1995 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"I think losers visualize the futilities of failure. Winners visualize the rewards of success."
The second of three children, Jerry Dempsey was born and raised in the farming and textile town of Landrum, South Carolina. Both of his parents worked long hours in a textile mill. The family lived in a small house that had no indoor plumbing. Their heat came from a wood stove and it was Dempsey's job to chop wood each day. The family also raised much of their own food, including beef, hogs, chickens, and vegetables. When he was older, Dempsey had a 12-mile paper route and he also worked in a grocery store as a stock boy and cashier.
An excellent student, Dempsey was on the debate team in high school and served as student body president. He graduated valedictorian of his class and enrolled at Clemson University. He had several scholarships that helped pay his tuition, but he supplemented that by working summers on oil barges. Although Dempsey majored in mechanical engineering, he dreamed of one day running a major corporation. "I never intended to practice engineering," he says. "I felt a good technical education would put me in a good position to advance in a corporation."
He graduated first in his mechanical engineering class and had also served as president of the Senior Council at Clemson, president of the South Carolina Baptist Student Union, and regimental executive officer of the Clemson Cadet Corps. He had earned a scholarship from Owens Corning Fiberglass while at Clemson, and accepted a job from the company upon his graduation. Six months later, he left to serve in the military; two years later, he joined the air conditioning division of Borg-Warner as a sales engineer.
Dempsey rapidly rose through the ranks. In 1960, the chairman of Borg-Warner, Robert Ingersoll, selected Dempsey to be his executive assistant. Ingersoll became Dempsey's mentor and encouraged him to enroll in the MBA program at the University of Chicago, but a promotion moved him to Atlanta and Dempsey finished his master's degree at Georgia State University. In 1979, he was named president and COO of Borg-Warner.
Shortly before Borg-Warner was sold to Merrill Lynch, Dempsey joined WMX Technologies in 1984 as vice chairman. A year later, he was promoted to president of the Chemical Waste Management subsidiary. He became chairman in 1991. Two years later, he retired as chairman and CEO and took on those positions at PPG Industries, Inc. He retired from PPG in 1997.
Even with his own success, Dempsey insists there is more to life than business. "I feel that you have to keep a balance in your life," he says. "Business is important, but you should also consider family, church, society, and your fellow human beings." An avid supporter of the Horatio Alger scholarship program, Dempsey adds, "I had to work my way through college, so I know that scholarships are very important to those who receive them."