Ken Langone, the second of two children, was born in 1935 in Roslyn Heights on Long Island, New York. None of his parents, who were children of Italian immigrants, attended school beyond high school. Ken’s father worked as a plumber and his mother worked in the cafeteria of the small public school across the street from his house.
During Ken’s youth, the economy was weak due to the Great Depression and work for Ken’s father was sporadic. He was a union plumber every hour, which means he was fired at the end of a project until a new project began. In addition to financial struggles, Ken’s father suffered from manic depression. When she entered what the family called “dark periods,” Ken’s mother assumed a more responsible role. “My mother never complained,” says Ken. “ I had a huge sense of optimism and I got that from me, and my two parents had a wonderful ability to give their children unconditional love. It was not for sale and was not marketed. He did not arrive with good grades or get lost with bad grades. They could be unhappy or angry, but under all this, there was a huge and infinite pit of unconditional love. That was a powerful force behind me when I later moved to a competitive world.
Ken’s two parents came from large families, and he grew up on Long Island surrounded by dozens of relatives. “They were all modest means,” says Ken. ‘I had an uncle who worked in the sandpits, extracting the sand used to build most of New York City. An uncle sold kerosene from house to house. One was a truck driver. I had an aunt who was a seamstress. Two of my distant cousins became police and firefighters, who were killed on September 11. They weren’t even on duty that day, but they wanted to try to help. These are the people I come from: humble, hardworking and loving people.
Ken started working at age 12. He sold wreaths of flowers from door to door during the holiday season and mowed the lawn in summer. When he was 14, his brother entered the army and Ken inherited his work at the local meat market. He worked three hours a day after school and all day on Saturdays. A few years later, he worked as a cashier and worked for UPS or the post office during the high Christmas season. I also worked evenings at a service station. When time allowed, he served as a plumber’s assistant for his father. “My parents wanted me to go to college,” says Ken, “but my father thought that if I learned a trade, I would always have to resort to that if all else failed.”
Ken did little to distinguish himself academically in high school. Looking back on those days, he believes he could not relate academic achievement to success. The night of his high school graduation, the principal of his school, a man that Ken admired a lot, told Ken’s mother and father that they were wasting their limited resources by sending him to college. He felt that Ken would leave at the end of his first semester.
A few months before high school graduation, Ken visited friends at Bucknell University and before leaving campus, he met with the registrar. Soon after, he received an acceptance letter to Bucknell. At the end of the written letter, there was a handwritten message from the registrar, saying: “In college, you will have to work much harder than in high school.”
Ken’s parents mortgaged his home to send his son to college, and during his first semester, Ken did everything he could to fulfill his director’s prophecy. At the end of the first quarter, I was failing each course. His economics professor called him at his office. Once Ken sat down, Professor Headly pulled out a recent Ken test booklet and said that while Ken’s English was horrible, he was impressed with his understanding of the subject. He asked Ken how he was doing in his other classes. Ken was honest and told him he was failing all of his classes. Professor Headly told Ken that if he tried his best, he would contact all of Ken’s other teachers to see if the semester could be saved. Before Ken left the meeting