Rise to the Top
Some of the most successful and relevant people in our community come form the humblest beginnings.
Despite mounting evidence that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to build great wealth and success in today’s climate, these incredible stories about people in our community are proof that it is possible to overcome some of life’s challenges and create something exceptional for yourself.
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It was often during the most difficult struggles that they reached a turning point and learned some of life’s most valuable lessons. A consistent key to success throughout: take risks, educate yourself and remember where you came from.
Whether their success is measured financially or by the importance of their contribution back to our community, these locals are regarded as extraordinary in business, sports or the arts and serve as an inspiration to those struggling to have their own wildly successful stories.
Singer, Songwriter, Poet, Author
During her darkest days, songwriting saved Jewel’s life.
Before the acclaimed American singer hit mega superstardom, the Alaska native struggled financially not for her art, but to simply find a means to an end. For Jewel, writing songs and singing meant easy cash. It was all she’d ever known having grown up in a family of performers who toured through native villages. When her parents divorced, Jewel (her given name) spent childhood years touring with her father as a duet act.
“I liked practicing a lot,” she said. “If I wanted to be a part of the show, I was expected to practice.”
She left home at 15 to attend a private arts school in Michigan. During one spring break, the free-spirited singer hitchhiked to Mexico to perform on the streets for money. Jewel later wound up in San Diego and was fired from her job for not accepting her boss’s sexual advances. She struggled to hold other jobs due to a kidney ailment that forced her to continually call in sick. At one point, the three-time Grammy nominee was homeless, living in her vehicle, which was eventually stolen.
“My dad and I had made cash every night singing,” she said. “I thought, ‘Maybe I can get a gig.’ But I didn’t know how to do cover songs on the guitar. I wasn’t that good of a guitar player. It was a lot easier for me to write songs than play other people’s songs. It was never a dream, to tell you the truth. It never even got to the dream stage. It was about surviving day to day, and music was a tool I could use to make some cash. When I got discovered, it was a real surprise.”
Jewel says she knew what was popular on the radio at the time and stressed to record label officials that she was “not that kind of thing.” But once she was signed, she never looked back.
“I just tried to see how far it could take me.”
Today Jewel resides in Stephenville with her husband Ty Murray and son Kase Townes, who inspired the artist to release two children’s albums and a bedtime picture book. Her book of poetry, A Night Without Armor, became a mainstay of The New York Times bestseller list. Jewel is now preparing for a spring release of a greatest hits album.
“It will be the hits of my career: the radio versions of all the singles, and a bunch of rare pictures and handwritten notes, as well as some remixes and a brand new song,” she said.
Jewel says writing saved her life, keeping her from doing drugs and falling victim to the emotional pressures that come with fast fame.
“I think being raised on a ranch gives you a great grounding and touch with reality,” Jewel said. “We pretty much lived off the land. It lets you know what’s important in life and what real priorities are. It gave me a great work ethic, and I think a lot of my career is due to not a talent as much as a real commitment to outwork people.”
Her advice to fledgling singers, songwriters and artists: “Be good,” she said. “Be great at what you do. Focus more on practicing than on wanting to be recognized. If your focus is there, I think the outcome will be guaranteed.”
Founder, Reata Restaurant
Al Micallef could only receive one station on his crystal radio growing up, and it was out of Del Rio.
“I thought I lived in Texas,” he said. “My parents had to convince me I didn’t.”
The reality was Micallef was raised in Detroit by his mother, a homemaker, and father who worked for Ford Motor Co. and never made more than $5,000 a year. There were financial struggles, but Micallef never felt deprived.
“I knew there were lots of things I couldn’t have. But if I wanted those things, I needed to get them myself,” Micallef said. “We had a lot of pride even though we didn’t have a lot of money.”
Motown never crossed Micallef’s mind, but Fort Worth did. The young entrepreneur decided to move to his “home state” and raise a family, taking over a bankrupt manufacturing business after realizing he wouldn’t find the success he was looking for in Detroit.
“I knew I would be in business. I loved business since the day I can remember,” Micallef said. “I had lemonade stands. I took every kid’s allowance in my neighborhood. I even had a big grocery stand in my basement where I played grocer. I just loved being in business.”
After embarking on successful cattle ventures and establishing the ranches he dreamed of as a child, Micallef took a gamble and launched Reata in Alpine, Texas. With a storied sister restaurant in Sundance Square, Reata is now renowned for its legendary cowboy cuisine.
“I believe all jobs are honorable at entry level. You may be working in an auto wash, then you may own an auto wash, then you may have them across the country,” Micallef said. “Love what you’re doing, not what it gives you. Rewards will come if you love what you’re doing and love being the best.”
Randy GallowaySports Writer, Broadcaster
Randy Galloway was 14 years old when he began his farm fresh egg route business, selling door-to-door to earn extra cash. The Kentucky native, who grew up in Grand Prairie, held many summer jobs on his father’s construction sites but didn’t plan to follow in his footsteps.
