1999 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"Education is the most liberating opportunity you can provide to others."
Born in 1939 in St. Louis, Missouri, the fifth of six children, Joseph Pichler describes his parents and siblings as hardworking, loving, responsible, and faithful. His father, who emigrated from Austria in 1911, was 53 when Joe was born. Pichler's father worked nearly his entire life as a waiter, saving and dreaming of the day when he would one day buy his own restaurant. In the meantime, Pichler's parents taught their children to respect all people. "My parents didn't judge people by their occupations," he says. "To them, the person who cleared tables was just as important and valued as the chef. They taught us that every job is important because it contributes to others. That is a value I still hold dear."
In 1948, Pichler's father finally realized his dream and bought the restaurant where he had worked for several years. He didn't have long to enjoy his accomplishment, however. Within two years, he suffered a stroke that left him with partial paralysis and impaired speech until his death four years later. Two years after his father's stroke, Pichler's mother was diagnosed with cancer. She died three months later. Pichler's newly married sister cared for him until he went to college. At that time, he lived with his eldest brother.
Pichler attended a Jesuit high school that was challenging academically, but which gave him a love of learning and a belief in himself. He worked weekends and summers at a gas station. He attended Notre Dame, and can name 20 jobs he held while working his way through college. He washed dishes for $5 a day, scrubbed floors, sold sandwiches, corrected papers, and tutored students. He was a mail carrier during the holidays, and each summer he worked at a St. Louis brewery. "I loved it there," says Pichler. "Many of the people I worked with hadn't finished high school. They all encouraged me to stay in school and get my education. They had never had that opportunity, but were all for me having mine. In my life there has always been someone there to encourage me to keep going." Pichler won a scholarship in his junior year, which helped finance his last two years at Notre Dame.
Although he worked 34 hours a week, Pichler, a business major, was an excellent student. He applied for a Woodrow Wilson scholarship for postgraduate work and was Notre Dame's first business student to win the prestigious liberal arts award. He graduated magna cum laude from Notre Dame in 1961 and earned a master's degree in business from the University of Chicago in 1963. He continued at Chicago, earning his doctorate in 1966.
Pichler taught business at the University of Kansas for 15 years. In 1974, he became dean of the University of Kansas. While in that position, he was asked to join the board of the Dillon Companies, a supermarket chain headquartered in central Kansas. Two years later, the company named Pichler vice president. In 1983, Dillon merged with The Kroger Co., and three years later, Pichler became president. Today, he serves as chairman and CEO of The Kroger Co.
Pichler is often asked to give advice to students. He tells them: Work hard; be honest; invest in as much education as possible and continue to learn throughout your lifetime; find a job that allows you to believe in what you are doing; be enthusiastic and joyful in your work; celebrate the achievements of others; respect the dignity of everyone you meet; remember that the differences among us enrich our world and are to be valued; train yourself to communicate well; avoid gossip; don't be afraid of success; learn from your mistakes; take care of yourself physically, mentally, and morally; contribute time and talent to at least one community activity; cherish your family.
Pichler says his Horatio Alger Award holds special meaning for him. "The Association puts into effect what I believe about education and about helping those who want to develop themselves, but who don't have the financial opportunity to do it on their own. It is a privilege to be a part of this endeavor."