2013 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"If you can, you must."
Tom Donohue was born in New York City in 1938. His father worked for the American Can Company in Brooklyn. “My dad was very hard working,” says Tom. “He had a college degree from St. John’s, and he played for their football team. For a short time, he played professional football for a team that no longer exists, the Brooklyn Dodgers. After that, he went to work for American Can—where he started at the bottom. He pulled steel out of the hot machines that made the cans and then eventually worked his way up to production manager.”
Tom’s mother had rheumatic fever as a child, which left her with a weakened heart. After Tom’s birth, she had twin daughters and then another daughter. Each birth further weakened her heart, making her increasingly frail. “It took my mother a long time to recover from giving birth,” says Tom. When she was recovering, I was sent to live with my aunt and uncle on their farm for a while until she could fully function again. At one point, they even put my sisters in an orphanage, where another aunt was a nun, to give my mother time to gather her strength. Eventually her heart gave out and she died at the age of 56.”
When he was in the second grade, Tom also contracted rheumatic fever. Unlike his mother, however, he was treated with penicillin. Still, he was forced to miss half the school year. It wasn’t known until many years later that Tom is slightly dyslexic. That condition, coupled with his missing so much of the second grade, gave him challenges in reading. Finally, when he was 20, his girlfriend, who later became his wife, Liz, taught him how to read phonetically by walking up and down 5th Avenue, reading the signs outside doctors' offices. “Some people might say that what happened to me as a child was a negative experience,” says Tom. “But I think of it in a positive way. My reading problems made me more verbal. I became a more perceptive person. As a result, I developed skills that have helped me my whole life.”
Tom’s family moved to Long Island when he was in the fifth grade. Through the church they attended in their new community, Tom joined the Boy Scouts. He knew right away that scouting was something in which he could excel. School was challenging because so much reading was involved, but in the Boy Scouts, Tom discovered his leadership abilities. “Scouting teaches you responsibility, leadership, organization, and honor,” he says. “It was a wonderful experience for me and gave me skills I was able to use in my adult life.”
Tom worked at an early age. He began mowing lawns and also served as a delivery boy for a local butcher. Each summer, he worked at Boy Scout camps. When it came time for college, Tom chose to attend his father’s alma mater, St. John’s University in New York City. Going to St. John’s allowed him to continue living at home, which saved a lot of money. Tom usually held four jobs at once to pay his way through school. One lucrative job, delivering liquor to Wall Street during the Christmas season, earned him enough tips to pay for his next semester’s tuition. When the Boy Scouts built a new camp in upstate New York, Tom helped with the construction. Once the camp was operational, he became involved in feeding large groups (1,400 people three times a day) through the camp dining hall. At one point he had 100 people working for him.
Tom’s first job, after graduating from St. John’s with a degree in history, was as an executive for the Boy Scouts of America. In that position, he was trained in fund raising, organization and planning, and business strategy— all skills he has used throughout his varied career. During this time, Tom attended graduate school at Adelphi University, where he earned a master’s in business.
Tom left the Boy Scouts to work for Abilities, Inc., an organization founded by Henry Viscardi. Now deceased, Henry Viscardi was born with no legs. His mission was to find jobs for wounded veterans of World War II. Eventually, he expanded his business to find jobs for physically disabled people in general. Henry Viscardi was inducted into the Horatio Alger Association in 1983. “From Henry, I learned it doesn’t matter if people think you can’t do it; if you want to do it and it’s honorable and reasonable, you can usually get it done,” says Tom.
Tom next served as vice president for development at the College of New Rochelle in New York and then at Fairfield University in Connecticut. While there, he met one of the directors of the university, Ted Klassen, who later became postmaster general of the United States. Soon thereafter, Tom followed his mentor, Mr. Klassen, to Washington, D.C., and served as deputy assistant postmaster general.
In 1976, Tom joined the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, where he worked for Richard Lesher (from the Horatio Alger class of 1980). During his eight-year tenure at the Chamber, Tom ran the organization’s foundation as well as its federation, membership, and grassroots operations. In 1984, he left that position to serve as president and chief executive officer of the American Trucking Association.
In 1997, Tom returned to the U.S. Chamber as president and CEO. He is widely credited with revitalizing the world’s largest business federation as it represents American free enterprise before Congress, the White House, the courts, and the court of public opinion. During Tom’s tenure, the Chamber has greatly expanded its stature and effectiveness at home and abroad on issues such as legal reform, trade, transportation, and tax and regulatory relief.
Tom Donohue’s varied professional life exposed him to employers and mentors who helped shape his career. He says, “I learned from these people that character counts—that integrity, good relationships, and good manners are important. I also learned that if you can, you must. What I mean by that is that you have to help those who need help—whether it’s someone who works for you or someone you have a relationship with—if they need help and you can do something to make a difference, then you must do it.”
His advice to young people starting out in their careers is to find people and organizations that can help them along the way—and be sure to help them in return. “Get some experience,” he advises. “Be a volunteer, demonstrate your commitment to something, and listen to those who offer advice. It’s most important that you believe in yourself. But don’t be afraid to ask for help. There are extraordinary organizations and people all over this country that want to help others succeed.”
The key to success, Tom believes, is opportunity. “Look for good opportunities,” he says, “and avoid negative opportunities. The great thing about America is it’s the land of opportunity. There are so many countries in the world where you are born into one status and can’t move out of it. But in America, people are given an opportunity to achieve and accomplish. And once accomplishments have been made, then we must turn around and help others on their way up. It happens again and again and again. It’s the great American story.”
Tom believes in doing all you can to help yourself succeed. He says, “I came from a family of good parents who had limited means. All I have achieved was through hard work, help and advice from others, perseverance, and the love and support of my wife and family. And there was some luck in there, too. Seizing opportunities, taking personal responsibility and initiative, giving 100 percent to every task, and helping others succeed just as others have helped me—these are the values that have been a large focus of my life. I believe they are also the values that built this country, that define our free-enterprise system, and give life to the American dream. We are so blessed to live in a country where anything is possible.”