2003 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"Believe there is nothing you can't do until you prove you can't."
Born in 1931 in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, at the height of the Depression, Ron Waranch was the second son of a Lithuanian immigrant. His father, who served in the cavalry and was a hero in World War I, had an entrepreneurial spirit. Before Waranch was born, his father had a thriving apple orchard business in West Virginia, but he had major losses after a freeze destroyed his crop. He then invested heavily in the stock market and was wiped out in the 1929 crash. When Waranch was two, his father made one more attempt at business. He moved the family to Corpus Christi, Texas, where he entered the oil supply business.
For the next four years, the Waranch family lived in a one-room motel. Their room came with a two-burner stove and an icebox, but the family shared the outhouse behind the motel with other renters. Each night, Waranch's parents took the mattress off the only bed in the room and put it on the floor for the boys. As his father's business began to grow, he converted a portion of his warehouse into two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a kitchen for the family home. "I was six years old by then and it was the first time we had a flush toilet," said Waranch.
When World War II started, Waranch's father had trouble getting metal supplies for the drillers. He decided to try his own luck at drilling for oil. Four dry wells later, he was broke. "That third failure did him in," said Waranch. "My father sat down and just waited to die. He never worked again." Waranch's mother, whom he describes as "sickly," got a job as a bookkeeper to keep the family going financially. Waranch began working when he was 10, making deliveries for a pharmacy. He also had morning and evening paper routes. In high school, he worked part time during the school year and full time each summer for a local cleaners.
Waranch's mother instilled in him the importance of education, even though college was never mentioned. He liked school and was a good student, but he didn't give his future much thought. "I lived day to day," he said. Overshadowed by his father's doting attention toward his older brother, Waranch worked hard in school and in his jobs to win approval that never seemed to materialize. He graduated from high school in 1948 at the age of 16. He attended Del Mar College, a two-year school, and lived on his own in a rented room. Later, he transferred to North Texas State College (now the University of North Texas) in Denton. He worked his way through school at a company that made tire patches and also as a riveter for an aircraft company. While in school, he joined a Marine program entitled Platoon Leaders Class (PLC), which had a two-summer schedule in Quantico, Virginia, and a commission upon graduation. "I signed up because they offered clothing and pay," said Waranch, "and also I'd never had a vacation in my life. I thought it would be fun to go to Virginia."
During his first summer with the PLC, the Korean War broke out. Being patriotic and wanting the benefits of the GI Bill, Waranch resigned from the PLC and went on active duty. Somehow, he missed basic training and found himself nine days later on a transport ship headed for Korea. "I had never even fired a rifle," he said.
Waranch served with a Military Police Unit in Korea, and also was stationed in Japan. He loved his time in the Marines and took pride in his service, but he began to realize that getting an education was going to be important when he returned home. "I knew that without an education I would limit my opportunities," he said. "I wanted to get back to school, study hard, and try to make something of myself."
In 1952, Waranch returned to North Texas and graduated in 1954 with a degree in accounting. Arthur Young & Company recruited him and one of the firm's partners, Leon Smith, served as Waranch's mentor. "He took an interest in me and really pushed me to take on a lot of responsibility," he said. "I was always good at doing that." In 1957, he obtained his CPA certificate and supplemented his income doing bookkeeping and tax returns. Later, he became controller for Pan American Sulphur Company. Next, he joined Trousdale Construction, a large privately owned sub-divider and builder in Los Angeles.
In 1962, Waranch became executive vice president with Trousdale. Five years later, he became the company's president. He merged Trousdale with a New York Stock Exchange company and continued on as president of the Trousdale Division. In 1972, he resigned to start his own company, Villa Pacific Building Company. He nearly went bankrupt his first year in business, but he persevered. Waranch became a dominant home builder in Southern California and was responsible for building more than 15,000 residential units during his career.
Looking back over his varied and successful career, Waranch said, "I've always known that if you work hard and don't give up, you're going to achieve." He advised youth to "believe in yourself, do the best you can, give 100 percent to your responsibilities, treat all people equally, fulfill your commitments, maintain integrity, always be loyal, return all phone calls, and have faith in a greater power. Believe there is nothing you can't do until you prove you can't."
Proud to be a recipient of the Horatio Alger Award, Waranch said, "I want my life story to serve as a role model for the Horatio Alger Scholars. I took advantage of opportunities that came my way and I hope they will do the same."* Deceased