2003 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"We all have an obligation to give back to our communities."
Mike Dougherty, the youngest of four children in his family, was born in 1941 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where his father worked as a buyer and seller of livestock. When Dougherty was five, his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her death shortly before his seventh birthday was a devastating loss for him and his family.
By the time Dougherty was 10, he helped his father in the stockyards, cleaning pens and watering cattle and hogs. When he was 13, his father sent him to St. Thomas Military Academy in St. Paul, Minnesota. Dougherty had been going through a tough time in school and his father believed the discipline of the military school would help him. But life at the military academy did not improve much for Dougherty. He didn't like being away from home and he didn't feel like he belonged with the other students, who were better off financially. "On the weekends all the other students went home," he says, "but I couldn't afford to do that. I had just enough money to buy a box of vanilla wafers and a quart of milk. That was my big treat. I took it back to my room and played cards, trying to fill the hours until the weekend was over." At the end of the first year, when he was 14, Dougherty returned home for the summer. That first night back, his father suffered a major heart attack and died. "I was alone with my father that night," he says, "I wanted to help him and couldn't. I was full of fear and grief. Needless to say, that was a life-changing event for me."
Even though one of his father's favorite sayings was "out of debt, out of danger," Mike and his siblings discovered their father was deeply in debt at the time of his death. The house and the business were mortgaged and back taxes were due. Mike's oldest brother was in the service, his next brother was a recent college graduate who had a wife and baby to support, and his sister was in college. Since his siblings could not take him in, he continued his attendance at the military academy. During summers he lived with his brother or with family friends.
Dougherty graduated from the academy and entered Creighton University in Omaha. After one year, however, he was still having a difficult time emotionally. He was asked to leave at the end of his freshman year for academic and disciplinary reasons. He went to work for Glacier National Park, where he tended bar and developed a love of the outdoors. In 1959, he returned to Minneapolis and was influenced by his brother to volunteer for the John Kennedy presidential campaign. "I've been fortunate to have mentors at different stages of my life," says Dougherty, "and my brother Bill has been a great advisor to me. At times he has been my best friend and has also served as a father to me. He was very involved in the Kennedy campaign and later served as George McGovern's campaign manager. I attribute my love of politics and public service to Bill."
Shortly after Kennedy's election, Dougherty was drafted into the Army. In basic training, after failing to learn some codes, it was discovered he is dyslexic. "That realization helped explain much of my behavior in school," he says. "It was very important for me to get that understanding."
The service made Dougherty realize he was in control of his own destiny. "The loss of my parents caused me to behave irresponsibly," he says, "but the service makes you accountable for your actions. Learning that lesson made me feel as if I could be a contributing member of society. I knew from that point on I'd have to take charge of my life, work hard, and be sensitive to other people. I wasn't that way when I went into the service, but I was when I came out."
Dougherty used the GI Bill and worked 40 hours a week to put himself through St. Thomas College. In 1966, he graduated with a degree in history and philosophy. Dougherty talked his way into working for a brokerage firm and 10 years later felt ready to strike out on his own. "When I was growing up," says Dougherty, "my father told me it's best to work for yourself, and that had always been my goal." He and three partners pooled their resources to launch their new firm. For Dougherty, it was necessary to take out a second mortgage on his house to put up his share of the seed capital. In his first year of business, he took out only $1,800 in salary. Today, Dougherty Financial Group LLC controls and operates seven asset management, securities, and commercial lending businesses.
Even though Michael Dougherty has experienced phenomenal success in his business life, his struggles on a personal level have continued. In 1985, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. In more recent years, he has survived two bouts of prostate cancer. His response to his illnesses has been to deal with them head-on. "We have two choices in life," he says. "We either play the hand we're dealt, or we fold. I choose to play my hand. You never know how far you can go or how much time you have so you have to live every day like it's all going to be okay. You never give up hope, and you do the best you can with what you've got at the moment."
Honored by his Horatio Alger Award, he says, "The mission of the Association is one I believe in strongly. I've had great mentors in my life and I'm a big believer in returning the favor."