2003 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"I have a graveyard of unsuccessful ideas, but you must never be afraid to try or to fail."
Ray Scott, Jr., the oldest of three children, was born in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1933 at the height of the Depression. Originally, Scott's father was a cattle farmer in Kentucky, but in 1923 the Scotts went broke after the government destroyed their cows during an outbreak of hoof and mouth disease. The family moved to Alabama, where they found work on a dairy farm. When Scott was one year old, he and his parents moved out of his grandmother's home into a rented duplex.
Scott's father had an entrepreneurial spirit and a motto that was: Nobody has any money, but everybody has a nickel. With that in mind, and thanks to his connections at the dairy farm, he started his own pushcart ice cream business in 1933. He sold ice cream for a nickel, making a two-cent profit off each sale. Eventually, he supervised 10 carts. Several years later, he tried his hand in the restaurant business. Finally, at the end of World War II, he went to work for the post office as a clerk in the railway mail service.
When Scott was five, his grandfather died, leaving Scott's father the patriarch of his family. Three of Scott's uncles, who were in their teens, came to live in the small duplex. "There were seven of us in that one bedroom apartment," says Scott, "but we were happy. We lived a good, wholesome life. There wasn't much money and we all had to work, but we did it together with a lot of laughter." In 1940, Scott's mother, who worked out of their home as a hairdresser, had saved enough money to buy a lot in town. With the help of an FHA loan, the family built a small house in a working-class neighborhood.
At the age of eight, Scott got his first paying job, earning $1 a day delivering groceries on his bicycle. In the summer, he cut grass and helped his father and uncles sell concessions at the Montgomery baseball stadium. When he wasn't selling peanuts at the games, he sold parking spaces on his grandmother's 100-foot driveway. "On busy game days I could earn $15," says Scott.
Scott's father taught him to fish when he was six. He took to the sport right away and it became a constant in his life. When he was 16, he formed his first fishing club, the Bluegill Fishing Society. He and his friends, who each paid 25 cents to join the club, went on short fishing trips in his father's 1939 Chevy. Scott loved fishing and often wished he could find a way to make a living at it.
In school, Scott struggled with dyslexia. His parents were concerned and, when he was in the seventh grade, sent him to a local military school. His academics improved and he returned to public school in the eighth grade. But he was soon distracted by sports and socializing and he failed to pass that year. The following year he passed, but returned to the military school in the ninth grade on a football scholarship. The team was successful and became all-state champions.
After high school graduation, Scott says he was "a lost ball in high weeds." He failed to earn a football scholarship to what is known today as Auburn University, which was his first choice. He began to wonder if he had a calling to be a preacher. His pastor recommended Howard College in Birmingham, a small Southern Baptist school now called Samford University. He earned a football scholarship to the school and participated on the track team. To supplement his scholarship, he worked for Vulcan Insurance, collecting premiums for funeral insurance. This job took him into Birmingham's worst neighborhoods, but Scott soon became the company's top salesman.
In 1954, seven months after joining Vulcan, Scott was drafted into the Army. He was shipped to Germany, where he played for his company's football team. As soon as he was released from service, he used the GI Bill to pay for his education in business administration at Auburn University. Upon graduation, he joined the Mutual of New York (MONY) Insurance Company, which sent him to a one-week sales course. But after using their methods for a month, Scott hadn't sold one policy. He took the company's sales brochures into the backyard and burned them. He returned to work using his own sales and referral system and soon sold more than $100,000 worth of insurance.
Scott stayed in the insurance business for the next 10 years and at one time had his own agency. Always, he found time to indulge in his favorite pastime, fishing for bass. In 1967, an idea suddenly came to him as he waited out a storm to go fishing. He would sponsor a national bass fishing tournament trail where anglers would compete not only for a large cash prize, but also for national recognition. Based on the same format as a golf tournament, entrants for the bass tournament would pay substantial fees to compete. Scott wanted to make bass fishing more than weekend recreation. He wanted to unite bass anglers not only to compete but also to further the sport through shared knowledge.
Convinced his tournament concept would work, he resigned from his insurance agency to devote full time to his new idea. He had lots of energy and ideas, but no money. Still, he was determined. "You can afford to be daring," he say, "when you're convinced your philosophy and system can successfully take you into any market place-even if the market is brand new, untried, and untested. Frankly, poverty was my greatest asset. It is very motivating."
Scott had 106 participants in his first tournament. His idea for a national bass fishing tournament trail turned into an organization called the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (B.A.S.S.). He applied to his new venture the same sales and referral techniques that had proved so successful in his insurance business. Finally, he had found a way to earn a living fishing.
Looking back over his career in insurance and with B.A.S.S., Scott says he has never feared pursuing a new idea. "Taking the first step can be the hardest," he says, "but it is the most important step of all. Success goes hand in hand with imagination, tempered by hard work and dedication." Although he has had many successes in his life, Scott is quick to point out that he had his fair share of slumps. "I have a graveyard of unsuccessful ideas. But you must never be afraid to try or to fail."
Scott says he is deeply honored by his Horatio Alger Award and is awed by the work of the Association with America's deserving youth. "The Horatio Alger Association sees that spark in the darkness," he says. "They take these young people and give them the fuel and encouragement needed to be a success. That really touches me and I am so pleased to be even a small part of their personal journey."