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1986 Horatio Alger Award Winner

Harold Burson


"Life is like a spinning top. You know what happens when it stops spinning."

Born in Memphis, Tennessee, Harold Burson was the eldest child of English immigrants who had been in America only one year before he was born. Burson was eight when the Depression forced his parents to close their small hardware store. In addition to this financial setback, Burson's father had to contend with chronic ill health due to poison gas attacks he suffered during World War I. The burden of supporting the family of five fell to Burson's mother. They rented a small house for $15 a month, and Burson's mother sold clothes door to door in poor neighborhoods.

Gifted intellectually, Burson learned to read at the age of three. His father, who had not finished high school, taught him to read by starting with the headlines of the morning newspaper, and they soon progressed to the news stories. By the time he was six, Burson could name President Coolidge's cabinet and the nine Supreme Court justices. During high school, Burson worked for a Memphis newspaper as a copy boy. He maintained his excellent grades in school while working weekends and holidays at the paper. After graduating from high school at 15, he enrolled in the University of Mississippi. He earned his expenses by serving as campus correspondent for the Commercial Appeal. During his last 18 months at Ole Miss, Burson served as the school's news director.

He graduated in 1940, and took a job as public relations director for the H. K. Ferguson Company. Three years later, he entered the Army as a combat engineer and after the end of the World War II, became a news correspondent. During that time, he reported on the Nuremberg Trials. Rather than go back to his former employer in 1946, he set up his own public relations firm, with the Ferguson engineering-construction company as his first client.

In 1952, William Marsteller, head of an advertising agency, collaborated with Burson on a project. That led to the establishment in 1953 of Burson-Marsteller, a public relations firm allied with but separate from Marsteller's advertising agency. In 1983, Burson-Marsteller became the world's largest public relations firm. Today, the company's client list includes such well-known businesses as Coca-Cola and McDonald's.

Burson's advice to young people is to look to the future. He believes there will be great opportunities in the area of technology. "Young adults should focus on the areas of the economy that are growing," he says.

Harold Burson says his Horatio Alger Award is a symbol that recognizes the degree of success he has accomplished. "It means a great deal to me. I am continually impressed with the number of people who are impressed I have it."