— Even though General Motors CEO Dan Akerson hadn't been back to Mankato since graduating in 1966, his days at Mankato High School meant a lot to him.
And as a gesture of good will (a pretty big gesture), Akerson paid part of his life's good fortune forward to two West High School students with $40,000 scholarships.
Announced Thursday at an awards assembly, Sam Olson and Samantha Fitzpatrick will receive $10,000 scholarships per year for four years toward their college education. Akerson and his wife, Karin, were special guests at the event.
West Principal Brian Gersich said the Akerson Family Scholarships were meant to help two students dream big and break down the financial barriers in the way of getting there.
“It really had to do with making college accessible,” Gersich said.
One female and one male were to be selected out of a pool of about 30 students who applied, and a committee of administrators, counselors and teachers decided who would be the recipients. The students had to submit their plans for after high school and write a two-page personal statement about what the scholarship would mean to them.
Akerson — who last week spoke at Notre Dame's graduation, has lunched with Nelson Mandela and taken communion from the pope — gave a short speech with humility, integrity and drive as the lessons of the day.
At age 17 when he graduated, Akerson had the same fears and anxieties that they do, he told the students. And in the midst of the Vietnam War, he said the world was just as scary a place as it is now.
“Don't be discouraged with what you see in the world today,” he said. “Your future is unlimited. This country has unlimited boundaries if you're willing to work hard and play by the rules.”
Akerson said they should be grateful for their parents and teachers who got them where they are today. They should also be thankful to have the opportunity to go to a great school like West, ranked 13th in Minnesota by U.S. News and World Report. Many schools don't offer the same educational opportunities, he said, naming Detroit (GM headquarters) as a city with unmotivated teachers and students.
Akerson also noted that the girls at West now should feel like they have every opportunity as do the boys due to the progress made during the last 20 to 40 years. The U.S. is known for that kind of change, he said, and for constantly pushing boundaries.
“We're always stretching boundaries, and it always makes people uncomfortable when we do,” he said.
Akerson's resume is extensive, beginning with a bachelor's in engineering from the U.S. Naval Academy (class of 1970) and a master's in economics from the London School of Economics.
He served as an officer on a Naval destroyer from 1970-75 before becoming CFO, president and COO of MCI Inc. In 1993 he became chairman and chief executive of General Instrument, succeeding former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
Next was Nextel, Nextlink Communications and The Carlyle Group before being named to the board of directors of General Motors. Akerson became CEO in 2010 and chairman of the board in 2011.
Given his long list of accomplishments, Gersich said he was struck by how “humble and genuine” Akerson is — “a lot like our students here in Mankato.”
Akerson's high school classmate, Rosy Oachs of Mankato, was in the audience and said she was going to report back to a group of five other high school friends on what their famous fellow graduate had to say. The group tried to get him to speak at their 45th reunion in 2011, but he was too busy.
Oachs said Akerson was assertive and talkative in school. He even dated Oachs' best friend.
“He wasn't shy in the corner or anything like that,” she said. “He was pretty passionate and confident.”