“It was the happiest day of my life!”

So said John G. Sperling of the day his brutish father died.

Until age 15, John was dirt poor, sickly, severely dyslexic, and frequently beaten. He rose to become the most successful education entrepreneur in history. I worked for John in the mid-seventies, before the meteoric rise of the University of Phoenix. He was an amazing man.

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John died last week at the age of 93. The New York Times has a thoughtful obituary.

This was a man who was obsessed with doing whatever he thought was right, regardless of prevailing opinion. Overcompensating for his miserable beginnings, John became an audacious visionary with the wherewithal to take action.

A good place to find out more about John is his autobiography, Rebel With A Cause:

I did not become an entrepreneur until the age of 52. I created my first company with no thought for building a business, per se, but merely as a way to preserve an educational innovation from being destroyed by a small-minded bureaucracy. I had designed a program specifically for working adults that would allow them to earn a degree in the same amount of time it took full-time students on campus. Because this challenged many of the sacred tenets of academe, it was met with hostility bordering on rage.

My involvement was to develop John’s first business degree program during those indeed hostile times.

John told me he wanted our graduates to be able to talk like business people. It was a Turing test — Can you tell the accomplished business person from the recent winner of an accelerated degree? Our performance objectives were rather thin. The subject matter bore a suspicious resemblance to my first year courses at Harvard Business School.

While still in the midst of development, I hired and managed the sales force to sell it. Commission only. John was adamant that we were a profit-making business venture and needed to pay our bills as they came due.

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More of the story from The Arizona Republic. My lunch with John about ten years back.

The Missyplicity Project was a project devoted to cloning Joan Hawthorne and John Sperling’s dog, a border collie and husky mix. More on Missyplicity.

 

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