2005 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"Success is not in what you collect, it’s in what you give."
The youngest of nine children, Michael Yanney was born during the Depression in Kearny, Nebraska, in 1933. His father, who was of Lebanese descent, was born in a sod house in Nebraska. His mother emigrated from Lebanon as a child. "My parents had a loving marriage, even though it was arranged by their parents," says Yanney. "We were a close family. I fondly remember the times my father and I went fishing. We loved to be outdoors together."
Yanney's mother had only an eighth grade education, but she was highly intelligent and principled. "My mother was a strong woman," he says. "She was committed to church and the basic fundamentals of life. She taught me the importance of integrity and creditability, but she was also warm, loving, and generous. We lived in a large, supportive ethnic community and she always made me feel safe and secure."
Michael Yanney's father worked as an accountant for the Union Pacific Railroad. Later, he became a tax collector for their region, which often took him away from home. When Yanney was 11, his father suffered a series of strokes and died. With no savings or insurance, the Yanney family was in financial peril almost immediately. Yanney and his siblings went to work so that their mother could stay home and take care of them. In grade school, he shined shoes and sold vegetables from his mother's garden. "I started driving when I was 12," says Yanney. "It was my responsibility to get our vegetables to market, so I put them in the back of the truck and took off. I ran into a tree on my first day, but finally got the hang of it."
From the beginning, Yanney loved school. His mother made education a priority and told him from an early age that she wanted him to go to college. A committed student, Yanney was also active in sports and social clubs. In high school, he served as president of the student body and National Honor Society. He was elected Nebraska's No. 1 Teen Leader and became Lt. Governor of Boys State, and also competed in Boys Nation in Washington, D.C. He played football and was captain of the track team. He had to organize his time carefully because he also held several jobs throughout high school. He worked part time at a bank and was also a part-time grease monkey. During the corn harvest, he detassled corn for 50 cents an hour. He even caught minnows and sold them to a bait shop.
"I thought a lot about my future," he says. "I was committed to my education and wanted to go to college. My mother was clear about that soon after my father died. She sat me down and told me not to worry because someday I would go to college. She always told me no one could ever take education away from me. I spent a lot of time with her and my family. I loved being with them. My older brother was 12 years my senior and he took over the father role for me. He served during World War II and was caught twice by the Germans. When he came home, he wasn't quite the same, but he was a good person and a wonderful, positive role model for me."
Yanney attended Kearney State Teachers College (now the University of Nebraska), so that he could save money by continuing to live at home. As a freshman, he rode a bicycle to school. He was in a rush to finish so that he could earn more money, and he graduated in three years. During that time, he worked as a bank clerk and was a radio announcer. "I was a terrible DJ," he says, "but it paid $1 an hour and while the music played I could study. I also worked as a ticket-taker at the drive-in theater." Even though he usually held two jobs and was taking extra classes, Yanney was president of his fraternity, served on the student council, and still managed to stay on the honor roll.
Yanney graduated in 1955 with a degree in business and then went into the Army to serve during the Korean War. While his entire unit was sent to Korea, Yanney was sent to Heidelberg, Germany. "I don't know how I got so lucky," he says. "It was an awesome experience to see the rebuilding efforts of Germany and to travel throughout Europe. It gave me a more global aspect of the world and deeply influenced my life."
While in Germany, Yanney took correspondence courses through the American Institute of Banking. He then picked out a bank he wanted to work for in Denver, Colorado, and wrote to the chairman asking for an interview and a chance to get on their executive training program as soon as he was released from service. Impressed with his confidence and ambition, the chairman hired Yanney and developed him for bank leadership. About that time, Yanney met his future wife, Gail. After three dates, they were engaged, and then married within five months. Gail was attending medical school in Omaha, so Yanney went to work for the National Bank of Omaha in 1960. In 1977, he left Omaha National and began his own bank. Three banks later, in 1984, he founded America First Companies, which has become one of the largest private investment banking firms in the Midwest with total assets in excess of $3.6 billion and 9,000 employees. Today, America First Companies has become Burlington Capital Group LLC, and Yanney serves as chairman.
When Yanney thinks about the successes of his life, he says, "I don't think success is in what you collect; it's in what you give-especially when you give of yourself. In my family, we never had much, but my mother always encouraged us to share with others. She taught me to do the best with what talents God gave me to help make my community better. That's become a significant part of my life. I admire the work the Horatio Alger Association is doing to help at-risk youth. Through mentorship, you can completely change a child's life for the better and I can't think of anything that benefits a community-and the nation-more than that."