James “Jim” Dicke was born in 1945 in San Angelo, Texas, where his father was just mustering out of the U.S. Army Air Corps. When Dicke was two weeks old, he moved with his parents back to his father’s hometown of New Bremen, Ohio, where the family lived with Dicke’s great-grandparents, grandparents, and two aunts in a one-bathroom house. “We all lived together because my great grandparents had lost all their savings when the town bank failed in the Great Depression, my grandfather had been forced to retire in his 30s due to a heart condition, and my two aunts were my father’s younger teenaged sisters. My father became fully responsible for this large household at the age of 27, following my grandfather’s final fatal heart attack.”
Dicke’s father, grandfather, and great uncle had started a business selling and distributing thermostats for home coal-burning furnaces, but his great uncle pulled out of the enterprise in its early stages. After Dicke’s grandfather died, his father became the sole owner. The family was, according to Dicke, economically humble. In the post–World War II housing boom, the thermostats sold by the Dicke family business were not in demand. Eventually, the business changed to become primarily a small machining shop.
“My parents were lovely people,” says Dicke. “They were the first in their families to complete high school, and they each had one semester of college. Education was important to them, especially to my mother. She also instilled in my younger brother and me an appreciation for art and culture, and she enjoyed taking us to museums. My father impressed me with his good judgment. He had more common sense in his little finger than most people have in a lifetime. He was a hard worker, and in our farming community, that was the best compliment that could be paid. Still, every day at five o’clock, he would put his work aside and spend evenings with his family.”
When he was old enough to work, Dicke did odd jobs. He began with mowing lawns and then sold stationery door to door. He particularly enjoyed his job with the local print shop, where he cleaned type. As a teenager, he worked in a soda fountain, built fences, and swept factory floors. Dicke had big aspirations for his future, and he hoped to one day own one or more businesses.
Dicke’s mother was convinced that her son had inherited his grandfather’s heart condition. When the family doctor diagnosed Dicke with a heart murmur, his mother forbade him to participate in any strenuous sports. “Looking back on it, I think part of why I was bullied so much was a combination of being one of the best students, which made some jealous, and not being allowed to play sports, which was unusual in our community,” he says.
Dicke studied intently and enjoyed classes, but from the time he was in the second grade, he became the target of bullies. He took their cruel words to heart, believing what his tormentors said about him. The bullying continued until Dicke was 12 and ready to enter the eighth grade. Dicke asked his parents to send him away to a private school so that he could escape what he saw as a small-town situation that would never change. “I did want to get away from the bullying, but I also wanted a better education than what I was receiving, and that is what I told my parents,” he says. “I never went to them about the bullying, although I discovered years later they were aware of it.”
Dicke enrolled at Culver Military Academy, which was 150 miles away in Indiana. He had a transformative experience there, performing well in his studies and excelling in leadership positions. He met his first mentor at Culver, a teacher named John Mars. “I learned from him about the importance of being a generous and caring person and the personal satisfaction you get from helping others. I also learned that an education is not just memorizing facts,” he says. “It’s taking an interest in our communities and the world around us. It broadens our horizons beyond our home environment and gives us a deeper understanding of and appreciation for life’s journey.”
After five years, he had achieved the school’s highest rank of cadet captain, and he graduated in 1964. Dicke attended Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, where he majored in business and economics. He worked throughout his college years, selling machining projects to military bases, making pizza at a pizza parlor, and assistant teaching in the economics department. He also worked for a congressman for two summers and briefly thought about a political career. While in school, he met his future wife, Janet. In 1968, Dicke became the first member of his family to graduate from college. Later that summer, he and Janet married and left for Ohio, where Dicke joined his father’s business.
“I had never worked for my father when I was growing up,” says Dicke. “He never pressured me to join the company, but I think he would have been very disappointed if I hadn’t. When I started in the shop, we were designing machine parts on the back of an envelope. There wasn’t one person in the shop with an engineering degree. We would get an order for a part, which we would make, and then we’d wait for the next job to come. The company actually had a negative net worth. Three years after I started, my father fulfilled a promise to my mother, and they went to Florida.”
After deciding that his future was not in designing parts for other companies, Dicke began a long, slow effort to create a capital goods manufacturing business with no initial capital and no investors. Over the following decades, he built a team that turned Crown Equipment Corp. into an enterprise with $2.6 billion in annual sales and nearly 15,000 employees. Crown became the world’s fifth largest manufacturer of forklifts and has 15 factories in the United States, Germany, Mexico, and China.
Dicke has reached the heights of success, but sees personal growth just as important as the financial rewards he has achieved in business. “I’ve received so much satisfaction from being a part of a team—the one I built at work, and the partnership I have with my wife, Janet,” he says. “There is nothing better than having a loving teammate for life.”
Dicke’s advice to young people is to find a career path that gives them pleasure and satisfaction. “You are a lucky person if you wake up each morning and when thinking about work you say to yourself, ‘Oh boy, I get to go do that again today!’ But to get to that point, a good education is necessary. Education is a reward in and of itself, and it allows you to pursue and be a part of the American dream.”
Besides feeling strongly about the importance of a college education, Dicke adheres to the idea that one’s education in life is never finished. He is an avid reader of nonfiction and has read more than one book a week for many years. “I’ve learned so much from books, but I’ve also been open to learning from colleagues and peers,” he says. “I choose carefully how to spend each day and whom I spend it with, as well as trying to learn something new. This is important because once spent, the day is gone and will not come again.”
Mentors have played crucial roles in Dicke’s life, and he has tried to honor them when he has given back to society. He named a new street in his hometown of New Bremen, for example, in honor of his first-grade teacher, and a building at Trinity University is named for another favored teacher. A distinguished professorship at Culver Academy is named for a third teacher of influence, and the business school at Ohio Northern University is named for Dicke’s father. “Mentorship can be a key to life’s lessons. None of us gets to where we are on our own,” he says. “Along life’s path, it’s good to be open to those who have more experience and who offer help with sound advice.”
Dicke has received the highest honors for his generous financial gifts to the educational institutions he has attended. However, his Horatio Alger Award holds special meaning for him. “To be accepted into a family of such extraordinary men and women is very touching,” he says. “It is rewarding to be a part of the work the Association is doing in support of the college aspirations of the Scholars, who have already demonstrated their determination and persistence to realize the American dream. This Horatio Alger Award is the honor of a lifetime.”
Janet and Jim Dicke are big supporters of education. They have given $25 million to the Culver Educational Foundation and $20 million each to Ohio Northern University and Trinity University, where he was a trustee for more than 20 years. “One of the most recent things Janet and I did for Trinity was our donation of 32 Steinway pianos so that the music department could elevate its level of performance and composition education,” he says. “It is very satisfying to do something that you know will create some immediate benefits for people.”
When he was a boy, Dicke dreamed about owning a large portion of New Bremen. That dream has become a reality, and the Dickes have of renovated much of the downtown district, which has created about 2,500 jobs for townspeople and those in surrounding communities.
Dicke’s other interests include art; he and his wife have given substantial gifts to the Dayton Art Institute and to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which he chaired. Already an ardent supporter of the Horatio Alger Association and its mission, Dicke has given more than $1 million to the Association and to Ohio Wesleyan University to support Horatio Alger Scholars over the past several years. He has also served as international president of the Young Presidents’ Organization.