Features American Success

From Fateful Fall to Winning Olympic Gold, Snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis Shares Her Journey of Self-Discovery

Sports, like life, can be unforgiving. If anyone in the world of sports knows what that is like, it would be Lindsey Jacobellis.

Ms. Jacobellis is the most decorated snowboard cross athlete of all time (snowboard cross is a competition involving going downhill among turns and jumps). Her longevity and continued success is a testament to her work ethic and her natural talent. But, as is too often the case in the world of public opinion, a single misstep that accounted for mere milliseconds has long been the haunting taunt of her career.

In 2006, during the snowboard cross event at the Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy, Ms. Jacobellis had a commanding lead over the three other contestants. The speed and turns had thrown two off the track, and Swiss snowboarder Tanja Frieden lagged behind in second. But in the second to last jump, only seconds from the finish line, the inexplicable happened.

Ms. Jacobellis grabbed her board to perform a move called a method. It is a relatively simple and common trick. But she hadn’t planned for it. It was muscle memory taking over, and she fell. As reliable and absolutely necessary as muscle memory is in sports, in that moment, it failed her.

“I spent a lot of time in therapy trying to find out the root cause of what really happened, and I couldn’t come up with anything other than it was that lapse in judgment—just dropping the ball, whatever sports metaphor there is,” Ms. Jacobellis said in an interview. “It was just something that happened that I can’t actually look back and understand why.” At the time, the general consensus in the sports world was that it was showboating gone horribly wrong. But for anyone with a keen eye, it appeared as if she tried to restrain the move while performing it: a decisive moment filled with indecision.

For athletes competing at the highest levels—and one cannot reach higher than the Olympics—a misstep, an injury, a malfunction can leave a searing mark that may never heal. When that mark is self-inflicted, the healing process becomes even more difficult. These are traumatic moments that leave athletes haunted by what-ifs. Ms. Jacobellis, then 20 years old, was not given a moment to gather her thoughts. Reeling from the disaster, trying to understand the moment while still in it, she was bombarded by journalists with probing questions.

“I had media training, and they want you to be articulate and to make sure you are representing your country well and are being a good sport,” she recalled. “So I’m proceeding through this procession of one after another. You’re trying to be a good sport while at the same time trying to understand what actually happened. [In those interviews,] you can see that I’m sort of all over the place. I was not giving a different excuse, but a different response with each interview, which only opened me up for more ridicule.”

Ms. Jacobellis in the lead, during the FIS Snowboard World Championships held in Utah, 2019. (Ezra Shaw/Staff/Getty Images Sport)

In her new book scheduled for release in October, …

(This is a short preview of a story from the Oct. Issue, Volume 3.)

Features American Success

Indy 500 Champion Won Race on 12th Try, Perseveres With Dad’s Advice: “Pursue It to the Very End”

Being a professional adrenaline junkie requires a cool head, according to Josef Newgarden, the newest Indy 500 champion. The open-wheel car racer had run the race 11 times prior, and he said the only difference between the 11th and 12th times was the fact that, as this latest attempt drew to a close, he saw he had the opportunity to fight for the finish, and he did.

“I think you just have to be prepared for the opportunity to win the race,” said Mr. Newgarden, who has been racing the IndyCar Series for 12 years and joined Team Penske in 2017. There was a tremendous moment of recognition, he acknowledged, but the very next weekend, they had a race in Detroit—the Indy 500 is only the sixth race of the season, after all.

The Indianapolis 500-Mile Race is the premier race of the top-level IndyCar (American open-wheeled car) race series. Traditionally, 33 drivers speed around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway 200 laps on Memorial Day weekend with nearly 300,000 spectators and crew packed into the space. “It’s the Super Bowl of our sport, if you will,” Mr. Newgarden explained. And the energy there is palpable.

“It’s really a sight to behold.” His first race, he felt engulfed in something extraordinary. “I remember feeling in awe of what the event represented and the magnitude of it, it’s really what you feel, the enormity of what the Indianapolis 500 is. That always sticks with you—certainly the first one, but all the way up to my 12th.”

