2001 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"There is no one path to success. You can’t allow your circumstances to crush your hopes and dreams."
Born in 1943 in Queens, New York, John Dasburg moved with his parents to Miami when he was five years old. His father, a World War II veteran, had been a prisoner of war in Germany, but had escaped and returned safely to the United States. He was a high school graduate, but worked as an unskilled laborer for most of his life. "My father was a severe alcoholic," says Dasburg. "There were times when he wasn't able to work at all." His jobs included truck driver for a bakery, warehouseman, and paint salesman. Dasburg's mother worked as a department store clerk and took a bus each day to her job in downtown Miami.
"My world was my neighborhood and my school, with very few external influences," says Dasburg. Reared in a Lutheran home, Dasburg says his parents' values had a positive influence on him. "They thought hard work was equivalent to moral behavior," he says. "You had to have integrity and live an ethical life. I believed that then, and I believe it now." Even though their financial circumstances were always precarious, Dasburg remembers a loving home environment. "I always felt the love of my parents," he says. "I felt secure in my home, in my neighborhood, and in my school."
Dasburg was an independent, self-reliant child. From an early age, he did not like his family's economic situation. When he was 10, he began mowing his neighbors' lawns. He went to homes where there were no children and asked for their business. He taught himself how to repair his lawnmower and could even rebuild the engine. By the time he was 12, he had enough profits to buy a second lawnmower. He hired another boy in the neighborhood so that he could cover a larger geographic area, keeping a percentage of those earnings for himself. He built a shed in the backyard to store his equipment and soon began making enough money to open a savings account.
In junior high school, Dasburg started a second enterprise whitewashing the tiled rooftops of homes in the area. Once again, he hired other boys to help expand his business. By the time he was in high school, Dasburg was working three jobs. He still had his lawn business, he worked in the produce department of the local grocery store, and he was a laborer on a neighborhood construction crew. When he was a senior in high school, Dasburg took on yet another job, delivering the Miami Herald. He rose at 3 a.m., delivered 300 papers, went to school, then worked at the grocery store or attended to his lawn business. In the summer he worked on boats that were on the Miami River and learned how to dry dock boats and do welding in Puerto Rico.
After high school graduation, Dasburg attended the University of Miami. He lived at home to save money and continued his paper route and his job at the grocery store. But his grueling work schedule and fraternity life took a toll on his academics and by the end of his sophomore year he was on academic probation. Wanting to save on tuition, Dasburg transferred to the University of Florida in Gainesville. While there, he sold steaks to fraternities and worked nights in a restaurant. He graduated in 1966 with a degree in engineering, but knew he didn't want to be an engineer. Still searching for direction, Dasburg joined the Navy at the height of the Vietnam War.
To this day, Dasburg says it wasn't Vietnam that turned his life around, but boot camp. "Boot camp was an eye-opener," he says. "It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. I came out on the other side of those 16 weeks a different person than when I went in." During his first six months in Vietnam, Dasburg served on the Cua Viet River and distinguished himself as an engineer/dry dock officer. He streamlined the Navy's procedure for dry-docking and won commendations for his work.
With the help of the GI Bill, Dasburg returned to school and earned an MBA from the University of Florida. Still uncertain about what he would do for a career, he entered the University of Florida Law School. To earn expense money, he taught accounting in the university's business school. Dasburg's first job after earning his law degree was with the accounting firm of KPMG. He joined the company in 1973 and was made a partner in 1978.
In 1980, Dasburg joined the financial division of Marriott Corporation. Within four years, he was Marriott's chief financial officer. In 1987, he was appointed president of Marriott's Lodging Group and executive vice president of its parent corporation. In 1988, however, Dasburg's world collapsed. His six-year-old daughter Meredyth was killed when her school bus was involved in a traffic accident. "When you lose a child there is nothing to relieve the pain," says Dasburg. He and his wife lived with their anguish and tried to adjust to life without their firstborn child, but a year later Dasburg knew he needed a complete change of venue.
He accepted an offer to join Northwest Airlines to assist with their recent merger. One year later, he was named president and CEO. Northwest was on the brink of bankruptcy, and Dasburg worked round the clock to restructure the company. By mid-1993, Northwest experienced one of the greatest business revivals in the history of U. S. aviation. By 1994, the year Dasburg was named Man of the Year by Travel Agent magazine, the carrier reported four consecutive quarters of profitability for the first time since the 1980s.
Honored by his Horatio Alger Award, Dasburg says he hopes his life story and his long search for direction inspire American youth who have had little guidance in their lives. "My life demonstrates that there is no one path to success," says Dasburg. "This country offers plenty of opportunity to experiment and try different roads. I never would have guessed where my meandering road would take me. What is most important is to have hope and aspiration. You can't allow your circumstances to crush your hopes and dreams."