1999 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"Don’t be afraid to have fun."
Lou Dobbs was born in 1945 in Childress, Texas, but the family moved to Rupert, Idaho, when he was young. He enjoyed the rural aspects of Idaho, where he could hunt, fish, and ride horses. "We didn't have much in material goods," says Dobbs, "but I felt I had all a young, active boy needed."
His father worked for a propane business in Rupert, a farming community of about 2,500 people. His mother worked for a furniture store as a bookkeeper. Their modest house was on the outskirts of town and Dobbs remembers his home life as being warm and loving. Both his parents worked hard, but they still found plenty of time to encourage their son in his interests. "Their values were straightforward," he says, "They taught me honesty and hard work."
Every morning when Dobbs entered the kitchen, he found his father reading the newspaper. In fact, reading and keeping up with current events was an integral part of the Dobbs household. "My mother taught me to read before I even started school," he says. "I always read well beyond my years." An inquisitive child, Dobbs was a good student who says that in addition to hunting and fishing, one of his favorite things to do was riding his bike to the Rupert library, where he would spend as much time as possible reading.
By the time Dobbs was nine, he was working each summer in the potato fields. His first job was picking potatoes, but by the time he was 11 he was lifting 100-pound sacks of potatoes onto trucks. In high school, he pooled his money with several friends to buy a truck. They formed a hay hauling business in which they earned five cents a bale. Their work day started at 3 a.m. and didn't end until dark, which in the summer was 8 p.m. Dobbs did that every summer from the time he was 16 until he completed college.
In high school, Dobbs was an able student and well-liked. He was the student body president during his senior year and captained the debate team. He credits his teacher, Elizabeth Toolson, for his love of debate and for opening his eyes to a much larger world outside Rupert. She encouraged him to apply for a scholarship to Harvard, and no one was more surprised than Dobbs when he got it.
Even though his background was vastly different from most of his classmates, Dobbs felt well-prepared for the challenges at Harvard. After attending a debate at MIT between economists Paul Samuelson and Milton Friedman, Dobbs came away invigorated. "I was absolutely mesmerized by Friedman. For the first time I had a sense of the relationship between economics and politics. That night I understood the relationship between capitalism and democracy in terms that I carry with me to this day," says Dobbs. He made his major economics and set about getting all he could out of his time at Harvard.
During his senior year, however, Dobbs was devastated with the sudden death of his father. "His death took away my direction for a time," he says. After graduation, Dobbs worked with at-risk children. He also did sensitivity training, worked with the National Alliance of Businessmen, and worked on pilot projects for the urban unemployed for the Department of Labor. Needing a larger income, he took a job in Los Angeles with Union Bank. Dobbs worked on the first cash management systems for corporations, including Alcoa and Pittsburgh Plate Glass. Over the course of the next two years, Dobbs was successful, but didn't feel fulfilled. He surprised everyone when he began talking about becoming a reporter. "Everyone I knew who was a reporter seemed to be having a lot more fun," he says. When he gave his notice at the bank his supervisor thought he was crazy to give up a career that would be financially rewarding for one that was not. But Dobbs told him money wasn't important.
His first news job took him to Yuma, Arizona, working as a police and fire reporter for $75 a week, which was a pay cut of about 80 percent from his banking days. Right away, Dobbs knew he was doing what he was meant to do. Rising at 4 a.m., he reviewed the police reports, talked to the sheriffs, deputies, and firemen, and then ran to get on the air by 6 a.m. His work got him noticed and two years later he was the news anchor for Channel 8 in Phoenix. A short time later, he was picked up by JUNG-TV in Seattle, where he worked as a news anchor and business reporter.
In 1980, Dobbs joined CNN as the chief economics correspondent and anchor of Moneyline. Today, Dobbs is CNN's anchor and managing editor of Lou Dobbs Tonight. He is also an editorial columnist and syndicated radio show host. Lou Dobbs Tonight attracts CNN's second-largest audience after Larry King Live, with about 800,000 viewers per night. He also lectures widely.
Dobbs says, "There's an old Chinese expression that goes: If you enjoy your work, you'll never have a job. Since the day I became a journalist, I haven't had a job."
Honored by his Horatio Alger Award, Dobbs says, "Being involved with the Association has given me more opportunities to mentor and give support to our nation's deserving youth."