2010 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"For all the challenges we face in our lives, there is an equal number of opportunities. America is probably the only nation in the world where that is the case 365 days a year."
When Tommy Franks was born in 1945 in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, his father was working in a bank and farming part time. A few years later the family moved to a larger farm outside Stratford, Oklahoma. That is where Tommy started the first grade. When Tommy was eight, his family moved into Stratford, and his father started a water-well drilling business. One year later, the Franks moved once again-this time to Midland, Texas, where Mr. Franks worked in oil field supply. "My father was constantly in pursuit of the American dream," says Tommy Franks. "He was a great man, but not a great businessman. Neither one of my parents graduated from high school, but they believed in hard work and exploring opportunities."
When Tommy was eight, his school teacher gave a talk about family heritage. She told her young students they could learn a lot about their personal histories by exploring their family Bibles. Tommy went home from school that day and went straight to his mother's cedar chest. When he pulled out the Bible that was kept there, some papers fell to the floor. He discovered they were his adoption papers. He went to his mother to ask her about it, but she brushed off its significance and said something like, "Oh, there's nothing to that." The family never discussed the adoption again. Several years later, when Tommy came home with good grades in high school, he said to his parents, "Seems like I'm doing pretty well for an old adopted boy." His parents simply smiled and let the comment pass. He says, "That was the closest they ever came to telling me I was adopted. They considered me their true son, and I considered them my true parents. There really was nothing to discuss."
Tommy Franks began earning money picking cotton when he was six or seven. He made two cents for each pound he picked. Eventually, he saved enough money to buy a power lawn mower, and he charged his neighbors $2 a lawn for his mowing services. In high school, he worked in the oil fields as a roustabout.
Tommy Franks was a bright student and good grades came easily to him. "School was easy for me," he says, "I became more focused on hot rods and hunting quail, along with what I was going to do on Friday and Saturday nights. I had no idea about my future, but I took it for granted I would go to college. I wanted to go away to school, so I decided on the University of Texas at Austin. I partied too much, though, and flunked out after two years. That was a wake-up call for me and the beginning of my maturity."
Since he couldn't go to school for a semester, Franks decided to enlist in the Army in 1965, when the Vietnam War was in full swing. Within one year, he was offered an opportunity to go to Officer Candidate School. He deployed to Vietnam in 1967. He says of that time, "I went to Vietnam as a kid and I came home a full-grown man. I saw the good, and the bad, and the ugly-and I learned what real heroism is." Tommy Franks' service in Vietnam earned him six awards for Valor and three Purple Hearts.
When he returned home in 1968, he and his fiancée Cathy married. They planned for Tommy to leave the military. Cathy would teach while he went back to school to finish his undergraduate degree. But one month before he left the military, he received a call asking if he would stay in if the Army paid for his education. He agreed, and went to the University of Texas at Arlington, where he earned a degree in business. He went on to earn a master's degree in public administration from Shippensburg University. From that point on, although it was never a conscious decision, Tommy Franks made the military his career. He later became a graduate of the Armed Forces Staff College as well as the Army War College.
In June 2000, Tommy Franks was promoted to four-star general and assigned as Commander-in-Chief of U.S. Central Command. It is in this position that the world knows General Franks best for leading American and Coalition troops in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom in Iraq.
General Franks had many jobs and promotions throughout his military career. But he never took a job thinking about his next assignment or promotion. Instead, he concentrated on the challenge in front of him and worked to solve problems and create opportunities. He is thankful to the many mentors he had along the way. He says, "A lot of my mentors were sergeants, a few were privates, and some were generals. My peers throughout my career turned out to be one of the most celebrated generations of officers in our military. But there has never been a general who has accomplished a thing without thousands and thousands of young people doing something spectacular. If you provide young people with what they need to get the work done-and you provide them with love and care-then they will show you what can be done."
When General Franks began his military career, he relied on something his father had taught him years before. "My dad used to say 'make a hand'," he says. "What he meant is that each day you go to work there are three sets of people whose expectations you need to meet. You need to recognize the people who work for you, as well as the people with whom you work, and the people for whom you work. When you do that, the rest-which includes success in your career-sort of takes care of itself."
Now retired from the military, General Franks travels around the world talking to audiences about leadership and representative forms of government. His message harkens back to his strong patriotic feelings. He says, "For all the challenges we face in our lives, there is an equal number of opportunities. We are probably the only nation in the world where that is the case 365 days a year. And it's all because our Founding Fathers had a vision of a country where all of us can be anything we want to be. The only tariff our system asks of us in return is to develop a sense of accountability and responsibility."
When asked what advice he has for young people, he refers back to the advice his father gave him shortly before he deployed to Vietnam as a private. "My dad served in World War II," says General Franks. "He was part of what is now called the Greatest Generation. So when I asked what advice he had for me I thought he would tell me something about being in the military. But he looked at me with a smile on his face and said, 'Son, you need to be feisty.' What he meant was this: "F" is for focus-get some in your life. "E" is for energy-put some behind your focus. "I" is for integrity-you should never lose it because once it is lost it is gone forever. "S" will be with you throughout your life, and that simply means that those around you and for whom you work expect you to Solve the problem. "T" is for taking the blame when nobody else will. And "Y" is for yes, I do windows. I still think that is great advice."
General Franks says it is an honor to receive the Horatio Alger Award. He is also excited about meeting with the Horatio Alger Scholars. "There is a way in America for you to be anything you want to be," he remarks. "The Members of the Horatio Alger Association don't provide a roadmap, but their lives do serve as examples of what can be accomplished when you are prepared for opportunities and seize them when they come your way. My advice to the Scholars is to be on the lookout for people in their lives who can mentor and guide them.
"There was a time when I was in a video teleconference with President Bush. I was half-way around the world away from him, but I could see his face and he could see mine. He was talking to me, but I had no idea what he was saying because I couldn't hear him. In the midst of my anxiety over this situation, one of my subordinates made it clear to me that the control box sitting in front of me was in the 'off' position. That's what I hope the Members of the Horatio Alger Association can do for the Scholars. For many young people in this land of opportunity, their switches are in the 'off' position and they don't know where to turn, or where to go for an answer to their challenges. It will be a family member, or a friend, or maybe a Horatio Alger Member who will help those young people flip the switch to 'on'."
General Tommy Ray Franks' Career and Honors
During Operation Desert Storm General Franks served as Assistant Division Commander, 1st Cavalry Division. In the mid-1990s, he commanded the 2nd (Warrior) Division in Korea. He assumed command of Third U.S. Army/Army Forces Central Command in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1997. He became Commander-in-Chief of U.S. Central Command in 2000. During his tenure in this position, General Franks oversaw U.S. Armed Forces operations in a 25-country region, including the Middle East. He was the U.S. general leading the attack on the Taliban in Afghanistan in response to the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and The Pentagon. General Franks also led the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and was Commander-in-Chief of the American occupation forces. He retired in May 2003. Since then, he has traveled the world as a speaker, addressing the topics of leadership, character, and the value of democracy.
General Franks' awards include five Distinguished Service Medals, four Legions of Merit, four Bronze Stars and three Purple Hearts. He is a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire. President George W. Bush awarded him the nation's highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 2004. General Franks' autobiography, American Soldier, was published in 2004 and reached #1 on the New York Times Best Seller list.