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1992 Horatio Alger Award Winner

Thomas L. Harken*

Founder, Harken Partnership for Literacy, LP
President, Harken & Associates, LLC

"Today’s steps to success are genius, talent, luck, and education—then all you need is unstoppable drive, determination, and a willingness to work hard."

Grandson of a German immigrant, Tom Harken grew up in Lakeview, Michigan. As a child, he contracted a debilitating illness. Recuperation was slow, and when he returned to school, classmates teased him about being so far behind. He was functionally illiterate, a secret he kept for years. Leaving school, Tom worked in his father's small grocery.

As a teenager, he asked a friend to fill out the paperwork needed to join the Air Force. During his off-duty hours, he sold vacuum cleaners door to door. After the service, he continued peddling vacuums, the only job that didn't require him to fill out an application. Knocking on 100 doors a day might result in only one sale, but eventually he was inducted into the Kirby Hall of Fame.

Later, he sold recreational vehicles, becoming the country's top broker. In 1979, he opened a Casa Olé restaurant, ultimately owning 13 Mexican restaurants and six Italian, with more than 600 employees prior to selling the business and retiring. Along with being featured on the cover of Parade Magazine and appearing on CBS, ABC and PBS, Tom has delivered hundreds of motivational speeches throughout the country.

When Harken's sons were young and asked him to read them a story, he couldn't do it. His wife Melba would cover for him, telling them he was busy and that she would read to them. Hurt, Mr. Harken became determined to overcome this embarrassing inadequacy. With Melba's help, he began the slow, tedious process of learning to read. When his grandchildren were young, it was his delight to read to them. Passionate in the fight against illiteracy, he still speaks to literacy groups. Mr. Harken’s life journey is chronicled in his autobiography, The Millionaire's Secret.

Tom Harken entreats youth to never take freedom for granted. "Love God, family, and country," he says. "Set goals and make them happen. This is still the land of opportunity for those willing to work for it." Mentors taught Mr. Harken the common sense values of truth and integrity, which he in turn passes on to young people. In his talks to youth, he stresses this: "Steps to success are genius, talent, luck and education, then all you need is unstoppable drive, determination and a willingness to work hard."

Mr. Harken calls the Horatio Alger Award "the Oscar, the Emmy, and the Tony of real life." He praises the Association for giving scholarships to deserving students who carry the free-enterprise banner forward.

* Deceased