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Gallup's Clifton dies at age 79 (this story ran in the Journal Star Sept. 16 2003)

Gallup's Clifton dies at age 79 (this story ran in the Journal Star Sept. 16 2003)

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Donald O. Clifton, who spent academic and business careers finding and exercising his strengths and those of others, died Sunday after an illness of several months.

A funeral service is scheduled for 1 p.m. Thursday at St. Mark's United Methodist Church, 8550 Pioneers Blvd.

Clifton, 79, was chairman of The Gallup Organization after his company, Selection Research Inc., acquired Gallup in 1988. After retiring as chairman of the whole organization, he was chairman of Gallup's International Research and Education Center and senior archivist of its World Leader Study.

"Don's been a great friend over the years. I just talked to him three days ago. It's with great sadness I hear of his death. We lost a great Nebraskan and a truly great person,"said U.S. Rep. Tom Osborne, who was a student of Clifton's at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Clifton started SRI in 1969 after teaching and researching educational psychology at UNL for 19 years. A native of Butte, Clifton attended UNL on a Regents scholarship and earned three degrees there, one in math and two in educational psychology, not counting honoraries. He won the Distinguished Flying Cross for service in World War II.

Under Clifton's leadership and that of his children, all of whom work for the organization, Gallup has grown beyond its popular reputation as public opinion pollster to the broader field of management consulting for some of the world's most prominent companies. Among Gallup's specialties are market research and selection research, helping businesses and other institutions find the right people for the right job.

Just last month Gallup opened its new research, education and training center along the Missouri riverfront in Omaha.

Gallup's continued success has as much to do with Clifton's research and his family's work as its world-famous name. Clifton was one of his generation's most consistently successful entrepreneurs, and he lived almost his entire life in Nebraska.

He started SRI with three people, including himself, and now Gallup employs thousands at 40 offices in 20 nations. SRI developed itself and and Gallup continues by using scientific research and measurements to help businesses create and maintain healthy workplace environments in which people can thrive.

In fact, a theme of Clifton's career and his own company's management was the focus on what kind of surroundings help people succeed.

"I personally think that bad workplaces, bad jobs cause more problems than drugs and alcohol," Clifton told an interviewer in 1994. "When you use a person up during the day, then they go home and they're not a good family member."

In that field of work and study, Clifton created more than 200 personnel selection interviews for salespeople, managers, army generals, industry CEOs, priests, teachers, physicians, nurses, dentists, professional basketball and ice hockey players, lawyers, accountants and support personnel, according to Gallup.

One of his most recent achievements was co-writing two books published by Gallup, "Soar With Your Strengths" and "Now, Discover Your Strengths," a bestseller.

Another of Clifton's notable talents was his spanning the gulf between town and gown, between business and academia, the practical and the theoretical.

"Don was a pillar of support for the university and had a remarkable vision of how the university could partner with the private sector to the benefit of both," said Harvey Perlman, UNL chancellor. Clifton was a past board member of the University of Nebraska Foundation, and Gallup has established cooperative programs with UNL.

Clifton also could be as common as they come.

Sharon Lutz, who was his administrative coordinator for 25 years, said one of Clifton's talents was his range.

"He could address a room full of executives or meet a president of a company and they felt he was talking directly to them," she said. "He could make that same connection with support staff or a school custodian. To me that's the ultimate in sophistication: the ability to reach anyone."

Clifton could have covered his walls with honors and awards from 4-H clubs, professional organizations and universities. Among the highest tributes would be his children's willingly following in his footsteps.

All four born to Clifton and his wife, Shirley, who survives him, work for Gallup: Jim Clifton is CEO; Jane Miller is chief operating officer; Mary Reckmeyer runs the Donald O. Clifton Child Development Center, Gallup's innovative day care and school operation; and Connie Rath is dean of Gallup University.

Contributing to Clifton's achievements were his invention, his generosity and his willingness to walk it like he talked it, said Gale Muller, Gallup's vice chairman for research and consulting, who worked with Clifton for more than 40 years.

"He was my mentor, my teacher," Muller said. "He was a very generous man, one of the most generous humans that have probably ever lived. A great inventor. He was the father of strengths psychology. ... He lived that. He invented lots of things."

Lutz, too, saw his originality.

"There was a simple elegance about his discoveries, looking at people's talents. It makes so much sense. The rest of the world is looking for what's wrong."

Another of Nebraska's illustrious doctors of educational psychology agreed.

Tom Osborne was a graduate student at UNL in 1962 when Don Clifton was teaching there.

"Most people were studying abnormal behavior in rats. Don was saying what we need to do is study the best in human behavior and performance. If you want to make a better insurance salesman, study the top 10 and find out what makes them tick. It was an entirely different approach. I was really impressed he was willing to step out and go against the trend."

Osborne said he was also impressed when Clifton left academia a few years later and put his ideas to the test.

"He went 100 percent upstream. ... His ideas didn't resonate with traditional academics in psychology. He had a great idea and he made it work, a great understanding of what makes people tick."


Donald O. Clifton received the American Psychological Association's presidential commendation recognizing him in 2002 for lifetime achievements and contributions as "the father of strengths-based psychology and the grandfather of positive psychology."

Other awards and honors:

- Distinguished Flying Cross for service during World War 11.

- University of Nebraska's Entrepreneur of the Year, 1988.

- NU honorary doctorate of humane letters, 1990.

- Lincoln Rotary Club's Community Service Award, 1990.

- Distinguished Psychologist in Management award, Society of Psychologists in Management, 1997.

- Builder Award, NU; management honorary Beta Gamma Sigma's national recognition award, 1998.

- Psychology Today Chi Award,


- Honorary doctorate of laws, Azusa Pacific University, 2001.


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