A well-known businessman received an award for his philanthropy. During the ceremony honoring his good works, he was asked to share some of the lessons he had learned throughout his life and career that inspired him to think of others.

He spoke of his childhood and the poverty his family endured in the rural South. “No matter how tough times were, my grandmother was always looking to help anyone she felt was in need.

“One day, a neighbor came to our kitchen door and told my grandmother he was hungry and hadn’t eaten in days. She invited him in and served him a good portion of what she had been preparing for our supper. When the man left, I asked my grandmother why she was always feeding other people when there was barely enough for us to eat.

“My grandmother said, ‘The only thing that matters in life is giving and serving. That’s the most important lesson you need to learn.’ ”

The businessman went on to tell how he took his grandmother’s words to heart. Throughout his life and career, he made sure to share his wisdom and good fortune with others and include them in his successes as well. That sterling example defines the essence of the annual Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans. I recently returned from the Horatio Alger Awards in Washington, D.C., where we inducted 13 new members and handed out $21 million in need-based scholarships to 2,500 deserving students. Those annual gifts total $159 million since 1984.

Founded in 1947, the association is dedicated to the simple-but-powerful belief that hard work, honesty and determination can conquer all obstacles. It honors the outstanding leaders who have achieved remarkable successes despite adversity. Horatio Alger members and friends award scholarships to students with critical financial need who have exhibited the same qualities as members.

Past honorees include three U.S. presidents — Eisenhower, Ford and Reagan — plus Colin Powell, Mario Cuomo, Bob Hope, Oprah Winfrey, entrepreneur Wayne Huizenga, astronaut Chuck Yeager, Carol Burnett and leaders in various fields. Members are always sworn in at the U.S. Supreme Court.

The association bears the name of the renowned author Horatio Alger Jr., who wrote more than 100 novels about rags-to-riches stories in which the heroes overcame adversity through education and the help of role models. The association was founded to combat a growing attitude among young people that economic opportunity was a thing of the past. The association strives to motivate and educate our nation’s young people about the economic and personal opportunities afforded them by the promise of the American free enterprise system.

I’ve been fortunate to be a member since 2004, along with some of the most successful and accomplished people you can imagine. But they are not the most impressive guests at the event. Every year, it’s the students who steal the show.

We heard stories about kids in foster care, raised by grandparents because their parents rejected them, and even stories about homelessness. We heard stories of drugs, suicides, murders, beatings, parents in prison and much more. Other kids had families dealing with physical and mental disabilities or illnesses.

I was thrilled this year to hear about the 71% college graduation rate for our scholars, compared to the national low-income graduation rate of 16%. These students understand that a winner never quits, and a quitter never wins. The average family income of scholarship-recipient families is under $20,000, yet the students’ grade-point average is around 3.7 on a scale of 4.0. My high school record pales in comparison to their accomplishments.

These students are the epitome of resilience, positive attitude, determination, integrity and compassion. They know that to get ahead they must put in the effort and the hard work. They already understand there are no free lunches.

Education — without question — must be one of America’s top priorities. Education is the key to unlocking opportunity.

My mother was a schoolteacher, which is one reason why education ranked high on our family agenda. For years, one of my favorite slogans has been: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”

I couldn’t be more proud of any organization I belong to.

Mackay’s Moral: If you want to be in the presence of greatness, spend an evening with a motivated student.

 

Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or e-mail harvey@mackay.com.