2001 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"Knowledge is a resource that is virtually limitless and one that can and must be acquired throughout our lifetime."
Marvin Pomerantz was the eighth of nine children born into a Polish immigrant family that settled in Iowa in 1912. Eventually, the family moved to Des Moines, where Marvin was born in 1930. His father was a peddler who walked from farm to farm selling brooms. When he could afford it, he bought a truck and sold his wares to the farm communities of rural Iowa, then purchased their scrap iron for a return load on his truck.
The Pomerantz family came to America to escape the oppression faced by Jews in a Russian occupied Warsaw. Pomerantz's father made sure his children valued the opportunities available to everyone in their new land and instilled in his children a love of freedom and democracy. "My father always told us education was a priceless commodity-something that could never be taken away from you," said Pomerantz. "He told me I would go to college, but at the time I didn't see how that would happen."
The year before Pomerantz was born, his father started a reconditioning bag business. All the children were recruited to help with the fledgling enterprise. Pomerantz was one of the youngest, but he was no exception to the work rule, nor did he want to be. He remembered when he was four and calling upon a grocery store with his father to purchase their empty sacks. "I asked the grocer if he had any used sacks to sell," recalled Pomerantz. "Even though my father was a few steps behind me when I asked about the bags, the grocer asked me what I was paying. I told him three cents a bag. He said it was a deal and we bought the bags. That's my first recollection of a commercial transaction in my career."
When Pomerantz was 10, his mother died from a kidney ailment. Her death was a tremendous loss to the family, but Pomerantz took solace in the love of his father and siblings. He continued to work alongside his brothers and sisters, occasionally driving a large truck at the age of 11, and then consistently at the age of 14. Pomerantz said that his father was a mentor who taught him about business and life. He said, "My father had only had a junior high education, but he taught me to believe in something and stay with it. He taught me to never compromise my values and to always stand up for my beliefs."
By the time Pomerantz was in high school, education started to take on more importance. He attended the University of Iowa, majoring in commerce. Since he was involved in the family business throughout his college years, he felt a need to finish school as quickly as possible. He attended school during summers and finished in less than four years.
He worked hard to expand product lines in the family business, which proved profitable. In 1958, however, his father died and Pomerantz and his brothers decided to break up the company. In 1961, Pomerantz took his share of his father's company and used it to start his own enterprise, the Great Plains Bag Corporation, which manufactured multiwall as well as plastic bags. A sister corporation, called Mid-America Group, was also founded to develop industrial buildings and office parks. Ten years later, he sold Great Plains to Continental Can Company, Inc., but remained president and general manager until 1976.
When International Harvester was having difficulties in the early 1980s, Pomerantz was hired as a consultant. Months later, he became president of the company's Diversified Group, and a year later was promoted to executive vice president of the company. In 1986, Pomerantz formed Gaylord Container Corporation, which is ranked as one of the top 10 containerboard producers in the country. He served as that company's chairman and CEO until 2002.
Pomerantz believed education is such a valuable resource that he devoted much of his life to improving education in his home state of Iowa. From 1987 to 1993 and from 1995 to 1996, Pomerantz was president of the Iowa Board of Regents, which oversees the University of Iowa, Iowa State University, and the University of Northern Iowa. He also served for 21 years as a member of the University of Iowa Foundation Board. In 1997, Iowa Governor Branstad appointed Pomerantz to head the Commission on Educational Excellence for the 21st Century to study the state's elementary and secondary schools.
In addition to his time and management skills, Pomerantz gave substantial gifts to the University of Iowa, where the school's business library is named after him, and he and his wife endowed a professorship. A brother and a sister-in-law joined Pomerantz and his wife in providing a major contribution toward the development of the Pomerantz Family Pavilion, which is a part of the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. He and his wife also agreed to contribute to the Careers Building, which houses career and orientation activities. Other major contributions by Pomerantz have benefited other Regent universities and private universities, as well as many philanthropic causes.
Pomerantz said his Horatio Alger Award is an honor. He was especially interested in the scholarship program. "One thing I know for sure," he said, "is that no one can succeed without support and assistance from others. That was certainly true for me. There were many people in my life who significantly influenced me and shaped my thinking- my parents, my wife and children, my brothers and sisters, and several teachers and mentors."* Deceased