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Born in Charleston, West Virginia, in 1944, the Honorable John T. McNabb II grew up in the coal country of southern West Virginia. At the time, his father was serving in the North Atlantic during World War II. “My mother was only 19 when I was born,” McNabb says. “We became very close. She had the gift of a beautiful voice and sang at weddings, funerals, and other church-related events. When I was a toddler, our family entertainment was my mother’s piano playing, card games, and sitting together listening to favorite shows on our three-foot-tall Victrola radio. We lived in a two-bedroom, one-bath house with a railroad directly in front of it.”

When the war ended, McNabb’s father returned home and began working for his father-in-law’s meat processing business. “It was my great good fortune to be born into a patriotic and hardworking family who loved God and America,” McNabb says. “My four grandparents had a total of seven years of schooling. My parents and grandparents were smart and well read, but no one could afford college.”

As a boy, McNabb had low self-esteem, and he’s unsure of why this was the case. “It didn’t come from my loving parents,” he says. “For some reason, I felt the need to prove myself to be relevant, but that began to change once I became involved in sports.”

One day, McNabb was invited to try out for a local baseball team. He hit the first ball out of the park. The team was affiliated with a church that his family did not attend, and the coach told him that to be a part of the team, his family had to join that church. When he told his parents about his baseball encounter, they showed their support for him by changing from their Methodist church to the Baptist church. McNabb’s parents spent their evenings practicing with him. His father pitched to him and his mother fielded the balls he hit. Eventually, his mother became the team’s coach.

By the time he was 10, McNabb was spending his summers playing baseball and working at his grandfather’s meat processing plant. “I would wake up early in the morning and punch the clock, work all day in my white freezer outfit, and then go play sports in the evening. It’s a schedule I maintained all the way through high school,” McNabb explains. “My work changed over the years. Once I got my driver’s license, I drove a truck and delivered meat in southern West Virginia and worked in operations. I worked hard at the plant from age 10 until 17. I come from a long line of hard workers. No one complained about that, everybody just worked hard. That’s how I grew up. There was love in my family, but there wasn’t much leniency, and that’s how I have lived my life.”

In high school, McNabb’s athleticism extended to football. He was named to two football All-American teams during his senior year, which earned him a football scholarship to Duke University. “Going to Duke was a big challenge for me,” McNabb says. “I was the first in my family to attend a four-year university and I had no preparation for it. I was a little intimidated. But once again, sports helped me through that challenge.”

During his four years at Duke, McNabb was named to the All-Atlantic Coast Conference Offense Team and awarded the Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the outstanding blocker in the Atlantic Coast Conference. In 1965, he was Duke Football’s Most Valuable Player and served as one of the team captains. He was named to two All-American teams, one as a guard and one as a center. He received offers to play professionally, but he refused. The Vietnam war was in full swing, and McNabb felt it was time to serve his country.

He volunteered for the U.S. Air Force. While in Vietnam, he served two combat flying tours in Southeast Asia. He flew 137 combat sorties and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters, and the Air Force Commendation Medal. In 1970, he was a finalist for Pacific Air Force Junior Officer of the Year. Upon his honorable discharge from the Air Force, McNabb earned his MBA degree from the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University.

McNabb started his career in the energy industry in 1979, accepting a job offer from Mobil Oil’s exploration and production division located in Denver, Colorado. He has been involved in domestic and international energy operations and management for more than 40 years. During this time, he also co-founded a merchant banking firm, Growth Capital Partners, serving as chair and chief executive officer for the nearly 20 years of the firm’s existence. After the firm was sold to Duff & Phelps, an international financial services entity, McNabb served as that company’s vice chairman of investment banking.

McNabb went on to serve as chair and later chairman and chief executive officer of Willbros Group, a Fortune 1000 publicly listed company and one of the world’s largest energy contractors. He also served as lead director for two Fortune 500 public companies and has served on the boards of directors of eight publicly listed companies. Additionally, he has served on more than 50 privately owned companies and nonprofit entities, including as chairman of the Board of Visitors at the University of Houston.

Most recently, McNabb was appointed by President Trump to a five year- term with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Council. He was also co-chair of the Council for a Secure America and is an emeritus member of the Board of Visitors of the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University.

An active philanthropist, Darlene and John McNabb focus their giving to the educational needs of at-risk children and funding faith-based educational entities.

When he was in his 40s, McNabb was dissatisfied with his inner self. “I felt it was time for an honest self-evaluation,” he says. “I made a list of 20 traits that I wanted to examine—things that I considered to be pluses as well as minuses. It was a long and difficult exercise, but I came out of that experience with a spark and desire to make a difference. To me, that’s the definition of leadership: making a difference. From that point forward, that’s what I set out to do in all my endeavors.”

McNabb taught leadership for four years at the University of Houston. His advice to his students was to be true to themselves. He also counseled them to be more of a listener than a talker. A strong believer in the American dream, McNabb says, “My life is a product of my circumstances, my choices, my will, and my values. I believe you can shape your own destiny, but you have to put in the effort and work. You have to be ethical and make choices that are moral. Most of all, you have to be true to yourself.”

McNabb warns against complacency. “It’s complacency and fear that keep us from doing what is necessary to expand our horizons,” he says. “My life is proof that if one actively pursues self-improvement, one can greatly change their circumstances and possibilities.”

About receiving his nomination for the Horatio Alger Award, McNabb says, “This is a special time in my life. I see this award as validation of a life lived with integrity and honor. Helping others and making a positive difference are what has always motivated me. You know, you only get one life on earth, so I believe you should do with it what you can. It is not practice.”

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