Colonel Sanders

Off the top I want to come clean. I am not a big fan of fried chicken. In fact, I have not eaten fried chicken in probably ten to fifteen years. And when I ate it then, it is likely because there were no alternatives.

In that vein, when members of my family get the urge for fried chicken, particularly from KFC, they schedule their visit there when I am not available to go. But my lack of enjoyment of fried chicken from KFC does not diminish my respect for the food chain’s founder, Harland Sanders.

Sanders’ story, in some respects, reminds me of the life of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln went through over fifty years of his life bouncing from one unfulfilling and often failing experience to another. Through these years, his faith and his character were challenged and strengthened. These life experiences prepared him to win the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858 and win the Presidency in 1860. They also helped prepare him to lead our country through the divisive Civil War. And, if he had not been assassinated shortly after the end of the war, Lincoln pobably would have successfully led the North and the South to reconciliation. This step would likely have reduced many of the racial pressures that haunt our nation today.

It was a relatively short time after Lincoln’s death that Harland Sanders was born. He came into this world in 1890 in a small town in Indiana. His father died when he was five. He quit school at sixteen, and, at age seventeen, he had already lost four jobs. He got married at age eighteen and was a railroad conductor for the next four years. He and his wife had a daughter when he was nineteen. But at age twenty, his wife left him and look their baby daughter.

He washed out of the army after five months. Later he applied for law school and was rejected. He tried various businesses over the next nearly twenty years and each of them was a failure. He ultimately became a dishwasher and then a cook. He learned that he had a knack for cooking fried chicken.

In 1930, Sanders began to operate a Shell service station. He was eventually allowed to run a small café out of the station that served country ham and steaks as well as fried chicken. Over the next decade, after many ups and downs, his restaurant became consistently profitable.

By 1940, Sanders had perfected his chicken recipe which cooked the chicken in a pressure cooker, making it faster than traditional frying. He initially franchised “Kentucky Fried Chicken” in 1952, to a restaurant operator named Pete Harman of South Salt Lake, Utah. In the first year after adding fried chicken to his menu, Harman’s sales more than tripled.

In 1955, Sanders sold his successful restaurant in North Carolina knowing that the soon-to-open Interstate 75 highway would reduce customer traffic at his location.

At age 65, he retired with a small amount of savings and a check for $105 per month from Social Security. He considered the monthly $105 check an insult and thought the government was saying that he was not able to provide for himself.

At this point, he considered committing suicide. Instead, he wrote a list of what he wished he would have accomplished with his life. He realized that there was much more that he could do with the time he had left. He also knew that his chicken was a great product and that he could promote it better than anyone else. Sanders decided to focus on franchising his restaurant concept.

Over the next twenty-five years, Sanders became well-known as the spokesmen for Kentucky Fried Chicken. Both on TV commercials and in real life, he seldom wore anything but a white suit as he played the role of Colonel Sanders to promote his restaurants. By the way, he was actually commissioned a Colonel by the Governor of Kentucky, a personal friend, in 1950.

By age 88, he had built KFC as one of the largest restaurant businesses in the world. He was worth over a billion dollars. More importantly, he used his wealth to support many causes. His trusts and charitable organizations fund scholarships, aid charities, health organizations, etc. By his death in June, 1980, Colonel Sanders was almost as well known for his philanthropy as for his chicken.

Our culture has contracted the belief that success is to retire as soon as you can and live off of social security, pensions, and savings. An output of this has been the view by many that when someone reaches their late fifties or sixties they no longer have any value. Unfortunately, this becomes a self-fulfilling prediction as many older citizens begin to reduce any productive endeavors as they get close to sixty so they can enjoy their “golden” years.

I greatly admire Colonel Sanders for two reasons. First, he made a decision to take matters into his own hands. He refused to be devalued by the social expectation that it was time for him to sit around and live off a government check. Secondly, even after a life of frequent failure, he had the courage at age 65 to get back into the ring of competition and build his restaurant concept into a tremendous success.

Sanders did not let age or previous failures deter him from trying again after retirement to achieve success so that he could make the accomplishments he hoped for become a reality. His willingness to take a chance and to work hard in his “retirement” years resulted in philanthropic efforts that have impacted countless lives over the last sixty years. This is not to mention the many jobs that KFC has provided since Sanders starting franchising his chicken recipe.

Don’t let age or previous failures deter you from trying something new. All successful people have failed. All of us get older. Just because some unusual people invent something that makes them rich before they are thirty, don’t assume that you are a failure if you don’t succeed greatly early in life.

It is never too late to try something new. Do so, and amazing things might happen that will change your life as well as the lives of those around you.