The energy of the crowd so inspired Mr. Newgarden that moments after winning, he took off through a hole in the fence to spend the first moments of victory with fans before returning to the traditional ceremonies.

Josef Newgarden emerges victorious from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Speedway, Ind., May 28, 2023. (LAT)

Hard Work and Belief

For Mr. Newgarden, the word success brings to mind the idea of hard work.

Mr. Newgarden grew up watching racing on TV, introduced to it by his father and grandfather, both great fans of the sport. From as early as he can remember, Mr. Newgarden said he begged his father for a kart, and it wasn’t until he was 13 that his father relented. Professional go-karts are far from the amusement park vehicles that come to mind for most. They are used for racing and look like smaller versions of Indy cars. Mr. Newgarden played other sports, like baseball and basketball, but he had a passion for racing that far exceeded a hobby.

The family lived in Tennessee and traveled weekly to Indianapolis in order to compete.

“[My father is] certainly someone who has the belief of: If we’re going to try to pursue something, we’re going to pursue it to the very end,” Mr. Newgarden said.

He modeled the ability of being able to stay positive and motivated no matter the external circumstances, and it would prove invaluable for Mr. Newgarden. Between ages 16 and 17, Mr. Newgarden was out of school regularly for competitions, wondering if he would be able to make it professionally. Many, many other aspiring racers have this story, he added, dealing with the constant struggle of securing sponsorships and planning the next move. At times, it was demoralizing and demotivating. But his father’s steady approach taught him the art of “great perseverance.”

“He was the ultimate believer that we could do anything or figure any situation out. You have to be realistic but you also have to have that unwavering belief that you can continue to work hard and figure any situation out, or any challenge out,” Mr. Newgarden said. If there was no sponsorship, maybe it meant passing on the immediate race and putting together a business plan for the next. There was always a path forward.

“That, to me, is the biggest gift that you can give to someone who’s young,” he said. Mr. Newgarden and his wife welcomed their newborn son last year, and he looks forward to imparting the same gifts and lessons that his father taught him.

Race day on May 28, 2023, was much the same. The win was the result of steady, hard work, Mr. Newgarden said, and brilliant teamwork.

Mr. Newgarden (#2 Team Penske Chevrolet) and other drivers in a tight race during the NTT IndyCar Series at the Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, April 2023. (Sean Gardner/Stringer/Getty Images Sport)

The Perfect Race

“I’m a very competitive person, it really drives my life and I have to be competing at something,” said Mr. Newgarden. A driver has to enter each race believing in the opportunity to win, he said, but the Indy 500 is a kind of exception.

“It’s the hardest race to put together. Even if you were a great driver on the day, or you have the fastest car on the day, it just does not guarantee a victory. There’s just so much that has to go right,” Mr. Newgarden said. The Indy 500 is a race you may never win. “I know a lot of drivers that probably deserved to win the race that never won it.” Understanding that is freeing, in a way.

From the outside, racing may seem like a solo sport—much of the attention falls on the driver. In reality, Mr. Newgarden said, it’s not so different from football or a high-achieving company.

“There’s a whole team that is built around optimizing that race car and making it as fast as possible and trying to execute a perfect race,” he said. “I love that. I love the engineering that goes into it, the team dynamic. … We’ll have 80 to 100 people there across the month working on three cars, and we’re all pulling in the same direction.”

All races are team-intensive, but none so much as the Indy 500. Everyone has to execute perfectly down to fractions of seconds, and there are numerous variables beyond the control of any one person. “I’ve got to be perfect on that day, but if we’re not perfect as a team, we just will not win the race. It takes a big effort from everybody,” Mr. Newgarden said.

“It’s impossible to do almost anything in this world alone,” he said.

From Oct. Issue, Volume 3

Features American Success

From Batmobiles to Space Capsules, Art Thompson Designs Projects That Make the Imagination Soar

Babies’ chew toys, Batmobiles, rocket engines—Art Thompson makes them all.

Thompson is a modern-day da Vinci, the rare sort of individual these days who is equally comfortable in the worlds of arts and technology, and more often than not bringing the two together. One of his earliest jobs involved running a sign shop—the owner handed it over to him a day after he’d started. He was still a teenager. Later, his art background came in handy at the aerospace company Northrop, where he made architectural models and was pulled into working on the B2 stealth bomber for over 10 years.

