Your Impact

From Adversity to 'Distinguished American'

Jim Pugh, who once worked three campus jobs to pay for school, is now in the company of presidents and poets.

Ronald Reagan is one. So is Billy Graham. And Tom Brokaw … Oprah Winfrey … Johnny Cash … Leonardo DiCaprio and Hank Aaron.

The Horatio Alger Association’s list of Distinguished Americans is a who’s who of politicians, entertainers, athletes, entrepreneurs, dreamers, doers and difference-makers. Now — seven decades after the association first honored four New York businessmen for their successes and altruism — UF alumnus Jim Pugh is in the club.

It’s prestigious recognition.

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Just a dozen people — usually fewer — are chosen each year. All have overcome life-burdening obstacles to rise in their professions; and all, as the selection committee demands, are inspirations to the student scholars the Horatio Alger Association supports. Actor Rob Lowe, country music’s Reba McEntire, former U.S. Housing and Urban Development secretary Alphonso Jackson, Jimmy John’s founder James Liautaud and seven others join Pugh in the class of 2018.

Pugh isn’t the first Gator honored. Alumni John Dasburg, Tom Shannon and Herbie Wertheim were recognized in 2001, 2009 and 2011; donors Dave Thomas, H. Wayne Huizenga, Jack Gill and Jim Moran in 1979, 1992, 1999 and 2003.

For those who know Pugh best, the award is little surprise.

“Jim is an incredible businessperson and philanthropist. But an even better man,” says Matthew Rose, Horatio Alger Association president. “Our scholars can relate to the way in which he grew up, and understand how his experiences shaped him as a person.”

Pugh, a 1963 UF graduate with a degree in building construction, is a University of Florida bedrock. Campus’ Pugh Hall carries his name. He created a golf endowment, is a Bull Gator and serves on an array of university volunteer boards and committees.

But what makes him remarkable, Rose says, is how he overcame what might have been. Pugh’s mother died of cancer when he was 6. Growing up, he drifted back and forth between homes of relatives — a nomad in his own extended family. Instead of bitterness, Pugh learned to be resourceful and adaptable. Once at UF, he worked three campus jobs to pay for school. Later, he started Epoch Residential, one of the nation’s largest homebuilders.

And in the years since, Pugh and his wife, Alexis, have become Orlando-area civic leaders and champions of the University of Florida. The Alexis and Jim Pugh Hall at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts is named in their honor, and the couple has given generously to a host of other organizations: UF, the Atlantic Center for the Arts, the Orlando Museum of Art and more.

All of which makes Pugh an ideal role model, Rose says. The Horatio Alger Association, the largest provider of need-based scholarships in the United States, supports outstanding high school students who are committed to pursuing higher education and giving back to their communities. Like Pugh, Horatio Alger Scholars face adversities and are resilient in overcoming them.

“I promised myself at a young age that I wouldn’t give up on the things that I loved,” Pugh says. “The Horatio Alger Association gives exceptional students the means to keep going, and I look forward to being a part of that.”

Pugh and his class of 2018 will be formally inducted into the Horatio Alger Association — named for the 19th-century author of hundreds of dime novels in the “rags-to-riches” genre — during its award ceremonies in Washington, D.C., April 5-7.

Notable Horatio Alger Award Recipients