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1970 Horatio Alger Award Winner

Kemmons Wilson*

Kemmons Wilson Companies

"To be successful, you must work half days-it doesn't matter if it's the first 12 or the last 12 hours."

Born in 1913, in Osceola, Arkansas, Kemmons Wilson was nine months old when his father died. Subsequently, Wilson and his mother returned to her hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. Wilson's career began at the early age of six when he began selling the Saturday Evening Post. As a youth, he dropped out of school to sack groceries, jerk sodas, and deliver newspapers to support his mother. At 17, he operated a popcorn machine at a movie theater, but the owner bought him out when he became too successful.


In 1933, Wilson ventured into construction, building his first house for his mother for $1,700, plus $1,000 for the land. He later borrowed against that house to start a jukebox distribution business. Wilson re-entered the theater business as owner and operator of several movie theaters. In 1951, his wife convinced him to take their five children on a trip to Washington, D. C. The accommodations they found were overpriced and unattractive, plus they were charged for each child. Taking room measurements along the way, Wilson was determined to build a "better mousetrap." In 1952, he opened the first Holiday Inn, named after a popular Bing Crosby movie. His mother, who managed his business affairs when he served during World War II, decorated the motel's 120 rooms. By the end of 1964, Wilson had opened more than 500 Holiday Inns, and within 20 years, he and his partner, real estate developer Wallace Johnson, were overseeing the largest hotel-motel operation in the world. He retired as chairman in 1979. During the 1980s Wilson developed both Wilson World Hotel & Suites and Wilson Inns & Suites, primarily in the southeastern United States.

Wilson, who said his Horatio Alger Award was "one of the best awards I've ever received," developed the Kemmons Wilson School of Hotel and Restaurant Management at the University of Memphis. When asked what advice he would give to America's youth, Wilson said, "Don't be afraid to fail. I've made more mistakes than anyone else, which is why I'm so successful."

* Deceased