Tom Donohue was born in New York City in 1938. His father worked for the American Can Company in Brooklyn. “He had a college degree from St. John’s, and he played for their football team,” Donohue recalls. “For a short time, he played professional football for a team that no longer exists, the Brooklyn Dodgers. After that, he went to work for American Can, where he started at the bottom. He pulled steel out of the hot machines that made the cans and then eventually worked his way up to production manager.”
Donohue’s mother had rheumatic fever as a child, which left her with a weakened heart. After his birth, she had twin daughters and then another daughter. Each birth further weakened her heart, making her increasingly frail. “It took my mother a long time to recover from giving birth,” he says. “I was sent to live with my aunt and uncle on their farm for a while until she could fully function again. At one point, they even put my sisters in an orphanage, where another aunt was a nun, to give my mother time to gather her strength. Eventually, her heart gave out, and she died at the age of 56.”
When he was in second grade, Donahue also contracted rheumatic fever. Unlike his mother, however, he was treated with penicillin. Still, he was forced to miss half the school year. It wasn’t known until many years later that Donahue is slightly dyslexic. That condition—coupled with his missing so much of the second grade—made reading very hard for him.
Finally, when he was 20, his girlfriend, Liz—who later became his wife—taught him how to read phonetically by walking up and down Fifth Avenue and reading the signs outside doctors’ offices. “Some people might say that what happened to me as a child was a negative experience,” says Donohue. “But I think of it in a positive way. My reading problems made me more verbal. I became a more perceptive person. As a result, I developed skills that have helped me my whole life.”
Donohue’s family moved to Long Island when he was in the fifth grade. Donohue joined the Boy Scouts through his new church, and he knew right away that scouting was something in which he could excel. School challenged him because so much reading was involved, but in the Boy Scouts, Donohue discovered his leadership abilities. “Scouting teaches you responsibility, leadership, organization, and honor,” he says. “It was a wonderful experience for me and gave me skills I was able to use in my adult life.”
At an early age, Donohue began working by mowing lawns and making deliveries for a local butcher. Each summer, he worked at Boy Scout camps. For college, Donohue chose to attend his father’s alma mater, St. John’s University, in New York City. That allowed him to continue living at home, which saved money. He usually held four jobs at once to pay his way through school. One lucrative job—delivering liquor to Wall Street during the Christmas season—earned him enough tips to pay for his next semester’s tuition.
When the Boy Scouts built a new camp in upstate New York, Donohue helped with the construction. Once the camp was operational, he helped feed large groups—as many as 1,400 people three times a day—through the camp’s dining hall. At one point, he had 100 people working for him.
After he graduated from St. John’s with a degree in history, his first job was as an executive for the Boy Scouts of America. In that position, he was trained in fundraising, organization and planning, and business strategy—all skills he has used throughout his varied career. Donohue later attended graduate school at Adelphi University, where he earned a master’s degree in business.
Donohue left the Boy Scouts to work for Abilities, Inc., an organization founded by Henry Viscardi, who had been born with no legs. Donohue’s mission was to find jobs for wounded World War II veterans—and later for physically disabled people in general. Viscardi was inducted into the Horatio Alger Association in 1983.
“From Henry, I learned it doesn’t matter if people think you can’t do it; if you want to do it and it’s honorable and reasonable, you can usually get it done,” says Donohue, who went on to become vice president for development at New York’s College of New Rochelle; he later worked at Connecticut’s Fairfield University. While there, he met one of the directors of the university, Ted Klassen, who became U.S. postmaster general. Donohue eventually followed his mentor to Washington, D.C., serving as deputy assistant postmaster general.
In 1976, Donohue joined the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, where he worked for Richard Lesher (from the Horatio Alger class of 1980). During his eight-year tenure at the Chamber, Donohue ran the organization’s foundation as well as its federation, membership, and grassroots operations. In 1984, he left that position to become president and CEO of the American Trucking Association.
In 1997, Donohue returned to the U.S. Chamber as president and CEO. He is widely credited with revitalizing the world’s largest business federation as it represents American free enterprise before Congress, the White House, the courts, and the court of public opinion. During Donohue’s tenure, the chamber has greatly expanded its stature and effectiveness at home and abroad on issues such as legal reform, trade, transportation, and tax and regulatory relief.
Donohue’s varied professional life has exposed him to employers and mentors who helped shape his career. “I learned from these people that character counts—that integrity, good relationships, and good manners are important,” he says. “I also learned that if you can, you must. What I mean by that is that you have to help those who need help—whether it’s someone who works for you or someone you have a relationship with. If they need help and you can do something to make a difference, then you must do it.”
Donohue’s advice to young people starting out is to find people and organizations that can help them along the way—and be sure to help them in return. “Get some experience,” he advises. “Be a volunteer, demonstrate your commitment to something, and listen to those who offer advice. It’s most important that you believe in yourself. But don’t be afraid to ask for help. There are extraordinary organizations and people all over this country that want to help others succeed.”
He adds, “Look for good opportunities, and avoid negative opportunities. The great thing about America is it’s the land of opportunity. There are so many countries in the world where you are born into one status and can’t move out of it. But in America, people are given an opportunity to achieve and accomplish. And once accomplishments have been made, then we must turn around and help others on their way up. It happens again and again and again. It’s the great American story.”
Donohue believes in doing all you can to help yourself succeed. “I came from a family of good parents who had limited means,” he says. “All I have achieved was through hard work, help and advice from others, perseverance, and the love and support of my wife and family. And there was some luck in there too. Seizing opportunities, taking personal responsibility and initiative, giving 100 percent to every task, and helping others succeed just as others have helped me—these are the values that have been a large focus of my life. I believe they are also the values that built this country, that define our free-enterprise system, and that give life to the American dream. We are so blessed to live in a country where anything is possible.”