What Will Be Your Legacy?

This piece was written by George Schaefer, for use at a corporate retreat with the theme ‘Building a Legacy of Success.’  He used this story to convey what it takes to create and sustain a legacy.  It is used here with his permission.

President and Mrs. Hoover photographed in the rear of a train that they traveled in.
President and Mrs. Hoover photographed in the rear of a train that they traveled in.

This is a story about a man named Bert.  It is a story of how he achieved success in business, earned vast wealth, held positions of power and led extraordinary humanitarian efforts whose impact resulted in a legacy that is still felt today, decades after his death, all across the globe.  It is a story about seeing beyond barriers, identifying opportunities, taking risks, and creating substantive value where those who went before you saw only a wasteland.  Finally, it is a story about making sure that the legacy you leave is large—very large—lest it be forgotten.

Bert enjoyed an unremarkable childhood until he was orphaned at age nine, and was then forced to live among strangers 1,500 miles away.  When he turned 18, he received his share of his parents’ estate.  His inheritance, their legacy, was nowhere near enough to pay for the college of his choice, Stanford University.  Bert wasn’t discouraged.  He wasn’t afraid of work.

So Bert worked, at dozens of menial low-paying jobs, while he attended classes.  After graduating from Stanford with a degree in geology, his first job was as a pick and shovel miner paid the princely sum of $2 a day.  Bert was thrilled with opportunity to work in his chosen field, learning from ground up [or from beneath the ground up].

Bert’s first break came two years later when, at 23, he was recommended to interview in London for a position as ‘a mining engineer, at least 35 years old, with 10 years’ experience.’  Despite his lack of qualifications, Bert went to London (growing a beard en route to look older), interviewed well, and was hired to run a mine in Western Australia.  Life in the outback was miserable; he was surrounded by red dust, black flies and white heat.  Perth was the last outpost of civilization in Western Australia, and Bert was 200 miles from Perth.

In Australia, Bert was relentless in seeking new opportunities, traveling hundreds of miles across the desert to ever more remote locations, scouting for new mines.  During one such excursion, he found a gold mine for sale.  The owners had mined the gold nearest the surface and concluded that what remained would not be profitable.  Drawing on his Stanford training, Bert surveyed the site and came to a far different conclusion.  He surmised that there was still gold to be mined, but that it was deep underground.  To reach it, someone had to be willing to move tons of rock to get the gold.  He cabled London with his recommendation to purchase the ‘tapped out’ mine, staking his reputation on the assertion that the mine would fully return the investment within one year, then continue to produce gold. At that time, the life span of a gold mine was measured in weeks or months, not years.  Ignoring conventional wisdom, his company agreed to Bert’s recommendation and bought the mine.

The gold mine Bert discovered proved to be an enormous success.  It returned the company’s investment within 8 months, and the mine was productive, not for 70 weeks or 70 months, but for 70 years.  Not surprisingly, Bert’s company quickly escalated his duties, sending him to oversee mines in China, Burma, South Africa and Russia.  By the time he was 30, Bert was the highest paid employee in the world. By age 35, he was a partner of a company with 135,000 employees worldwide.  By 40, he was the richest self-made man of his time.

If the story were to end here, we might all agree that Bert had created a noteworthy legacy.  But Bert was just beginning.  At age 40, at the peak of his career, Bert chose to ‘retire’ from the game of making money and to devote his energies to public service.  By age 45, he was widely acclaimed as one of the most accomplished men in America.  When Harding became President, he offered Bert his choice of Cabinet posts.  Bert chose to serve as Secretary of Commerce.  Here he fundamentally re-invented a Federal government agency, transforming Commerce into an engine to create jobs, growth and prosperity.  While serving as Secretary, Bert also built a coalition to bring water, flood control and electricity to the American Southwest.  Without his administrative skills, Los Angeles might be a city of less than one million and Las Vegas would be little more than a wide spot on a desert road.

