1998 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"Ask yourself, ‘How can I be better tomorrow than I am today?’"
Tommy Thompson was born in 1941 in Elroy, Wisconsin, where his father ran a small grocery store. The third of five children, Thompson says his family was very poor—a situation he didn't realize until he went away to college and he saw for the time a larger world outside his close-knit community.
By the time he was 10, Thompson hired himself out as a painter. He painted barns until his was 15, and then went to work for a road construction company, which he did for the next six years. He attended a two-room schoolhouse and lettered in football, baseball, basketball, and track. He jokes about his athletic prowess, however, saying, 'If I didn't go out to play those sports the girl next door would have had to do it. If you could tie your shoes and not trip over them, you made the team.' There were only 57 students in his senior class.
Thompson worked his way through the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he majored in political science and history. He worked in a fraternity as a food server and in a pub as a bartender. He also worked at the state capitol as a messenger and clerk. He went on to earn a law degree, working his way through as a legal clerk for the state medical society, as a clerk at the state capitol, and as a bartender.
Thompson's home district was represented by a 16-year incumbent, and Thompson, at the age of 23, decided he was ready to challenge him. His opponent never took his campaign seriously. That summer, while Thompson finished law school, his opponent went on an Alaskan cruise. Thompson came home from school with only 30 days left before the primary. On an allowance of $10 a day for food and gas, he knocked on every door in the district. Thompson won the general election and spent the next 20 years in the Wisconsin State Legislature.
In 1973, Thompson was elected Assistant Assembly Minority Leader, and in 1981 became Assembly Minority Leader. In 1986, he ran for governor and became the only Republican in the country that year to defeat a Democratic incumbent. Thompson was reelected in 1990, and in 1994 became the first governor in Wisconsin's history to be elected to a third four-year term. President George W. Bush appointed him Secretary of Health and Human Services, and he served from 2001 to 2005.
Most recently, Thompson made a bid for the Republican nomination for the 2008 Presidential election. He is a partner in a large Washington, D.C. law firm, where he focuses on the health care industry, as well as companies doing business in the public sector.
Thompson tells young people, 'People have underestimated me my entire life, but hard work and common sense are always winners. Believe in yourself and don't be afraid to take risks.'