Member Profile

2010 Horatio Alger Award Recipient

Tommy Ray Franks

Former Commander-in-Chief

U.S. Central Command


Franks & Associates

“For all the challenges we face in our lives, there is an equal number of opportunities. America is probably the only nation in the world where that is the case 365 days a year.”

When Tommy Franks was born in 1945 in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, his father was working in a bank and farming part time. A few years later, the family moved to a larger farm near Stratford, where Franks started first grade. When he was eight, his family moved into Stratford, and his father launched a water-well drilling business.

One year later, the Franks moved once again, this time to Midland, Texas, where his father worked in the oilfield supply business. "My father was constantly in pursuit of the American dream," says Franks. "He was a great man but not a great businessman. Neither one of my parents graduated from high school, but they believed in hard work and exploring opportunities."

In grade school, one of Franks' teachers gave a talk about family heritage, telling her students they could learn a lot about their personal histories by exploring their family Bibles. Franks went home from school that day and headed straight for his mother's cedar chest. When he pulled out the Bible that was kept there, his adoption papers fell to the floor. He asked his mother about it, but she brushed off the question.

Several years later as a high school student, Franks came home with good grades and told his parents, "Seems like I'm doing pretty well for an old adopted boy." His parents simply smiled and let the comment pass. "That was the closest they ever came to telling me I was adopted. They considered me their true son, and I considered them my true parents. There really was nothing to discuss."

Franks began picking cotton when he was six or seven, earning two cents for each pound he picked. Eventually, he saved enough money to buy a power lawn mower, and he charged his neighbors $2 a lawn for his mowing services. In high school, he worked in the oil fields as a roustabout.

Franks was a bright student and good grades came easily to him. "School was easy for me," he said. "I became more focused on hot rods and hunting quail, along with what I was going to do on Friday and Saturday nights. I had no idea about my future, but I took it for granted I would go to college. I wanted to go away to school, so I decided on the University of Texas at Austin. I partied too much, though, and flunked out after two years. That was a wake-up call for me and the beginning of my maturity."

Because he could not attend school for a semester, Franks decided to enlist in the U.S. Army in 1965, while the Vietnam War was in full swing. Within one year, he was offered an opportunity to go to Officer Candidate School. He deployed to Vietnam in 1967. "I went to Vietnam as a kid, and I came home a full-grown man," he says of that time. "I saw the good, and the bad, and the ugly, and I learned what real heroism is." Franks' service in Vietnam earned him six awards for valor and three Purple Hearts.

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When he returned home in 1968, Franks and his fiancée, Cathy, married. They planned for him to leave the military; Cathy would teach while he went back to school to finish his undergraduate degree. But a month before his discharge, Franks received a call asking if he would remain if the Army paid for his education. He agreed and went to the University of Texas at Arlington, earning a degree in business. Franks later earn an MBA from Shippensburg University. From that point on, although it was never a conscious decision, Franks made the military his career, graduating from both the Armed Forces Staff College as well as the Army War College.

In June 2000, Franks was promoted to four-star general and assigned as commander-in-chief of U.S. Central Command (Centcom) in Tampa, where he was responsible for a 25-country region including the Middle East. He was the U.S. general who led U.S. and coalition troops against Afghanistan's Taliban in Operation Enduring Freedom, in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, as well as Operation Iraqi Freedom in Iraq.

The general's awards include five Distinguished Service Medals, four Legions of Merit, four Bronze Stars, and three Purple Hearts. He is a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire. In 2004, President George W. Bush awarded Franks the nation's highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His autobiography, American Soldier, was published in 2004 and reached the top of the New York Times bestseller list.

Franks says that he had many jobs and promotions throughout his career but that he never took a job thinking about his next assignment or promotion. Instead, he concentrated on the challenge in front of him and worked to solve problems and create opportunities. "A lot of my mentors were sergeants, a few were privates, and some were generals," he says. "My peers throughout my career turned out to be one of the most celebrated generations of officers in our military. But there has never been a general who has accomplished a thing without thousands and thousands of young people doing something spectacular. If you provide young people with what they need to get the work done, and you provide them with love and care, then they will show you what can be done."

Early on in his military career, Franks relied on something his father had taught him years before. "My dad used to say, '˜Make a hand.' What he meant is that each day you go to work, there are three sets of people whose expectations you need to meet," Franks explains. "You need to recognize the people who work for you, as well as the people with whom you work, and the people for whom you work. When you do that, the rest, which includes success in your career, sort of takes care of itself."

Retired since 2003, Franks travels around the world talking to audiences about leadership and representative forms of government. His message harkens back to his strong patriotic feelings. "For all the challenges we face in our lives, there are an equal number of opportunities," he says. "We are probably the only nation in the world where that is the case 365 days a year. And it's all because our Founding Fathers had a vision of a country where all of us can be anything we want to be."

Franks says he is honored to receive the Horatio Alger Award. "The Members of the Horatio Alger Association don't provide a roadmap, but their lives do serve as examples of what can be accomplished when you are prepared for opportunities and seize them when they come your way," he says. "My advice to the Scholars is to be on the lookout for people in their lives who can mentor and guide them."

Franks recalls a videoconference with President George W. Bush. "I was halfway around the world away from him, but I could see his face, and he could see mine. He was talking to me, but I had no idea what he was saying because I couldn't hear him," he says. "In the midst of my anxiety over this situation, one of my subordinates made it clear to me that the control box sitting in front of me was in the '˜off' position. That's what I hope Members of the Horatio Alger Association can do for the Scholars. For many young people in this land of opportunity, their switches are in the '˜off' position, and they don't know where to turn, or where to go for an answer to their challenges. Maybe a family member, or a friend, or a Horatio Alger Member will help those young people flip the switch to '˜on.'"

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