Tom Harken, business man and nationally-known literacy activist, succumbed to an illness in a Houston hospital on July 10. He was 76. A Michigan native, Tom and his beloved wife, whom he fondly called Miss Melba, moved to Beaumont, Texas, in 1962. Making their home and raising their family here, they also enjoyed a summer place on Lake Sam Rayburn in Jasper County for many years before moving to Tyler. An entrepreneur of the highest order and in the strictest sense of the word, with little formal education, Tom established and successfully ran three major businesses along with various subsidiary companies, spanning a half-century. The cause of literacy was his passion, and even while working as a full-time CEO, Tom traveled all over the country, preaching the importance of education in hundreds of speeches. His powerful motivational talks delivered nationwide inspired many either to seek help in learning, or to volunteer and assist those desiring to do so. Thomas Lee Tom Harken was born in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, on February 10, 1937. Son of Fred and Kathryn Harken, he grew up in Lakeview, Michigan, where his father owned a small grocery store. Dropping out of school at an early age due to illness, Tom worked in a grocery store as produce manager before entering the U.S. Air Force
with the help of a friend who completed necessary forms for him. Patriotic to a fault, Tom served his country and at the same time sold shoes to augment his 1950s military pay. After his term of service was completed, and after his marriage in 1958, Tom arrived in Beaumont as a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman, succeeding with the help of Miss Melba, who eventually taught him to read. Excelling through determination and persistence, often knocking on a hundred doors a day to make just one sale, Tom would memorize names and other information, and that evening Melba would complete necessary forms for him. Despite his illiteracy, Tom was named to the Kirby Hall of Fame in the 1960s. It was during these years that he formed lasting friendships with such mentors as the late philanthropist Ben Rogers, businessman W. L. Pate, attorney Benny Hughes and others. Eventually, Tom utilized his inborn sales abilities to become a five-state wholesale distributor of recreational vehicles, founding his own trucking company for that purpose. At the same time, he owned six RV retail companies and found time to become a partner in an auto dealership and owner of a motorcycle dealership. In 1973, just before the historic gasoline crunch, Tom displayed another flash of ingenuity by selling his RV and trucking businesses and becoming an importer of Canadian bicycles. Then, in 1979, he opened his first Mexican restaurant, Casa Ole', at Interstate 10 and Calder Avenue in Beaumont. Eventually, this was expanded into 17 restaurants throughout Southeast Texas and Southwest Louisiana. More important to Tom than business success was his love of family. Having been introduced by mutual friends, Tom and Melba became a team long known as the perfect match. No one was happier than Tom once she taught him to read. For years, he had faked it, mouthing words to songs in church and pretending to have misplaced his glasses when time came in the Men's Bible Class to read Scriptures. His saddest moments were when he was unable to read bedtime stories to his young sons. But Tom was happiest in later years when he could read to his grandchildren. This aura of happiness spilled over into Tom's warm, down to earth television commercials, through which thousands of children came to know him as Poppee. During his lifetime, Tom delighted in a variety of major accomplishments, but he was proudest of the fact he knew each and every one of his 800-plus employees by name and could ask about their children and how their lives were going. They were all part of his extended family. Generous to a fault, Tom always took the opportunity to help anyone in need, whether stranger or acquaintance. A man with friends in high places, he never lost the common touch. Tom's autobiography, The Millionaire's Secret, was published by Thomas Nelson, and his Success Secrets of Power Thinkers has seen several printings. The former tells his life story, and the latter exemplifies his appreciation for those who have overcome adversity to succeed. Recipient of many honors, Tom was proudest when schoolchildren yelled, Poppee! wherever he appeared. But no record would be complete without mention of his lifetime achievements. His 55th year marked a significant milestone in Tom's career. In 1992, he was honored by the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans by being presented with the Horatio Alger Award during ceremonies in Washington, D.C. Given to 10 or more individuals each year, the award represents achievement in the face of all odds. Calling himself just a guy who sells tacos for a living in Beaumont, Texas, Tom stood proudly to accept the award along with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, poet Maya Angelou and others. Hundreds of speeches followed, along with dozens of national television appearances. These were accompanied by a handful of honorary doctorates, but Tom was most proud when he received a high school diploma from his hometown in Michigan. Many awards followed, and Tom served on several national boards. Being featured on the cover of Parade Magazine was one of his ultimate moments. Eventually, Tom sold his businesses and retired in order to promote literacy and pursue philanthropic endeavors. Preceded in death by his parents and sister Kathy Pierce, Tom Harken is survived by his wife, Melba Curtis Harken; sons Tommy and Mark Harken; daughter-in-law Debra Harken; and grandchildren Trace Harken, McKenzie Harken, Terran Harken and Marleigh Harken; a brother, Ron Harken; and a multitude of friends. A gathering of family and friends is scheduled from 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. today at Claybar Kelley Watkins Funeral Home, 1155 N. 11th Street, in Beaumont, claybarfuneralhome.com
. At 7 p.m., attendees will pause to honor Tom during a special time of remembrance. Funeral service will be at 2 p.m. Friday, July 19, at Wesley United Methodist Church on Major Drive in Beaumont, and internment at Forest Lawn Cemetery, with a reception to follow at the Beaumont Country Club on Pine Street in Beaumont. In lieu of flowers, memorial gifts may be sent to: Tom and Melba Harken Presidential Scholarship Lamar University Foundation, P.O. Box 11500, Beaumont, TX 77710; Horatio Alger Association Endowment Fund, 99 Canal Center Plaza, Suite 320, Alexandria, VA 22314; Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, 516 North Adams Street, Tallahassee, FL 32301.