“The great love of sports happened,” Galloway said. “I would read sports writers, and I thought, ‘I’d like to do that.’ ”
Galloway’s mother was in the newspaper business herself, working as a writer and editor. With her help, Galloway began writing for the local Grand Prairie newspaper while in high school, covering football and basketball, and also wrote for the high school paper.
“I was trying to play all these sports, but I wasn’t any good. My coaches saw me play and said I should keep working on my sports writing.”
That led to a small journalism scholarship, but Galloway didn’t much care for grades, he says, and flunked out of college. It was back to helping his father with construction, “butt-deep in concrete.”
Galloway pursued his passion and inquired about part-time jobs at the Dallas Morning News, eventually getting his foot in the door and later becoming a full-time sports writer, a highly coveted position, in his early 20s. He stayed with the paper for three decades, covering all DFW sports and earning a columnist gig. In the mid ‘80s, Galloway began his radio sports talk career after being invited on air as a guest. He moved to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1998, where he continues to write today, while racing horses as a hobby.
Galloway never went back to college and admits he was very lucky. He tells young folks seeking career advice not to go his route, but to make things easier and get a degree, write as much as possible, and simply “do right” as his parents taught him.
“Certainly we came from humble circumstances, but I never went to bed hungry, although it may have been fried Spam or bologna for dinner,” Galloway said. “At some points, I knew we were dealing with a paycheck shortage, but I never had a shortage of love. In the long run, that’s going to overcome any financial shortage.”
Music Director, Fort Worth
Miguel Harth-Bedoya's musical journey began with a humble beginning, working as an assistant for operatic tenor, Luigi Alva, at a theater in Lima at the age of 15. Harth-Bedoya looks back at where he started and considers himself a very lucky and blessed person.
“I loved listening to so many operas and operettas, which influenced my love for vocal repertoire,” Harth-Bedoya said.
But his love for music began at home with his mother. She was a chorus director for a Peruvian airline. Harth-Bedoya was a member of his mom’s choir as well as her dance troupe, performing to Peruvian folk music. Harth-Bedoya attempted playing the piano but didn’t like the idea of playing anything by himself.
It was during a dress rehearsal at the theater where Harth-Bedoya assisted when the conductor saw him sitting and asked if he could conduct the remainder of act one.
“I did, and that is what made me realize that I wanted to become a conductor.”
Today Harth-Bedoya is a Grammy-nominated, Emmy Award-winning conductor and is currently in his 12th season as music director of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. He was also recently appointed as chief conductor of the Norwegian Radio Orchestra. He’s relentlessly maintained his inspiration after that first conducting affair.
“The path I envisioned for myself is that I would be wherever I am contributing and being useful to an orchestra and a community,” Harth-Bedoya said. “It was important to build solid experience through music directorships and guest conducting, and one step inevitably leads to another.”
Harth-Bedoya’s advice to others looking to make it big?
“Believe in who you are and what you want to do, and do not be afraid to take that first step.”
From working on the farm at age 12 to acquiring picturesque pasturelands for residential development decades later, Don Siratt obtained his success by way of one continued determination.
“I didn’t want to work for someone else.”
The Grandview native grew up with tenant farmer parents, meaning they worked tirelessly for others on land they didn’t own. As a young boy, Siratt joined them, but his parents divorced and he was soon sent to live with his grandmother in a two-room apartment through his high school years. No longer farming, Siratt earned extra money cleaning the school gym.
“My mother always told me the only way to become successful is to get a job, stay with it for 30 years, and retire. I did not want to do that,” Siratt says.
But Siratt eventually went to work for General Dynamics in Fort Worth, only to be laid off shortly thereafter. With very little money, his determination to be his own boss endured. He attempted a few unsuccessful ventures before becoming a truck delivery man.
“I was about to starve to death,” he said. “But I finally got an account with a very large corporation and started seeing some success.”
That account led to Siratt establishing a solid foundation for WDS Partners, his trucking company that today runs more than 40 years strong. But it was 13 years ago that Siratt would launch a project that would surpass his wildest dreams of success.
With the help of his wife and children, Siratt established Montserrat, an exclusive estate development in west Fort Worth.
“I’ve just been very fortunate, with no education, and I have been very lucky,” Siratt said. “When ventures fell through, I just kept trying and thought, ‘I am not going to make it,’ but I just kept trying something else to make a living. I made sure my children went to college. I realized the importance of education. You had to have it.”
Erma Johnson Hadley
Chancellor, Tarrant County College District
The beautifully sophisticated Erma Johnson Hadley is as poised and professional as she is down to earth and warm. As chancellor of Tarrant County College District, Hadley serves as a leader and role model to thousands of students, some who may be struggling in their career path or to even finish school at all.
“As I see students at Tarrant County College, I see me in them,” Hadley said. “I am where I am tod
ay because of the help I received from other people.”
As a little girl from Leggett, Texas, Hadley was raised by her sawmill-worker father and homemaker mother, who always kept odd jobs to help support the family.
