11 High School Dropouts Who Found Success Anyway

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Every year an alarming number of high school students decide to call it quits on their education. While many, if not most, live to regret the decision, quite a few dropouts have done pretty well for themselves. Here’s a look at 11 high school dropouts who went on to find great success. (Film and music are littered with precocious artists whose careers started to take off while they were still just teenagers, so we’ll save them for another day.)

1. Kemmons Wilson

You may not recognize Wilson’s name, but you may have spent a night under one of his roofs at the Holiday Inn chain he founded. Wilson was still a baby when his father died in 1913, and when his mother had financial trouble he left school to supplement her income. Wilson parlayed a movie popcorn concession into a pinball machine business that in turn became a Wurlitzer jukebox franchise until he jumped into the motel game. Wilson later quipped, “When you ain’t got not education, you just gotta use your brain.”

2. Dave Thomas

The affable Wendy’s founder dropped out of high school when he was 15 so he could work in a restaurant. Thomas regretted his decision and worried that he was setting a bad example by not having finished his education, so 45 years later he earned his GED from Coconut Creek High School in Florida. When he graduated in 1993, his classmates went way out on a limb and voted Thomas as Most Likely to Succeed.

3. Peter Jennings

The late anchorman dropped out of school after flunking the 10th grade. He later told Reader’s Digest, “I think it was pure boredom. I loved girls. I loved comic books. And for reasons I don't understand, I was pretty lazy.” He went to work as a bank teller and later jumped into broadcasting.

4. William Faulkner

Like Jennings, the great novelist dropped out of high school in his second year and went to work in a bank. Faulkner eventually resumed his schooling at the University of Mississippi, but he dropped out of college after just a year. He then spent two years as the university postmaster at Ole Miss, a job he lost. (Faulkner said of his canning, “I reckon I’ll be at the beck and call of folks with money all my life, but thank God I won’t ever again have to be at the beck and call of every son-of-a-b---- who’s got two cents to buy a stamp.”)

5. Richard Branson

The “rebel billionaire” behind Virgin wasn’t as successful in the classroom as he’s been in business. Branson’s dyslexia caused him a great deal of trouble as a student, so when he was 16 he left school to go into business for himself. Now he’s got a net worth in the neighborhood of $4 billion.

6. Leon Uris

The author of Exodus earned renown for the painstaking research and detail he put into each of his novels, but Uris wasn’t doing any of his research with the aid of a high school diploma. Although Uris clearly had a gift for writing, it didn’t translate so well into his high school English classes; he failed the subject three times, which later led him to declare, “English and writing have little to do with each other.” When Uris was 17 he gave up high school for good to enlist in the Marine Corps following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

7. James Naismith

The Canadian inventor of basketball had a pretty rough early life. Both of his parents died when he was just nine years old, so he went to work in a lumber camp to help support his siblings and the uncle who was raising them. By the time he was 15, Naismith decided he didn’t need any more schooling to bring home a buck, so he dropped out. After a few years of hard living and hard work, Naismith went back to high school when he was 20 and graduated in two years. He later went on to earn a medical degree and create a certain game that used a peach basket.

8 & 9. The Wright Brothers

Neither of the famous flyboys received their high school diplomas, though Wilbur was close. Orville dropped out of school in 1889 to start a printing business; Wilbur helped him build his first makeshift printer out of odd parts like a discarded tombstone and pieces from broken-down buggies. One of the brothers’ earliest clients went on to earn great acclaim for himself; Orville’s high school buddy poet Paul Laurence Dunbar published his first poems in the Wright brothers’ newspaper. [NOTE: The original version of this story mistakenly identified Orville as the older brother. Wilbur was born in 1867; Orville was born in 1871.]

10. Walt Disney


The cartoonist dropped out of high school when he was 16 to enlist for World War I. The American armed forces rejected him, though, and after a plan to enlist in the Canadian military fell through, Disney spent a brief period of time working for the post office. Eventually he made it to the European fighting as a member of the Red Cross Ambulance Corps, though.

11. John D. Rockefeller

By some calculations, Rockefeller was the richest man in history. He didn’t get around to finishing high school, though. By the age of 16, he was working as an assistant bookkeeper for a produce commission firm, and he quickly began amassing his giant oil fortune. Even though he dropped out of high school, Rockefeller had a keen appreciation for the virtues of education; a large chunk of his legendary philanthropic donations went to schools and universities.

October 5, 2010 - 9:52am
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