Richard (Dick) Knowlton has never liked settling for second best. A self-made man, he started working part-time at Hormel Foods as a teen to pay for his first trip to the dentist and to save money for college. He earned a football scholarship at the University of Colorado, where he starred for three years. He even turned down a contract with the Philadelphia Eagles to return to Austin, Minn., where he worked his way to the top of Hormel as president, CEO and chairman of the board.
Today, this titan of the American meat industry and philanthropic role model speaks sparingly. His wife, Nancy, is by his side, as she has been the past 63 years. When you marry, it’s for better or for worse. The Knowltons have known better. Today, as Dick is living in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease, is the worse.
The couple has made a life of supporting worthwhile causes from disadvantaged students and teachers in Minnesota to immigrants to their beloved University of Colorado. Now, they have a new passion: finding a cure for Alzheimer’s disease.
To that end, the Knowltons have announced a $500,000 donation to the Colorado Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association to bolster the association’s search for a cure for the only leading disease without a prevention, treatment or cure.
“Alzheimer’s is a wicked disease,” says Nancy Knowlton. “We’d do anything to help find, through research, a way to do away with it completely. I hope everybody steps up to the plate. I can’t think of anything better than to be a part of getting rid of this awful disease.”
A business leader with a heart for the community
Beyond his business acumen that helped transform Hormel from a commodity meat company to a much larger and more profitable international, consumer-branded packaged-foods company, Knowlton spent his career as a dedicated civic leader in Austin. With his vision for Austin to have the best public schools in the nation, Knowlton initiated projects to provide financial resources to ensure students got a college education and teachers earned master’s degrees. He also worked to ensure that immigrants could assimilate into the community.
Knowlton also has remained committed to his alma mater, and the CU Buffaloes, where he starred for three years (1951-53) at offensive guard and was named an honorable mention member of the University of Colorado “All-Century” football team.
He served on the Leeds School of Business board, became a member of the CU Foundation, and led fundraising efforts for the Dal Ward Athletic Center and other facilities on campus. He received the George Norlin Award for distinguished achievement from the CU Boulder Alumni Association in recognition of his many efforts for the university.
“We are so proud of my father. He has excelled at everything he’s done,” says Julie Wham, a member of the Colorado board of the Alzheimer’s Association and one of Dick’s five children. “He created his own opportunities. He was one of seven children born in a modest house two blocks from the Hormel packinghouse. His father, my grandfather, earned his living at Hormel weighing livestock.”
From those humble beginnings, Knowlton rose to the pinnacle of his industry. Over his career, he has earned dozens of honors and recognitions, including the Distinguished American Award from the Horatio Alger Association, the Man of Achievement Award from the Anti-Defamation League, Crisis Manager of the Year Award from Carnegie-Mellon, and Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Colorado’s Leeds Business School. He was inducted into the Meat Industry Hall of Fame in 2009, and the Knowlton Innovation Award was established in his honor.
Continuing the Knowlton tradition
“Dad always taught us to do what is right, and he led by example,” says Wham. “I know he is pleased that through this gift, he and my mother are investing in the Alzheimer’s Association’s efforts. I’m banking on a cure, for all of us. Alzheimer’s is too rampant … too pervasive.”
Currently there are 5.7 million people in the United States living with Alzheimer’s. There are an estimated 50 million people living with the disease globally. By 2050, if a cure is not found, it is estimated there will be nearly 14 million people in the United States, and over 131 million globally living with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
“Having known the Knowlton family for many years, I am not surprised by their leadership and generosity in making this gift,” says Don Bechter, chairman of the Colorado board of the Alzheimer’s Association. “Every donation brings us closer to finding a cure for Alzheimer’s, but this is a huge step that we hope will inspire others. Alzheimer’s is a relentless disease, but with the help of people like Dick and Nancy Knowlton, we are confident that we will find a cure.”