2003 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"The resiliency of the human spirit is no less present in one walk of life than another. We must all find the most meaningful measure of success for ourselves, and then set out to exceed our own expectations."
J. Barry Griswell was born in 1949 in Atlanta. His father, who battled alcoholism, had very little education. He worked in a factory and sold used cars. Griswell's parents divorced, remarried, and divorced again when he was four. After that, he saw his father on occasional weekend visits.
Griswell's mother, who was married at the age of 16, worked hard to raise her two sons and provide for them. During World War II she worked as a riveter on B-29s. After the divorce, she worked as a PBX operator for the Atlanta Police Department. One year later, she became the switchboard operator for a transport company, where she worked for the next 30 years. After a full day with the trucking company, she worked at night as a receptionist for an emergency clinic. "My mother had to be everything to us," says Griswell. "But she was a survivor. She taught me the value of hard work and doing the right thing."
Even though she worked two jobs, June Griswell had a difficult time providing for her family. Often, they were forced to leave an apartment because she could not pay the rent. In Griswell's first 16 years, they moved 16 times. They stayed in the same area, but the constant upheaval and lack of security took its toll on the family. Griswell's elementary school years were difficult. He had a hard time reading and attended summer school to keep up with his peers. He and his brother were latchkey kids for most of their lives. There was no one to help them with homework or to even make sure they were doing it.
Griswell began working at an early age. He and his brother had a paper route and he also worked as a grocery sacker. In high school, he worked as a lifeguard and also for the trucking company where his mother was employed. He loaded trucks on weekends, making an impressive $3 an hour. That job allowed him to buy a car and take care of his own expenses throughout high school, college, and graduate school.
When he was 12, Griswell's mother remarried and had another son. Unfortunately, her second husband was alcoholic and abusive, which only added to the family's problems. Five years later, that marriage ended in divorce. About the same time, during his early adolescence, Griswell became involved in the Atlanta's Boys Club of America. He credits the organization with keeping him out of trouble and off the streets. Looking back on his early life, Griswell says he has few negative feelings about it. "I have a positive outlook on life, which I think is half the battle. Those early years were difficult, but I had many positives. I never went without a meal or a Christmas. My mother got me involved in church and that became a constant part of my life. I never had a time when I felt sorry for myself."
By the time he was in the eighth grade, Griswell was 6'4" and well on his way to his adult height of 6'9". He became an avid basketball player and a star of his high school team. The first member of his family to attend college, Griswell earned both athletic and academic scholarships to Berry College, a private Christian school in northern Georgia that required its students to work on campus and attend chapel. To supplement his scholarships, Griswell worked 20 hours a week in the school bookstore.
Griswell planned to play professional basketball or, if that didn't work out, be a teacher and coach. During his sophomore year, however, an economics course changed his direction. He graduated with a degree in business administration in 1971. He worked that summer with the trucking company and then enrolled in graduate school at Stetson University in Florida, earning a master's degree in finance in less than two years. In 1972, he accepted a position in a management development program at Metropolitan Life. Over the next 10 years, he was promoted steadily. Eventually, he served as CEO of MetLife Marketing Corporation. Today he is the retired chairman and CEO of The Principal Financial Group, and serves as the president of the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines.
Griswell says that for him, success is not about achieving monetary goals or the highest rung in a corporation. "I think success is measured by how much you give toward achieving something worthwhile. If you can look back on your life and know that you gave it your best shot, then that can be counted as a success. Doing your best at whatever it is you choose to do will help you to achieve more than you ever thought possible." Griswell believes in helping others to learn and grow. "My advice is to never see yourself as a person with limits. If you do, then let mentors help you to go beyond those limits. Be open to the idea that you can achieve great things if you want to. Find your true potential and move toward it. That's a great philosophy. I have lived my life with an attitude of taking responsibility, being accountable for what I do, and doing the right thing."