Thompson’s own companies, Sage Cheshire Aerospace and A2ZFX, share a workshop space in Lancaster, California, devoted to design, engineering, prototyping, fabrication, and testing.

This Jeep Grand Cherokee was transformed into a commuter’s dream for a viral Verizon ad. (Courtesy of Art Thompson)

Sage Cheshire regularly makes parts for government agencies or aerospace companies—from aircraft fairings and components to antennae for the U.S. Navy—much faster and cheaper than they could do themselves.

“We’re a super small organization and highly efficient,” Thompson said. “So while a company like Northrop or Lockheed or Boeing spends a lot of time in bureaucracy trying to figure out what they want to do, we’re already finished with the project. And so they realize that and use that to their advantage by contracting work.”

The company can take on larger projects, too, such as scanning and reverse-engineering an airplane that an aerospace company bought from a foreign provider, who wouldn’t give them the plans. 

Thompson also has his own projects. Working with a space plane, he started to think about how he could develop the technology for a better defense system. Instead of using a hypersonic weapon against a hypersonic missile—the equivalent of launching a bullet to hit a bullet—he envisions launching a space plane at 250,000 or 350,000 feet in altitude, firing pulses of laser, which would have a better chance of hitting the target, since the speed of light is faster than the speed of a hypersonic missile. With its small footprint, the plane could also be used for reconnaissance and be transported easily anywhere around the world and launched from a regular runway, unlike a rocket.

In 2012, Thompson built a giant, 45-foot-long, 800-pound paper airplane that took to the Arizona skies for six seconds. It was part of the Pima Air & Space Museum’s Great Paper Airplane Fly-Off competition, to spark interest in aviation and engineering. The plane was based on a model by 12-year-old Arturo Valderamo. (Flight Test Museum)

While Sage Cheshire handles some serious business, A2ZFX focuses on product development and special effects—from the mundane to the spectacular. For example, the blister-like yellow bumps on sidewalks? Thompson’s team made the original version of these “truncated domes,” as they’re formally known. “And I cursed myself every time going over them with a shopping cart—along with millions of other people,” he said good-naturedly. A more dramatic, and flammable, example involved recreating a flying object zooming around in the air, to mimic the Human Torch for the promotion of a “Fantastic Four” movie. 

Some of his projects not only have an undeniable flair for fun but also are marketing gold—like the Hum Rider, engineered to show off a marvelous solution to traffic jams. Envision a Jeep Grand Cherokee, with a wheelbase that widens and a body that elevates several feet above traffic, leaving stunned commuters below in the dust. Conceived to promote Verizon’s Hum dongle and smart app, the video made ripples through the internet, receiving a billion views. 

The energy drink company Red Bull, with its marketing strategy embracing extreme sports and jaw-dropping stunts, was another client that was a natural fit. 

When Red Bull was in its early stages of entering the U.S. market, it hired Thompson to make its eye-catching “can cars”—Mini Coopers outfitted with giant Red Bull cans on top, deployed with reps all over the country to offer samples of its product. Thompson built over 1,000 of these vehicles, although he jokes he had to build 3,000 cans to replace the ones that got destroyed. He said, “We would always tell [the drivers], ‘Don’t drive into the parking structure,’” which they invariably would.

(Samira Bouaou)

Mission to the Edge of Space

In 2005, Thompson got a call from Felix Baumgartner, an Austrian friend whom he’d met at a Red Bull go-kart race in Austria. A daredevil and base jumper, Baumgartner was best known for his unpowered winged flight across the English Channel from 30,000-foot altitude in 2003 and jumping off the world’s tallest buildings, such as the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. 

He asked Thompson if he knew Joe Kittinger, who had jumped from a balloon at 102,800 feet in 1960 and reached a speed of 614 miles per hour, sustaining freefall for 4 minutes, 36 seconds. It was a record that stood unbroken. 

Then he asked Thompson: If you were to break Kittinger’s record, how would you do it? Baumgartner wanted to know if it was possible to jump from space or the stratosphere and fall at supersonic speed. 

