2001 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"It’s nice to be praised, but it’s more important to be the best at what you do, be in God’s will, and be happy in your work."
Archie Dunham spent the first five years of his life moving from one small Oklahoma oil town to another. In 1943, his family settled in Ada, Oklahoma, where Dunham's father worked as an oil field gauger, but he nearly always had a second job to help make ends meet. His father's other jobs included working in a gasoline service station, selling used cars, and working on a highway construction crew for the state highway department.
Even though money was never plentiful, Dunham describes his childhood as loving, exciting, and enjoyable. Dunham began working early, selling garden seeds and pears door to door. By the time he was eight, he made $1 a day mowing neighborhood lawns and cleaning vacant lots. The following year, he began delivering papers for the Ada Evening News. With the new job, he decided he needed a bicycle. Self-reliant as always, he went to a local hardware store, picked out a bicycle, and told the manager he wanted to buy it on time. The manager agreed, and Dunham, very proud of himself, left with his new bike. "What I didn't know," says Dunham, "is that the manager called my father and told him what I had done. My father guaranteed the payments and that's why they let me take the bicycle." But Dunham paid for the bicycle out of his earnings, never missing a payment.
In school, Dunham was an above-average student, active in band, choir, baseball, and various leadership organizations. No one in his family had ever attended college, but he always knew he would attend the University of Oklahoma. Durham spent his summers as a laborer on highway construction jobs, earning $1 an hour to pay for his tuition. In 1960, he graduated with a degree in geological and petroleum engineering and received his commission as a second lieutenant in the Marines. Two days later, Dunham began his first oilfield job as a roughneck on a deep gas well in southern Oklahoma. Three months later, he reported to Quantico, Virginia, to commence his four-year obligation to the United States Marine Corps.
In the Marine Corps, Dunham developed an interest in finance and economics and decided that he would return to school for a master's degree in business administration after serving his country. Dunham returned to the University of Oklahoma in August 1964. In January 1966, Dunham finished at the top of his MBA class and was recruited by 17 companies. He joined Conoco as an associate engineer.
Dunham was elected executive vice president of Douglas Oil Company, a Conoco subsidiary, in 1976, and became president of that company in 1979. Two years later, he became vice president of logistics and downstream planning for Conoco Inc. In 1985, he became executive vice president of petroleum products in North America and was elected to the Conoco board of directors. In 1987, Dunham transferred to E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company, Conoco's parent company at the time, as senior vice president of the chemicals and pigments sector. In late 1991, Dunham returned to Houston as Conoco's executive vice president of exploration production. He held that position until becoming president and CEO in January 1996. He was elected chairman of the board in August 1999.
Dunham, who spends 30 minutes a day in Bible study, often addresses business groups and college students. He tells his audiences, "God has a plan for each person. We can discover that perfect plan at age 20, or we can discover it at age 70. My advice is to seek it early in life. Seek God's direction for your life and His wisdom daily. Hard work is essential. Secure as much education as you can, and continue your education as an adult. It's critically important to your future success."
Dunham sees education as the foundation for any career, whether it's in business, art, or politics. "Society insists that we be educated," he says. "That's why the work of the Horatio Alger Association is so important. It's a privilege to help young people who don't have the financial resources to pursue their dreams. For them, the necessary first step toward success is getting an education."
Dunham believes there is a difference between accomplishment and success. "Accomplishment is knowing that you have prepared yourself to the maximum extent possible, worked hard, and done your best," he says. "It's more important to be the best at what you do, be in God's will, and be happy in your work."