With graduation looming, Plant City High School senior McKenzie Forester said she’s been consumed with stress and uncertainty about her future.
“I shouldn’t admit this but I was going to skip school today. The last couple of months have been tough for me,” she said. “I guess I’m just trying to find my place. But something told me I needed to be here today.”
She said she realized why she felt compelled to go to school after listening to Plant City High School 2013 Hall of Fame inductee Duane Ackerman.
“I could relate to everything he was saying,” said Forester, who shared with Ackerman her personal frustrations following his presentation.
“He talked about the obstacles you face in life, and I’ve had nothing but obstacles. And he encouraged me to keep pushing myself. What he said really influenced me. I realize I can do better for myself.”
Ackerman speaks from experience. The 1960 Plant City High graduate said he faced a number of roadblocks on his way to achieving success.
“In high school, I wasn’t the best student or the best athlete,” said Ackerman. “And I wasn’t voted the most likely to succeed. But, I’m telling you now, it doesn’t matter where you come from. What matters is how badly you want to fulfill your dream. You have to be willing to persevere, willing to commit and willing to dream big dreams.”
Ackerman was raised in a modest home in Plant City during the 1950s and ’60s. At various times, his father, Floyd, worked as a welder, postal worker and citrus farmer. Neither Ackerman’s mother nor his father completed junior high school.
At Plant City High, Ackerman played football, basketball and tennis. But it was his skill with the racquet that captured the attention of college recruiters.
He attended Rollins College in Winter Park on a tennis scholarship, earning a bachelor’s degree in physics and a masters in business. He then went to work in Orlando as a customer service agent for Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph Co., which later became BellSouth Corp.
Promotions came in rapid succession. Ackerman was named division plant manager, general personnel supervisor and, finally, vice president of the plant department at Southern Bell’s Atlanta headquarters before deciding to further his education.
“I always tell kids they should do what they love, and I always loved math and science,” said Ackerman.
With that in mind, Ackerman left his job at Southern Bell to earn a second master’s degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. With his newly minted technology degree in hand, he returned to Southern Bell in 1978 just as the computer industry was beginning to boom.
“When BellSouth Corp. was formed, the Internet was just an idea,” he said. “But when I returned to the company, technology exploded. It was exciting to be in the forefront.”
By the time Ackerman retired in 2007 and sold BellSouth to AT&T, he was in charge of 80,000 employees and earned $1.4 million a year plus bonuses.
Ackerman, however, is quick to tell students that his success wasn’t due to luck or being in the right place at the right time.
“It’s not all serendipity,” he said. “Everything doesn’t happen by chance. It takes perseverance. Whether it’s technology or art or whether you have resources or not, you have to have the courage to dream, to reach, to grow and to be all you can be.”
He added that not all the students listening to his message in the Plant City High auditorium will go on to become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
“That’s OK. Success is found in meaningful work,” he said. “I think Mother Teresa was successful. Do what you love and be willing to give back. That’s the American dream.”