2003 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"We should do all we can to prepare our youth and make sure we challenge them enough to achieve their dream."
Carl Westcott was born in 1939 at the charity hospital in Vicksburg, Mississippi. His father had only a second grade education and was unable to read or write. His mother's education extended only as far as the seventh or eighth grade. "They were from the hill country north of Vicksburg," says Westcott. "It was rural and poor. When you are poor in Mississippi that is the poorest of the poor. We didn't have a car and I always thought people with cars were wealthy. In fact, I thought people with lawns were pretty remarkable."
Westcott, who has five sisters, lived with his large family in a shotgun house that had no indoor plumbing. His father drove a logging truck and at one time worked at a service station. Unfortunately, he was an alcoholic. After he received his week's wages on a Friday, he often did not return home until Sunday with all his wages spent. By the time Westcott was six, his father left the family and never returned.
Westcott's mother went to work as a nurse's aide, where she earned only $5 in eight hours. At least three days a week she worked double shifts, leaving her children alone. When he was five, Westcott began rising at five in the morning, and then walked by himself into town to sell papers in front of the Vicksburg Hotel. He also sold chewing gum and shined shoes. "By the time I was eight," he says, "I was making more money than my mother."
There were many days when Westcott did not go to school, and when he did, he often got into trouble. He had had several brushes with local police for juvenile delinquency. When he was in the fourth grade, his teacher locked him in a closet for being disruptive. While in the closet, he found a stack of school lunch tickets, which he later sold to fellow students. It took several months for the school to discover his "business" and he was sent before the court for punishment. The judge ruled that Westcott should go to the Columbia Training School, a state institution, until he had a satisfactory home situation.
"I'd had next to no love in my childhood," says Westcott. "No one had ever hugged me or even held my hand. That is not a good thing, but I don't condemn my parents. My mother was a good woman who had to become tough in a short amount of time. She and my father came from dysfunctional families. They didn't know how families were supposed to work. It wasn't until I met my wife and we had our own family that I learned about love, honesty, and devotion."
While the Columbia Training School was a state-run home for juvenile delinquents, Westcott thought of it as sanctuary. For the first time in his life, he had structure, three square meals a day, and clean clothes. The boys were required to work on the school farm, which provided vegetables, beef, and dairy products to Mississippi's residential state institutions. "I liked Columbia because I was equal there," says Westcott. "No one had better clothes and no one was better off than me." He began to do well in school, especially after a teacher told him he was smart. "That was the most surprising thing anyone had ever said to me," he says. "My teacher told me I could be a doctor or a lawyer-anything I wanted to be. I began to believe in my ability. I thought maybe I could be somebody. One thing my youth taught me is that we are what we believe we are. If we don't believe we can be something, we never will be. That moment with my teacher was a life-changing event."
When Westcott was 16, he asked his mother to change his birth date in the family Bible to prove he was old enough to join the Army. He'd had enough of plowing and farm labor and was ready to move on in life. "At that time, my goal in life was to have a new pick-up truck and an inside job," he says. "I knew that if I could ever make $100 a week, then I could call myself successful."
Westcott did well in the Army and enjoyed the experience. Once again, he liked the equality he found in the service. He became a paratrooper and for the first time in his life felt the respect of others. He served for three years and was honorably discharged as a corporal. While in the Army, Westcott passed the GED test and received a high school equivalency certificate, which completed his "formal education."
With $220 in his pocket, he joined a friend who was going to California for a construction job. When that didn't work out, Westcott took a job selling cars. "I couldn't believe my first check based on commission," he says. "It was for $500. I knew teachers in Mississippi didn't earn more than $300 a month. The other salesmen didn't work very hard and were still earning a living, so I figured if you worked hard you could get rich." Westcott had found his niche. Soon, he was making $2,000 a month and was asked to be the sales manager when he was only 20.
Six years later, Westcott joined Sopp Chevrolet as the dealership's general manager. The business was near bankruptcy and it was Westcott's duty to make it profitable. He was successful within one year, and in 1967 bought a dealership in Louisiana. Westcott went on to buy two dealerships in Texas. By 1979, he opened corporate offices to manage his 17 dealerships. Later, he started First Extended Service Corporation, a processing firm for auto dealerships. He developed a subsidiary of that company called FFG Insurance, which operated nationwide. Those two companies have since merged with Aon Insurance Company.
In 1983, Westcott bought the NBC television station in Tyler, Texas, and began selling his auto dealerships. Westcott Communications became a pioneer in producing training programs in 18 fields, such as automobile dealership management, certified public accountants, and law enforcement personnel. The company went public in 1989, and Westcott sold it in 1996.
As a child, Carl Westcott could never have predicted the success he would have as an adult. But he learned to follow his instincts and made the most of opportunities that came his way. "To me, success is having a passion about what you're doing," he says. "I had a passion for the car business that lasted for 18 years, but once that passion passed, I moved on to something else that caught my interest."
Throughout his life, Westcott has treated others with respect and dignity. He sets high standards, but does not expect the impossible from himself. "You should try to be the best at what you do." he advises. "You may not be the best, but that should be your target."