2010 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"Today a college degree is a necessity for upward mobility."
Jenard Gross was born in 1929 in Nashville, Tennessee. His father owned a small grocery store there, but when the Depression came three weeks after Jenard's birth, his father was forced to close the store. Shortly thereafter, the family moved to Kansas City, Missouri. Jenard's father spent the next four years working as a truck driver. In 1934, the Gross family moved back to Tennessee, where Jenard's father opened a new store in a small town called Dupontonia, which was named in honor of the DuPont rayon plant nearby.
For several years, the Gross family lived in a rented triplex. "We were fortunate during the Depression," says Jenard Gross, "because running a grocery store always meant we had food. But money was still tight. In 1938, when I was nine years old, my father was doing well enough that he bought a house for us. His payment on a $4,000 house was $19 a month, and that wasn't always easy to make. But in those days, everyone trusted each other. Men would come by and knock on the door to see if my mother had any chores they could do for a meal. She would always fix them soup or eggs. We never locked our doors and we left the keys in the car. It was completely different than it is today."
Jenard Gross started working at an early age. He cut grass and sold magazine subscriptions to Liberty, Saturday Evening Post, and Ladies Home Journal. During World War II, he planted a Victory Garden. The family raised chickens and Jenard sold eggs to neighbors. When he was 13, Jenard began selling women's shoes on Saturdays. He earned an average of $5 a day, but was able to triple that amount during the holidays. He saved enough money to buy a suit for his Bar Mitzvah, which cost $35.
World War II started when Jenard was in the eighth grade. His father closed the grocery store and took a night course at the local high school to learn sheet metal work. Throughout the war he helped to build dive bombers at the Vultee Aircraft Corporation. Later he worked in a filling station, and eventually he went back to running a small grocery store.
Jenard Gross was an honor student and the sports editor of his school newspaper. He graduated near the top of his class and enrolled at Vanderbilt University. "No one in my family had ever been to college," he says. "When I was in the tenth grade I had to make a decision about working half time and going to school half time. Many boys in my town did that. But I knew if I did I wouldn't have enough credits to go to college. I felt I would be better off with a college education, so I decided then to pursue that as a goal."
While in college, Jenard continued to live at home and worked on weekends and throughout each summer to pay for his expenses. To save money, he increased his class load, graduated Magna Cum Laude with a degree in psychology, and as a member of Phi Beta Kappa. He also managed save $1,200 during his college years.
Upon graduation in 1950, Jenard Gross went to work for a local furniture company. The following year he moved to Kansas City for a sales job in medical equipment. He was drafted into the Army in 1953 and was stationed in New Jersey. During this time, he played the stock market and accumulated more than $20,000 by the time he was honorably discharged from service.
Interested in real estate investment, Mr. Gross bought two lots that were slated for small apartment buildings. When he discovered he could not afford the estimates he was given to build an eight-unit building, he decided to build it himself. He paid an architect $400 to come by each day and supervise his work. After developing his two lots successfully, he was in business as a developer. In fact, he became one of Houston's most well-known apartment developers and has over the years built nearly 24,000 apartment units and rehabbed another 4,500 units.
"I was lucky," says Jenard Gross. "Real estate development is something I just stumbled into and thoroughly loved. There is something wonderful about seeing a piece of dirt and getting out there and visualizing something rising out of the ground. When you see the lights come on and people living in your buildings, there is great professional satisfaction. I believe that if you love what you are doing, you will be successful. I never felt like I was getting up in the morning to go to work. I think that if I talked with someone who is in a job he can barely tolerate, my advice would be to do something else—even if he is making a lot of money at it. Find the thing you can't live without, and then stay with it."
When asked how he defines success, Mr. Gross says, "First, I think it's having a good family life—and the highpoint of my life was when I married Dr. Gail Gross. We have been blessed with our son Shawn and his wife Kate and our delightful grandchildren. After that, I think success can be defined as having a good economic life, a good social life, and reaching back and helping others to have the opportunities which I was given. For me, that's what life is all about—giving others a chance to do what you have done, and most importantly getting a good education."
Mr. Gross believes there are as many or more opportunities available in America today as ever before. He says, "The greatest days for America are still ahead of us. When I was a kid in the Depression, they used to say that America would never have as many opportunities as we'd had before the Depression. But those who believed that were wrong. I believe that providing opportunities for the next generation is one of the greatest things we can do for our country. But we must have a well-educated society to stay on top. That's why this Horatio Alger Award means so much to me. This is a group of like-minded people who focus on education and supporting those who have ability but need help. The scholarships give them the opportunity to succeed, and then we all benefit from what these young people will choose to do with that education. It's exciting and motivating."
Jenard Gross Activities and Honors
Mr. Gross has been active in real estate for over 50 years as president of Gross Builders and a number of related entities. He was also chairman and chief executive officer of United Savings Association of Texas, the largest savings and loan in the state. He was chairman of Gulf Coast Savings Association. He served on the board of Weingarten Realty Investment Trust, which is listed on the New York Stock Exchange. He also served on the board of Delta Lloyds Insurance Company and on the Houston Branch of the Federal Reserve Board for six years.
He has served as president and chairman of the Houston Grand Opera and as a director of the Houston Symphony and the Salvation Army. He was treasurer for the San Jacinto Girl Scouts Council. He was president of the U.S. Friends of English National Opera, and president of Westwood Country Club. He serves as trustee of the Pauline Stearne Wolff Foundation. He served on the executive committee of the Greater Houston Partnership and chaired the Economic Development Council and the Education Policy Committee. He served on the board of the Houston Annenberg Challenge. He was a member of the Young Presidents' Organization and World Business Council. He also served as president of the Houston Apartment Association as well as the National Apartment Association. He chaired the University of Texas Health Science Center Development Board and served on the board of MD Anderson Hospital. He chaired the board of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute. He also served on the board of regents of the Texas Southern University, the largest historically African-American university in the United States, and as chair of the Texas Southern University Foundation. He co-founded the Phi Beta Kappa Alumni Association of Greater Houston and founded its scholarship program, which is currently the largest in the nation.
In 2001, Jenard Gross was honored by the Houston Independent School District with the naming of a local elementary school in recognition of his commitment to preservation and improvement of urban school systems and his contribution to education.