WASHINGTON -- Two decades after selling his North Little Rock McDonald's restaurant and moving to Muskogee, Okla., Kevin Hern is now a multimillionaire businessman and a congressman from the Sooner State.
The Tulsa Republican was elected in November to fill the seat vacated by Jim Bridenstine, President Donald Trump's choice to lead the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
People who grew up with Hern, 57, say he's proof that hard work pays off.
"If you want to look up a poster child for the true American success story, it would be Kevin Hern," said Tony Moore, a Russellville real estate broker who has known Hern for roughly a half-century.
Born on an Air Force base in Missouri in 1961, Hern moved to Pope County with his mother and younger brother after his parents split up.
It was a homecoming for his mother and a one-way ticket to poverty as well.
Once in Arkansas, "she proceeded to marry a person that didn't like to work too much. Or at all," Hern said in an interview at his Capitol Hill office.
From 1969 to 1980, the family relied on food stamps to get by, Hern recalled.
"We moved around a lot: Atkins, Dover, Hector, all over the place. Some towns twice in the same year," Hern said. "It wasn't because [the stepdad] was in the military. It was because he wouldn't pay the rent. The utilities would get turned off so he'd move somewhere else."
Like some of his siblings, Hern suffered from spina bifida, a disease that killed his oldest sister. The condition would eventually prevent Hern from pursuing a career in the U.S. Navy.
Growing up, things that many Americans take for granted were luxuries.
"No running water till I was in eighth grade. It's tough. It was tough," Hern said.
While other high school students were working and saving for college, Hern was focused on keeping his family afloat.
His paychecks helped ensure that the lights stayed on and the car payments were made, he recalled.
After graduating from Dover High School in 1980, he worked for a time and then enrolled at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville, eventually earning a degree in engineering.
In January 1986, Hern moved to Atlanta for a $36,000-a-year job at Rockwell International, the aerospace behemoth that months earlier had secured a multimillion-dollar contract from NASA to manage space shuttle operations.
Days after Hern was hired, the space shuttle Challenger exploded in the skies above Florida. Within a year, Hern would be searching for employment again.
He returned to Arkansas and went to work for McDonald's, rising quickly through the ranks of the fast-food chain. In 1989, he was recognized as one of five outstanding McDonald's managers in Arkansas. Soon he was working as an operations manager for a number of McDonald's franchises in the Little Rock area.
While in central Arkansas, his marriage of nearly a decade fell apart.
His priority wasn't his family, he recalled -- it was "work first, work second, work third. I knew that nobody would ever outwork me."
After what he describes as hitting "rock bottom," he began rebuilding.
He met and eventually married a churchgoing woman from Russellville and became a Christian himself.
This year, Kevin and Tammy Hern will celebrate their 25th anniversary.
Eventually, Kevin Hern saved $100,000 -- enough that he was able to purchase a McDonald's on Camp Robinson Road in North Little Rock.
"Jan. 17, 1997, was the last time [in the private sector] I ever received a paycheck from anybody else," Hern said. "From that point forward, my name has always been on both sides of that check."
In 1999, Hern sold his Arkansas franchise and purchased two others in Muskogee. Eventually, he would own 18 franchises in the Tulsa area.
In addition to his restaurant holdings, Hern also has launched a number of other business enterprises over the years. He built a hog farm, co-founded a community bank and launched a string of high school sports publications. He also owns a company that manufactures furniture and decor for some of the country's largest fast-food restaurant chains.
Today, Hern has assets worth between $38.7 million and $92.9 million, The Oklahoman reported last month, citing federal financial disclosure reports.
With Bridenstine gone, five Republican candidates faced off to replace him.
Hern bolstered his campaign coffers with $900,000 of his own money, according to press reports.
After finishing second in a five-way primary, Hern easily won the runoff election, receiving nearly 54.9 percent of the vote. He would go on to defeat Democrat Tim Gilpin, 59.3 percent to 40.7 percent.
Gerald Johnston, a former Tyson Foods Inc. chief financial officer, has known Hern a long time. Hern's grandmother was married to Johnston's father.
"He was an extremely smart man and a very driven young man," Johnston said.
"He's one of those success stories that America is proud of," Johnston added. "Nothing was handed to him. He just didn't have anything given to him. He had to earn it all on his own."
Johnston says Hern is the kind of leader the nation needs: smart, fiscally responsible and grounded in his faith.
"There's no doubt in my mind, he will put the country first," Johnston added. "He's not someone that's out to protect the rich and all that. He's out to do what's best for America."
PLANS FOR OFFICE
As a candidate, Hern promised to help Trump make America great again.
"I've never met Donald Trump, but here's what I know. His policies are working, and his business policies are working," he said. "We've got the greatest economy we've had in the history of this country ... so they must be working."
Hern said he's concerned that the nation is so divided.
"There's no trust between one another. If you can't have trust that we're all working for the common good, it's very difficult to move forward," he said.
Mark Ferguson, who attended school with Hern in Atkins, said "it's not surprising, in retrospect," that his longtime friend decided to run for Congress.
"He certainly had all the character traits you'd want to see in someone in office. He certainly had the intellect and the personality to pull it off."
Ferguson, a banker who lives in Conway, said Hern "just always had a heart to serve others."
Moore, the Russellville real estate broker, said he was pleased when he learned that his friend was running for Congress.
"I was elated for the country, concerned for my friend and thankful that he would step up to offer himself. For him, I promise you it's a sacrifice. Kevin doesn't need anything. This is Kevin's way of giving back," he said.
So far, Moore's encouraged by what he's seen.
"I still think he's the best guy that puts a pair of pants on in D.C. every day. That's my honest opinion. That's how good a guy he is," Moore said. "I just pray that [Washington] will be changed by him and not the other way around."
SundayMonday on 02/25/2019