was recruited to work on President Nixon’s election
campaign and later in the Nixon White House. Higby wasn’t involved in the Watergate scandal, but suffered by his association
with the administration. “After Watergate, I thought I’d never have another chance to do anything, and it was
only the beginning of a rich and meaningful life.”
Higby received several noes before going on to hold prominent CEO positions, including his latest leadership role at Apria.
He encouraged the Horatio Alger scholars not to let tough times stop them, to “reach out for valuable learning experiences,
not just money.”
Albert T. Annexstad, president, chairman and CEO of Federated Insurance, also advocates lifelong learning. “Education
is the great equalizer—at least it was for me,” he said. Annexstad’s mother was widowed when he was 5 and
left with four children to support. When Annexstad wanted a baseball glove, he shucked corn to earn the money. Because education
made the difference between poverty and success, Annexstad, like other members, believes in the Horatio Alger Association’s
mission to provide educational opportunities and mentorships to disadvantaged kids.
Education was also the difference maker for former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. “My proudest accomplishment
was when I got my Ph.D. and was appointed to full faculty at Stanford,” she said. “I fulfilled my parents’
dreams. My parents invested everything in me, and I’m glad that I didn’t let them down.”
Rice earned her bachelor’s degree at age 19 and her master’s at 20; her Ph.D. and an assistant professorship
at Stanford followed. She served on the National Security Council and was later the first female national security advisor
during George W. Bush’s presidency. She served as the 66th secretary of state until January 2009 when she returned to
Rice’s parents taught her to believe she could accomplish anything, even though she grew up in the tough, segregated
world of 1960s Birmingham, Ala. “Even though I couldn’t have a hamburger at Woolworth’s, I could be president
of the United States,” she said with a smile. “My parents would say, ‘You have to be twice as good.’
Rice relied on those who believed in her—parents, teachers, mentors. “No one achieves on their own,” she
Raising more than $6 million on this evening at Constitution Hall, the Horatio Alger Association ensured that another group
of young people will have the same opportunities for success
“Selfishly, I think we get as much out of it as the national scholars,” Selleck told SUCCESS. “All
of us do share a common bond. Some have had it worse than others, but that’s not what this is about. It’s about
the triumph over adversity; it’s about honoring these scholars. And that’s what keeps us coming back.”
Amy Anderson is the former senior editor of SUCCESS magazine, an Emmy Award-winning writer and founder of Anderson Content Consulting. She helps experts, coaches, consultants and entrepreneurs to discover their truth, write with confidence, and share their stories so they can transform their past into hope for others. Learn more at AmyKAnderson.com and on Facebook.
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