Growing up very poor and with no running water, Hadley says her mother’s greatest goal was for her children to simply graduate from high school. But Hadley wanted more.
“When I asked about college, my mother said, ‘Erma Jean, I don’t know how to help you do that.’ It was almost like she had tears in her eyes because she was so helpful to do everything she could for us.”
But Hadley’s mother avidly taught her to do her best and take pride in what was representative of her, Hadley says, even if it meant completely redoing her homework from start to finish or raking the front yard in the right direction. With the guidance of a teacher and strongly driven by lessons learned from her mother, Hadley applied for college. She earned a teaching degree and later completed graduate school while student teaching a freshman class.
“It was like magic to me to watch the students blossom from what I had done,” said Hadley, now Texas Women’s Hall of Fame inductee for higher education. “I know my life could have been so different had I not had people in education along the way to help me. That’s what drives me to this day.”
Assistant Professor of Professional Practice,
Educational Leadership, TCU
Steve Palko admits he never envisioned becoming an engineer or a businessman for that matter.
“I thought I would be a philosopher. It intrigued me – this whole idea of living in a world of ideas and figuring out what the meaning of the world was.”
The young thinker migrated around Europe with his Army father before he landed in El Paso at the age of 9. His first job entailed moving boxes around as a backroom clerk in a department store. But it was a bus boy job that would lead to the beginning of his incredibly successful career path.
“It was across the street from a company where the executives were talking about this scholarship program that they were going to have for the University of Texas at El Paso,” Palko said. “I just walked across the street and told the receptionist I’d like to apply for it. They said it was an engineering scholarship. So that’s when I decided to become an engineer. If I could go to college for free, why not?”
Palko applied and received the scholarship, graduated from UTEP and became a petroleum engineer for Exxon, later leaving to start his own oil and gas company, which was the precursor to XTO Energy. But a love for learning, along with strong support from his wife Betsy, called him to retire from the lucrative business early and earn a doctorate in education, eventually becoming a professor himself.
“That scholarship program kind of brought me from bus boy to engineer. Education was what enabled me to be successful. That could have been quite embarrassing; me just walking in off the street, having cleaned up tables,” Palko said. “It’s an undeniable fact that if you’re going to make it from a meager circumstance, you’re going to have to take some risks and some chances.”
Actress, Author, Speaker
Although she spent her young adult years playing the pretty, preppy, well-to-do Blair Warner on the 80s hit TV series The Facts of Life, actress Lisa Whelchel is actually a small-town girl from Texas with anything but snobby roots. The mother of three was born in Littleton but grew up in Fort Worth, beginning her acting career at Casa Mañana doing musical theater. With the support of her electrician father and secretary mother, Whelchel caught the acting bug early.
“I knew I wanted to be a child actress. I didn’t want to wait to grow up,” Whelchel said. “Specifically, I wanted to be a Disney child actress. I had that dream since I was 8 years old.”
Not yet a teenager, Whelchel wrote to Disney Studios to ask for an audition to become a Mouseketeer. She earned the gig and moved to California to appear on The New Mickey Mouse Club at age 12. It was her first job. Following a successful TV career, Whelchel is now a published author, speaker, and most recently, a Survivor: Philippines participant.
Whelchel says being best friends with her family, including her brother Cody Whelchel, who runs a landscape business in Fort Worth, and not looking to fame, money or an outside identity to reaffirm that she’s loved and worthy are lessons she learned from her upbringing she still keeps with her today.
Her advice to those looking for success: “Don’t aim to make it big. Aim to make it deep in whatever area you love the most.”
Real Estate Agent
“I never really had a dad,” Jamie Adams said. “He was at least a fourth-, maybe fifth-, generation alcoholic. It’s weird how the older you get, a lot of times, you become, whether good, bad, or ugly, a product of your environment.”
And that was the case for Adams, at least for a period in his life when the real estate professional with a plush Ballpark in Arlington office was given an ultimatum: leave his highly coveted gig of selling houses to Texas Rangers players or check into rehab. That was in 1992, and Adams chose the latter. He’s been sober ever since.
The former boots salesman, rodeo clown and nightclub DJ had previously known nothing about real estate. Former Texas Rangers infielder Bill Stein set Adams up with an interview with a prominent realty agency in town after buying a pair of boots from him. Today Adams’ testimonials page reads like a DFW all-star lineup with praises from Nolan Ryan, Dirk Nowitzki and even Yu Darvish.
“My mom was a waitress and didn’t graduate high school. Her goal was to just pray that we got out of high school or got a GED. We didn’t understand what the college concept was. We just kind of got through,” Adams said. “Never in a million years did I think I would be doing what I’m doing now. The closest thing I had ever gotten to real estate was that my grandfather painted houses.”
But it was through watching his grandfather that Adams learned an important lesson that would stay him, even through the foggy hazes of alcoholism.
“I was always taught the importance of having a good work ethic and sense of morals,” Adams said. “Now I have two very healthy young boys, and I want to make sure I’m the best dad I can be. More than anything, I want to break the cycle of what I was.”