Tuesday, November 18, 2008

I retrieve and open a large envelope from today’s pile of mail. Inside is a press release announcing “Chick-fil-A Founder to Receive 2008 William E. Simon Prize for Philanthropic Leadership.”

I discover that Chick-fil-A founder is 87-year-old Atlanta businessman S. Truett Cathy. Reading about Mr. Cathy, amidst today’s headlines, I am wondering if his story is what America is about, or was about.

Mr. Cathy built, and today is owner/operator, of the privately held Chick-fil-A fast-food chain, with more than 1,400 locations and sales of more than $2.6 billion dollars. He’s from humble roots in rural Georgia and opened the first Chick-fil-A store in Atlanta in 1967.

In contrast to stereotypes equating business, particularly big business, to greed, Mr. Cathy’s life and work has been defined by service and Christian charity. The corporate mission statement of Chick-fil-A is “To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us. To have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A.”

Chick-fil-A stores are closed on Sunday to allow employees to devote the day to faith and family.

Mr. Cathy established a scholarship fund in 1973 for Chick-fil-A employees and to date around 23,000 have received more than $24 million in scholarship funds. In 1984 he established the WinShape Foundation which last year alone spent $18 million supporting a network of foster homes, camps, scholarships, and marriage counseling programs.

The Simon Prize, which Mr. Cathy has just received, is awarded by the William E. Simon Foundation, established by Simon, who was the 63rd Treasury secretary of the United States.

Like Mr. Cathy, Simon believed in America, in freedom and free enterprise, and was a man of faith. The giving themes of his foundation, as noted on the foundation’s Web site, are in the areas of “education, faith, and family.”

Unlike Mr. Cathy, Simon built his wealth in the area which is now quintessentially associated with greed - finance. Before becoming Treasury secretary in 1974, he was a Wall Street bond trader at Salomon Brothers. Afterward, he set up firms dealing in mergers and acquisitions, financial services and banking.

As Wall Street executives are dragged to hearings, to be mocked, blamed and threatened by Democratic Banking Chairman Chris Dodd, it’s worth quoting Simon, who passed away in 2000, as his creed appears on his foundation’s Web site:

“The free enterprise system has blessed the United States of America with the greatest prosperity, the highest standards of living, and, most important, the greatest individual freedom known to man. If we can preserve this system, and our freedom, we can look forward to turning over to our children, and our children’s children, an America that is more productive, prosperous, and stronger economically, financially, morally, and spiritually, than the one we inherited.”

How, from this, did we become a nation of blame, bailouts, and entitlement?

Wal-Mart has just released its quarterly report showing sales and earnings up 7.5 percent and 9.8 percent respectively. Wal-Mart, founded and built by one of America’s great entrepreneurs, has been under endless attack from the political left. Now, in tough times, Americans are happy to have a source of low-priced, high-quality merchandise.

Average nationwide retail gasoline prices this week are $1.95 less a gallon compared to July - a drop of almost 50 percent. In a Gallup poll done last year, most Americans attributed high gasoline prices to oil company greed. Are they going down now because oil companies are becoming generous?

No doubt, these are hard times. Here’s my prediction. The more Americans believe our future depends on politicians, political fixes and bailouts, the bleaker our future will be.

If we see America as a country defined by men like S. Truett Cathy, Bill Simon and Sam Walton, we’ll re-establish firm footing on American principles and rebuild our country, our prosperity and our leadership.

Star Parker is columnist for Scripps Howard News Service and is the president of CURE, Coalition on Urban Renewal and Education.

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