Harold Burson was the eldest child of English immigrants who had been in America only one year before he was born in Memphis, Tennessee. Burson was eight when the Great Depression forced his parents to close their small hardware store. In addition to this financial setback, Burson's father had to contend with chronic ill health resulting from the poison gas attacks he suffered during World War I. The burden of supporting the family of five fell to Burson's mother. They rented a small house for $15 a month, and Burson's mother sold clothes door to door in poor neighborhoods.
Intellectually gifted, Burson learned to read at the age of three. His father, who had not finished high school, taught him to read by starting with the headlines of the morning newspaper, and they soon progressed to the news stories. By the time he was six, Burson could name President Calvin Coolidge's cabinet and all nine U.S. Supreme Court justices.
During high school, Burson worked for a Memphis newspaper as a copyboy. He maintained excellent grades in school while working weekends and holidays at the paper. After graduating from high school at 15, he enrolled in the University of Mississippi. He earned his expenses by serving as campus correspondent for the Commercial Appeal. During his last 18 months at Ole Miss, Burson served as the school's news director.
Burson graduated in 1940 and took a job as public relations director for the H. K. Ferguson Company. Three years later, he entered the U.S. Army as a combat engineer, and after the end of the World War II, he became a news correspondent and covered the Nuremberg trials. In 1946, rather than go back to his former employer, he set up his own public relations firm with the Ferguson engineering-construction company as his first client.
In 1952, William Marsteller, head of an advertising agency, collaborated with Burson on a project. That union led to the establishment in 1953 of Burson-Marsteller, a public relations firm allied with but separate from Marsteller's advertising agency. In 1983, Burson-Marsteller became the world's largest public relations firm, with a client list that includes well-known businesses as Coca-Cola and McDonald's.
Burson's advice to young people was to look to the future, particularly in technology. "Young adults should focus on areas of the economy that are growing," he said, adding that his Horatio Alger Award is a symbol that recognizes the degree of success he had achieved. "It means a great deal to me," said Burson. "I am continually impressed with the number of people who are impressed I have it."