In his later life, Bert headed a panel to reorganize the executive branch of Federal government, working to reduce bureaucracy. He spearheaded fund-raising for the Boys’ Clubs of America in an effort to reduce juvenile delinquency.  He wrote more than forty books, scores of articles, and hundreds of speeches.  The list of legacy accomplishments is lengthy.  In short, Bert was a man who got things done. However, deep as we are into the sketch, we haven’t addressed the two things that most defined Bert’s public service legacy.  One was unsuccessful, and is remembered well.  The other was spectacularly successful, yet is largely forgotten.

Bert’s memorable unsuccessful public service was as the 31st President of the United States.  He had been in the White House for six months when the stock market crashed in October 1929.  The ensuing Great Depression has been permanently merged with Herbert Hoover’s legacy.  He is seen as one of the worst Presidents in history.  His Administration was said to be unsympathetic to the suffering of millions who lost their jobs, homes and farms, and who faced hunger and privation.  At what could have been the pinnacle of his public service career, Bert was vilified.  He became a pariah.  Even after he left office, members of his own party would meet with him, but refused to be photographed with him.  How could such a capable man come to be regarded as insensitive and cold-hearted?  It can only be ascribed to bad timing, especially when weighed against his other, largely forgotten, public service.

Bert was in London when World War I erupted in 1914.  It was here that he had a conversation that literally changed the rest of his life, and the lives of millions.  The American ambassador told Bert that a human tragedy of unprecedented magnitude was about to unfold in Belgium, where the opposing armies were entrenched in brutal warfare.  It was late fall.  The crops had either been burned or appropriated by the occupying armies.  There was no local economy.  7 million Belgians (and 3 million civilians in northern France) faced a winter of want, famine and starvation.  Bert listened carefully, and then said three words that spoke volumes about the man: ‘Can I help?’

Bert organized the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB).  The CRB quickly became the largest food relief effort in history.  Hoover oversaw fund-raising, the logistics of buying food, arranging shipment, negotiating safe passage and distributing food to the 10 million.  He did this as a private citizen from a neutral nation.   When American entered the war in 1917, he returned stateside to lead the United States Food Administration (USFA).  Bert knew that food would win the war.  As head of the USFA, he doubled American export of food to Europe between 1917 and 1918.  This food proved pivotal to victory.  When the war ended, the humanitarian crisis did not, as tens of millions of Germans, East Europeans and Russians faced starvation.  Bert fed them as well, saying: ‘Hunger does not recognize politics.’  After the war, for the second time in his life, he led the largest food relief effort in history.

Incredibly, Bert was called upon to replicate his food relief efforts thirty years later, in the wake of World War II.  At age 70, he responded magnificently, once again organizing relief efforts and delivering food to hundreds of millions in Europe, Africa and Asia.  For the third time in his life, Bert was part of the largest food relief effort to that time.  These humanitarian efforts clearly Bert Hoover’s most enduring legacy, one that deserves to be remembered.

George Schaefer closed out his presentation by reiterating the lessons to be drawn from Herbert Hoover’s story:

  1. See the big picture and see beyond the barriers. Imagine how different Bert’s legacy would be had he not been willing to travel to London for an interview almost certain to end in failure.
  2. Trust your instincts and recognize the real treasure lies deep underground Image how different Bert’s legacy would be had he not accepted the risks in digging deeper in a ‘tapped out’ mine.
  3. Go with what works for you, but make sure it works. Imagine how different Bert’s legacy would be had he not managed to transfer his genius for logistics to the new challenge of food relief.
  4. Resolve to be a builder and expect the best. Imagine how different Bert’s legacy would be had he not fought to create the CRB, a piratical state for benevolence unlike anything previously conceived, let alone built.
  5. Make the most of your dash. Bert’s grave is marked by a simple slab, reading only: ‘Herbert Hoover, 1874-1964’ with the dash between his birth year and death year standing for all the deeds of his life.  As Bert said himself: ’There is nothing more to a man’s legacy than the accomplishments he leaves behind.’  What will be your legacy?

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