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2001 Horatio Alger Award Winner

Chuck Hagel

Former Secretary of Defense, U.S. Department of State
Former United States Senator, Nebraska

"Success is the ability to inspire others to be more than they ever thought they could be."

Chuck Hagel was born in 1946 in North Platte, Nebraska. His father, like thousands of other returning GIs from World War II, needed a job and house, but both were in short supply. When Chuck Hagel was six months old, his father accepted a job managing a lumberyard in Ainsworth. The family moved into a large ramshackle house that nearly sat on the railroad tracks behind the business. The house was cold in the winter, hot in summer, and relentlessly shook with the 15 trains that passed by daily. Two small coal stoves were the only source of heat. To make extra money, they raised chickens and ducks on the second floor.
Hagel's three younger brothers, Tom, Mike, and Jim, were born in Ainsworth. The early 1950s were difficult times for the Hagel family. Recalled to active duty during the Korean War, Hagel's father was away for one year. Life was further complicated when Hagel's father contracted polio, which required months in the hospital. In 1954, another tragedy struck Hagel's father when his back was broken in a car accident, which put him in the hospital for six months.

Hagel began working at the age of five. Each morning before school, he went to the train depot and loaded his wagon with the newspapers. He sorted the papers for an older boy, who then delivered them. When he was six, Hagel got half the route for himself. He didn't have a bicycle, so he pulled his papers in his wagon in the summer and used a sled in the winter. By the time he was seven, the entire route was his. When it became necessary for him to have a bicycle to make his deliveries, Hagel's father bought him a bike, but he had to make payments to his father each week until it was paid off. Hagel says, "That deal taught me a lot about working for something you want." Young Hagel took about any job that came his way, including delivering groceries to senior citizens, packing ice for two cents a bag, and sacking potatoes.

On Christmas morning in 1962, when Hagel was 16, his father suffered a sudden and fatal heart attack. Devastated and in shock, Hagel was concerned about his ability to help his mother take care of his brothers who were only 14, 13, and 8. Still, he never hesitated to take on more responsibility. Hagel says that before his father's death, he never gave his future much thought. He enjoyed life and youth and tried to savor every moment of it. He says, "I wasn't in a rush to grow up, but when your father dies and you're the oldest it does sober you up a bit. We had no money for college and I started thinking about that."

Hagel's talent on the football team earned him a scholarship to Wayne State College in Nebraska. During his freshman year, however, a pinched nerved in his neck left him unable to play. He transferred to Kearney State and worked as a banquet manager at the local Holiday Inn. Less than two years later, his grades were suffering and he felt restless. He was working as a Santa Claus during Christmas and for a junkyard, service station, and grocery store during the rest of the year. Hagel left college and enrolled in the Brown Institute of Radio and Television in Minneapolis. To pay for his courses he worked full time in a department store and sold encyclopedias at night.

A year later, in 1967, Hagel enlisted in the Army. After completing his training, he had orders to go to Germany, but he volunteered for Vietnam. His brother, Tom, also enlisted and volunteered for Vietnam and they served in the same squad. The year they spent in Vietnam (1968) was at the height of the war. Both were made sergeants and both were wounded together, Tom three times and Chuck twice. They saved each other's lives on more than one occasion. A few months after Chuck and Tom returned home in 1969, their youngest brother, Jim, was killed in a car accident. "He was so young when our father died that I was essentially his father," says Hagel. "His death was hard on all of us."

Hagel returned to college in 1969 and, at the same time, worked as a radio broadcaster and bartender. He graduated with a degree in history from the University of Nebraska at Omaha in 1971. Now fully focused on his future, Hagel knew he wanted to work in Washington, D. C. He worked for Congressman John Y. McCollister from Nebraska, earning $200 a month. A year later, he was McCollister's chief of staff.

Hagel spent five years with the congressman and two years as a lobbyist. He campaigned for Ronald Reagan and, in 1981, was appointed deputy administrator of the Veterans Administration. A year later, he was approached with a new opportunity.

Two friends asked him to invest with them in a new industry: cellular telephones. Hagel sold his car and cashed in two insurance policies to invest his total net worth of $5,000. He and his partners created a company that eventually became Vanguard Cellular Systems Inc., which, by the time it was acquired by AT&T, was the second largest independent cellular telephone company in the country.

In 1987, he was elected president and CEO of the World U.S.O. In 1990, President Bush appointed him as deputy director of the economic summit of industrialized nations (G7 Summit). At the end of that year he became president and CEO of the Private Sector Council. In 1992, he became president of McCarthy & Company, an investment-banking firm in Nebraska. Four years later, he devoted all his time to running for the U. S. Senate. He won the election and returned to Washington, D.C., in 1997 as a United States Senator.

As a senator, Chuck Hagel addresses many youth groups and organizations, including the Horatio Alger National Scholars. When asked about his success, he tells his young audiences, "I don't measure success by money, prestige, honors, titles, or position. Success is being able to get outside of your own self interests so you are able to reach beyond who you are-not just to improve yourself, but to inspire others to be more than they ever thought they could be."