East Texan famous for Mexican restaurant chain, literacy work passes away
TYLER, TX (KLTV) -
An East Texas entrepreneur, famous for owning several Mexican restaurants in addition to his literacy advocacy work, passed away this week.
Tom Harken owned several Casa Ole restaurants in East Texas, before retiring to Tyler five years ago.
The 76-year-old died at a Houston hospital on Wednesday, after battling illness for the last year.
Family friend and colleague Nancy Crawford remembers Harken as "a true American rags to riches story, by a decent honest person who continued to give back."
Harken did everything from selling vacuum cleaners to recreational vehicles before opening his first Casa Ole restaurant in Beaumont in 1979.
But the successful entrepreneur had been hiding a secret for years: he did not know how to read.
"He was a very good salesman," Crawford said. "When he began selling things, he would bring Melba to do the paperwork, and they just kept it a big secret for a long time."
His wife, Melba, did eventually teach him to read. He later wrote a book that gained national attention, "The Millionaire's Secret."
"He told others, look I'm standing in front of you, I've made success of my life and I learned how to read," Crawford said. "It's not too late, you are not stupid, you can do this."
In 1992, he was awarded the prestigious Horatio Alger award, given to community leaders who persevere through adversity.
"He really knew the sting of what it is to not be able to read," Crawford said. "He also knew how hard you have to work and how committed you have to be to turn it around. And he did, he turned it around."
Harken eventually sold his restaurants and retired to Tyler, where he immediately dove into work with the Literacy Council of Tyler.
"The day he moved to Tyler he came to see us," Crawford said. "We were the first people he sought out and said I'm here to help."
All of his success, he contributes to his wife.
"I can't tell you how highly he spoke of her," Crawford said. "In his opinion she was his salvation."
Harken worked on the Literacy Council's board until last year, when he had to step down due to illness.
His family will be holding funeral services Thursday and Friday of this week in Beaumont.