2002 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"Success in life or business is measured by the character of the people you associate with every day and the fun experiences in making decisions which challenge the best in everyone."
Charles "Chuck" Durham was born in 1917. When his father returned from serving in France during World War I, the family moved to Iowa, where Durham's father had a job working for the Iowa Highway Commission. "Iowa's infrastructure wasn't as developed then as it is today," says Durham. "My father used to say it was his job to help Iowa get out of the mud."
The Durhams lived in a modest house in a small town. An only child, Durham was close to his parents. They taught him to respect others and to work hard at whatever he tackled. "We didn't have much, but my mother made our home warm and comfortable for me and my father," he says.
Durham was 11 when the Depression hit, but his family was fortunate because his father had a job that was not threatened. Still, after paying bills there wasn't much left for extras. That's when Durham got his first job. He took over a newspaper route of 40 to 50 houses, which he kept for the next four years. "I think that experience laid the groundwork for a successful business career," he says. "Even at that age I knew what it cost to buy my own papers, deliver them at 5:00 a.m., collect the money due, and make a profit at the end of the week. I even learned that purchasing too many candy bars ate into the profits." With entrepreneurial spirit, Durham talked a few local bakeries into selling him potato chips at a discount, which he then sold at a profit to customers on his route. "I didn't know what goal-oriented meant then," he says, "but I realized you had to have a plan and be willing to make sacrifices to achieve results."
Durham joined the Boy Scouts as a youth and was proud when he was able to save enough money to buy the $14 uniform. He stayed with the Scouts until high school and achieved the rank of Eagle Scout. That was the beginning of a lifelong commitment. "The Boy Scouts taught me responsibility and the value of teamwork," he says.
Another life lesson came from his father. Durham's newspaper supervisor had given him five newspapers to use as free samples on his route. "I quickly found five new customers and pocketed the money," he says. "When my father learned of this he insisted I return the money to my supervisor. That was one of my first lessons in business ethics."
Through the years, the elder Durham taught his son many valuable lessons. He recalls once bringing home a good report card but with the notation, "Annoys others." After seeing this comment on his son's behavior, Durham's father ordered him to stand in front of his classmates and apologize for annoying them. "Apologizing to that class was a humbling experience," says Durham, "but it taught me to respect others and not interfere with their opportunities to learn."
The Durham household honored education. An average student, Durham realized early that top marks were not the only measure of success. Some of his greatest learning experiences came from extracurricular activities. Durham was active in debate, where he learned to think on his feet, and he also played tennis and football. He wanted to go to college and made sure his grades were good enough to qualify. There wasn't much question where he would go. "My father always joked that I could go to any school I wanted as long as it was in Ames, Iowa," says Durham. That way, he could live at home and save the expense of room and board.
To pay tuition at Iowa State College, Durham worked 40 hours a week as a clerk in a hardware store, making only 25 cents an hour. At age 20, Durham spent the summer working in a potash plant in California, earning the amazing sum of 62- 1/2 cents an hour. To get back home, he hitchhiked and hopped a train. After his return to Ames, he took a job at a local filling station and worked 12-hour shifts for 25 cents an hour as a grease monkey.
Durham earned two engineering degrees and then joined a small company that had barely survived the Depression, H. H. Henningson Engineering in Omaha, Nebraska. He started as a draftsman making $3 a day. A year later, in 1939, he returned to school for a degree in civil engineering. Eventually, Durham became a partner with Henningson. The company, which became known as HDR Inc., grew under Durham's guidance into one of this country's top engineering and architectural firms.
When asked about his success, Durham says, "I believe success in business and in life is measured by the character of the people you associate with, by the impact you are able to make on them and on society, and by the way you've met challenges and made the difficult decisions. Financial success is a result; real success is the process of accomplishing something for yourself and others."
Of his Horatio Alger Award, Durham says, "I am especially honored to receive this Award because it doesn't focus on riches or power, but on the means used to achieve success. It gives a fresher definition to accomplishment because it measures the results against the starting point. I admire and applaud the educational efforts of the Horatio Alger Association because they demonstrate that the Association not only singles out past performance, but also seeks to guarantee future successes."* Deceased