The youngest of four sons, Thomas Haggai was born in 1931 in Kalamazoo, Michigan, to a Syrian-Lebanese father and a mother whose forebears arrived in Maine in the 1660s. Haggai’s father was a Baptist minister and seminary teacher who brought home $14 a week during his son’s childhood. At the age of 12, Haggai was stricken with a life-threatening illness. When he realized he was going to live, he began his service to God and preached his first sermon in Boston.
Those sermons often took place at Tremont Temple, one of the most upscale churches in Boston. “When I preached there one month, my father would require me the next time to address a rescue mission so that I would never forget that God cares about all of His children,” says Haggai, who was allowed to speak on the conditions that he obeyed his parents, achieved all As in school, made a profit on his paper route and shared that profit with his household and church, and did well in baseball.
At 16, Haggai moved south to attend college on a baseball scholarship. In his first role as senior minister at a church in Rock Hill, South Carolina, 1,200 members joined within five years. In 1956, he became the first senior minister of a newly established church in High Point, North Carolina. His reputation as an inspirational speaker grew so rapidly that in 1963, he made the difficult decision to resign from the pulpit and carry his ministry into the business community.
As a professional speaker, Haggai worked under contract for General Motors, Mayflower Moving, the Belk department store chain, and the Pentagon. Although the average speaker delivers about 75 addresses a year, Haggai averaged 250. Often during the Vietnam War, he would deliver up to 10 speeches in a 24-hour period.
From 1975 to 1977, Haggai stepped in as personnel director of the Boy Scouts of America. During that period, he was also elected as the first member of the board of directors of the Independent Grocers Alliance, Inc. (IGA) who was not previously associated with the food industry. After completing his scouting position, Haggai became non-executive chairman of IGA, and moved up to chairman and CEO in 1986. IGA is a global supermarket based in the United States and includes 5,000 licensed or franchised supermarkets in 38 countries and territories.
Asked about his achievements, Haggai says, “I feel you have to remain flexible enough to respond affirmatively to the opportunities that come your way. Every day we must exercise mentally, physically, and spiritually in order to be ready for those opportunities.”
Haggai explains his active participation in the Horatio Alger Association simply: “The only way any of us can outlive our days upon this earth is to invest in the next generation. I believe in our youth, and the Horatio Alger Association is a wonderful way for me to express that.”