1999 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"You should want to be better today than you were yesterday."
The son of Russian immigrants, Bernard Rapoport was born in 1917 in San Antonio, Texas. His father was a peddler who sold blankets for 10 cents down and 10 cents a week in the poor neighborhoods of San Antonio. His mother, whom Rapoport describes as "the personification of love" was a self-sacrificing woman who created a warm, supportive home for her two children. Although his lack of skills or fluency in English kept Rapoport's father from finding a well-paying job, he did not ignore his self-education. Reading was of primary importance to him and one of the only free-time activities allowed in his strict household.
Punished for his involvement in the Russian Revolution of 1905, Rapoport's father was exiled to Siberia for life when he was 17. Eventually, he escaped and immigrated with his brother to the United States, arriving in Texas in 1913. Rapoport often told his son to always remember that coming from a Jewish revolutionary family meant he would have to work twice as hard to get half as far in life.
Although he felt loved and nurtured, Rapoport felt that his youth was marred by the family's grinding poverty and the many humiliations it caused. When he was seven, Rapoport was appalled when he came home from school and found that the family's furniture was in the street. They had been unable to make their payments and were literally thrown out of their house. For a number of years, the family never had the electricity, phone, gas, and water all turned on at the same time. Whenever a friend would ask to use the phone, Rapoport would pick it up first to see if it was in service.
When Rapoport was 11, his father took a job selling insurance. At first, it seemed as if their financial struggles would end, but it was 1928 and the Depression soon took its toll. About that time, Rapoport got his first job selling subscriptions to Liberty magazine. He also earned 25 cents a day distributing advertising circulars for the neighborhood grocery store.
Hard work was the cornerstone value passed on to Rapoport from his rigid father, who told his son, "You are always old, you are never young." Rapoport knew his father meant that he should never be a procrastinator. He had to accomplish as much as possible in one day. Even as an adult, he remembers his father calling him at 5:00 a.m. to ask him what he was doing. After telling his father he was sleeping, Rapoport would hear, "Son, do you want to be a bum all of your life? Get out of bed and start reading a book right now!" Rapoport did become a disciplined person. An avid reader in his youth, he visited the library nearly every day. His routine today includes rising early enough so that he can read for 90 minutes before going to work.
When he was 13, Rapoport suffered a debilitating accident. He had just gotten off the city bus in front of his house, anxious to get inside to listen to a World Series baseball game on the radio. He ran in front of a car and the force of the impact threw him up onto the sidewalk, breaking his leg badly. Rapoport's parents could not afford the best medical care and the injury took more than a year to heal completely. By then, Rapoport's leg was significantly shorter than the other. In bed for five months, he had to be tutored to keep up with his class. Studying, however, was never a chore for him. He secretly hoped that he would become a professor one day. It looked as if his dream would come true when he graduated at the top of his class, winning a scholarship to a college in the Midwest. Unfortunately, Rapoport was unable to pay for his transportation costs to the school. He was forced to enroll in San Antonio Junior College, putting off his goal of going to a major university. Even though he was still living at home, Rapoport needed to work to pay for his expenses. He got a job on campus with the National Youth Administration, earning 25 cents an hour washing chemistry bottles.
The following year, Rapoport transferred to the University of Texas in Austin. He was where he wanted to be, but it was a struggle to work full time and attend classes. He worked at Zales, a jewelry store, whose hours allowed him to attend classes in the morning and work a full day after lunch and on Saturdays. During his senior year, he became responsible not only for his own support, but that of his sister. She was a freshman and his parents' financial struggles still kept them from offering assistance. It was a difficult time for him to juggle school and work, but Rapoport says that his years at the University of Texas were the most important of his life. He majored in economics and became active in politics, joining a student organization called Progressive Democrats.
In 1942, while working as credit manager at Zales in Wichita Falls, Rapoport married Audre Newman. Two years later, they opened their own jewelry store called Art's Jewelers. Politically active, the Rapoports managed the gubernatorial campaign for a local candidate. They believed so strongly in their candidate that they invested their entire personal savings of $3,000 in the race. Their risky investment caused them to go so deeply into debt they were forced to sell their store in 1949.
Starting over, Rapoport became an insurance salesman for the Pioneer American Insurance Company of Houston. Within a few months, he moved to Waco and opened a general agency office, which quickly became a success. A year later, he borrowed $25,000 and founded the American Income Life Insurance Company in 1951, which quickly grew nationwide. In 1994, after more than four decades guiding and growing his company, Rapoport sold it to Torchmark Corporation. Aware of how critical Rapoport's leadership had been to the company's success, the acquisition agreement included keeping him on as chairman and CEO.
Today, Bernard Rapoport serves as a role model and mentor to youth. His advice to them is based on the values he learned from his parents that have worked so well in his own life. "Values are everything," he says. His personal philosophy of life can be summed up in three points: "Protect your name, never let a book out of your hands, and have a sense of outrage at injustice."
Recently Rapoport launched a volunteer tutoring program in Waco's public schools, and is himself a weekly volunteer. He says, "Through education, we accord people their dignity." He believes that every citizen should have an opportunity to succeed and that education is the key to making that happen. "That is why my Horatio Alger Award means so much to me," he says. "I am honored that it recognizes my accomplishments and public service, but I am especially thrilled about the scholarships for at-risk youth. I believe society is indictable whenever we deny anyone the opportunity to achieve what is possible."* Deceased