1998 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"No matter how important you think success is, it is not so important that you shouldn't care how you achieve it."
The son of Russian immigrants, Alfred Lerner was born in the early 1930s in Brooklyn. His father came to New York in his teens; his mother came in her 20s. They met in Brooklyn, married, and opened what was then called a candy store, which included a soda fountain and items such as cigarettes, cigars, and ice cream. The family lived in three small rooms behind the store until Lerner was six. At that time, they moved to Queens and set up another candy store, which they also lived behind. At an early age, Lerner came to understand the value and necessity of hard work as he watched his parents put in 18-hour days, seven days a week.
The Lerners lived a well-ordered life that, in addition to honor and hard work, emphasized the value of education. While Lerner's mother had earned a college degree in Russia before her immigration, his father had experienced little formal schooling. Still, he was highly intelligent and attended night school when Lerner was young. Both his parents enjoyed reading, which was their favorite pastime. Like his parents, Lerner was an able student. He tested for and was accepted to Brooklyn Technical High School, one of three public high schools in New York City that required an entrance exam. After high school, Lerner was accepted to study liberal arts at Columbia University. He paid his way by working summers. He had always helped in his parents' store, but spent most summers working in construction. He also had a job parking cars, and spent one summer as a driving instructor.
While in college, Lerner enrolled in the Platoon Leader Program, which included Marine Corps training in Quantico and Paris Island. It was a difficult program and Lerner recalled that many of his classmates did not pass. Lerner said he learned an important lesson there. "I learned that when you have to, you can do a lot more than you think you can," he said. "I also learned that when you have responsibilities, you take care of everyone else before you worry about yourself." Upon graduation in 1955, Lerner was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps. He completed his tour of active duty in 1958, after achieving the rank of first lieutenant.
Up to that point, Lerner had no career plan. He realized early on that a permanent military life was not for him, but he was unsure what he would do when his term was over. It turned out that selling furniture for $75 a week, less than he had been making in the Marines, was the only job he could find. He worked for Ethan Allen in 1960, first in Baltimore, and then in Cleveland. In 1963, he joined Basset. Two years later, Lerner decided it was time to do something that would earn him more money than he was getting selling furniture. He began syndicating apartment buildings with a friend who had been a real estate broker. After they bought their third building, Lerner turned over his furniture business to another friend. In 1970, he and a partner acquired an electrical testing equipment company, which grew very successfully and was eventually sold. By 1979, Lerner owned a 50 percent interest in 11,000 apartments known as Town and Country, which later became a real estate investment trust. Lerner served as chairman of Town and Country, a leading owner of multifamily residential properties in the Mid-Atlantic region. His primary activity, however, was serving as the chairman and CEO of MBNA, the nation's largest issuer of affinity credit cards.
Throughout his career, Lerner took chances to succeed. His advice to youth: "Don't be worried about finding things that make you happy. You'll be happy when you have a good day and not so happy when you don't. But it would be a shame to get involved in things you don't care about."
When talking about the honor of his Horatio Alger Award, Lerner said, "The American experience, which is the marriage of a free democratic political system to an open economic system that is open to everyone, is the most remarkable thing in history. The American Dream is out there still, but you need to be smarter rather than luckier today."* Deceased