2005 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"Know what you want, and want it with passion."
Colleen Barrett was born in 1944 in a small town in Vermont called Bellows Falls. Her father was in the Navy when she was born. He then worked in a machine shop and later worked for the postal service. Her mother was a keypunch operator for a tool and die company. Unfortunately, Colleen's father suffered from alcoholism and as his problem worsened over the years, he was unable to work steadily. "My mother was our stronghold," says Barrett. "She worked hard all her life and I helped by taking care of my two younger brothers."
The family lived in a rented home until Colleen was 12. At that time, her parents built a modest home with three bedrooms, but the following year it burned to the ground. While their home was being rebuilt, the family lived with relatives. Even though there was never enough money, Barrett remembers her mother's generosity to others. There was always room for an extra plate at the dinner table, no matter how lean the finances were at the time. But her father's alcoholism often caused him to be mentally abusive and more and more Barrett removed herself from the situation. School became a refuge for her.
She attended Catholic school until she was in the eighth grade. A self-described "good little Irish Catholic girl," Barrett was studious and an overachiever. She had to work hard for her good grades, but was more than willing to put in the effort. As a junior, Barrett began doing clerical work for a paper company after school and on Saturdays. She also worked for attorneys in the summer. She enjoyed her law work and as a senior in high school took business classes to help her become a legal secretary.
Barrett attended Becker Junior College in Worchester, Massachusetts, on a government loan and a few small scholarships. She completed the two-year program and married her boyfriend. Soon after their marriage, Barrett's husband was drafted. He joined the Air Force and was sent overseas. Barrett, who was now pregnant, went home to Bellows Falls to be near her mother, and lived in a one-room, third-floor walk-up apartment. This was a difficult time for Barrett, who worked throughout her pregnancy and lived on only $75 a month. When her husband returned, their baby, Patrick, was four months old. The young family moved to San Antonio, Texas, where Barrett's husband was stationed.
It was clear from the beginning that Barrett would have to work to supplement the family's income. In 1968, she became a legal secretary for Herb Kelleher, an attorney who formed his own firm two years later and took Barrett with him. Kelleher became her mentor and coach. She learned quickly and was steadily given more responsibility.
Barrett accompanied Kelleher to most meetings and became deeply involved in his casework. She also became very involved with one of Kelleher's clients, Southwest Airlines, which Kelleher had co-founded in 1967, and which was prevented from flying its first flight for three and-half years due to lawsuits and administrative hearings pursued by the airline's adversaries.
By 1973, Barrett had a life decision to make. She and her husband divorced and her father had committed suicide. Barrett knew her mother would like her to come back to New England, but as a place to live, San Antonio fit Barrett perfectly. She suffers from a severe depth perception and peripheral vision problem that cannot be corrected, and since she can't tell distance or depth, she is unable to drive. San Antonio has a good metro system, but in Vermont she would be dependent on living close enough to her job to walk. In the end, she decided it would be best to stay put and continue her work with Kelleher.
In 1978, Barrett became corporate secretary to Southwest's Board of Directors. She was named president and COO in 2001, and served as president and corporate secretary until July of 2008. She now holds the title President Emeritus at Southwest. Barrett says she never encountered a glass ceiling during her rise through the ranks of Southwest's administration. Southwest, which is the fourth largest major airline in America, is reportedly the only domestic airline to have turned a profit every year since 1973. It has repeatedly won the "Triple Crown" for best on-time performance, best baggage handling, and fewest customer complaints among all major carriers.
Barrett laughingly says that she knew she had reached certain success the first time she didn't have to buy a dress on layaway. But, she adds, success is definitely not a paycheck or a title. "For me, success is being able to answer 'yes' to the question: Did I make a positive difference today? I know I'm successful when I can give back to someone. My mother never had anything, but she always shared. That is a lesson I learned that has served me well."