“You know,” Thompson recalls telling him, “It’s 3:30 in the morning in Austria. Why don’t you go back to sleep, I’ll call you tomorrow and I’ll tell you some ideas.”

He ended up writing an 87-page proposal including how a pressurized capsule could be built, with redundant life support, spacesuits, and stratospheric balloons. 

Thompson flew to Austria to present the idea to Dietrich Mateschitz, the late owner of Red Bull, who engaged Thompson as the technical project director for the Stratos project. But Thompson didn’t want it to just be a marketing stunt. It needed to be real science with a purpose.

Art Thompson started making one “can car” for Red Bull and eventually produced over 1,000 of them. (Courtesy of Art Thompson)

Though Kittinger had made his jump over 50 years ago, the protocols around high-altitude freefall were few. Thompson saw a real-world opportunity. For him, it was about developing and researching how a U.S. Air Force or NASA pilot could safely exit a high-altitude craft, as well as medical systems to treat astronauts and pilots in case of ejection and rapid decompression. 

“The beauty of it is, the government didn’t pay one dime for it,” he said. “I got an Austrian energy drink company to pay for all of the development. We then shared this knowledge with the government for free.

“That’s the future of business, because the power of social media is that tool that can be used to fund future research,” he said. 

Say you wanted to go to Mars, Thompson offered by way of example. “The government doesn’t want to pay for going to Mars. … But if you could go to a tennis shoe company and say your tennis shoes are going to be the first ones going to Mars, and it’s going to cost this much,” these companies, with their huge marketing budgets, could step in and fund research programs that the government isn’t willing to fund. 

Doing the Impossible

During the Stratos project, another project turned up that Thompson couldn’t refuse. The Pima Air and Space Museum asked him: Would he build the world’s largest paper airplane?

When he was young, he would use newspaper and coat hangers and build giant paper airplanes. The largest he got was about 5 feet.

Thompson’s parents were science teachers who imparted to him a love of science. His mother, Alice, is pictured here with George, a pet mountain lion, in 1956. (Courtesy of Art Thompson)

This time, the dimensions were only limited by the need to fit the plane onto a semi truck. Built entirely out of paper, it was 45.5 feet long, with a 24-foot wingspan, and required 20 gallons of wood glue to put it together.  

As 300 schoolchildren watched, a Sikorsky S-58T helicopter took the plane up to 1,400 feet in the desert, and it was cut loose. It hit 98 miles per hour and flew just short of a mile. For Thompson, the main goal was achieved: to promote STEM education, and “help kids think outside of the box—that anything’s possible.”

“If I could have $1 for every person who told me the Red Bull Stratos was impossible, I’d be a millionaire,” Thompson said. There were physicists screaming at the end, ‘Don’t do it, his arms and legs will tear off.’” 

Kittinger calmly responded, “Thank you for your concern, you may want to recheck your calculations.”

There was certainly a lot at stake, and the project team of fewer than 100 people was working hard to solve problems as they arose. Thompson said, “I was told ‘no’ every time I turned around and just found a way around the issue to make it a ‘yes.’ That is the lesson for the next generation. Never take ‘no’ as a final outcome.”

Then there was the unpredictable human factor.

Thompson (R) served as the technical project director for Red Bull Stratos. Joe Kittinger (C) was the primary point of radio contact with jumper Felix Baumgartner during the ascent. (Courtesy of Art Thompson)

After years of testing and development and only weeks before the first manned flight, Baumgartner got cold feet—he was at the airport in Los Angeles and called up Thompson, who rushed to go see him. Baumgartner, as it turned out, had developed severe claustrophobia inside his pressurized space suit. Human factors specialists Andy Walshe and psychologist Michael Gervais were brought in to help Baumgartner, pushing him into various uncomfortable situations and reminding him that he was a superhero and his pressurized suit was specifically designed for him. 

Early on, it was decided that Kittinger, the one mission team adviser who understood firsthand what Baumgartner would experience, would communicate with him throughout his journey and talk him through the 47-point checklist before exiting the capsule.

The Space Capsule

Like Kittinger’s gondola traveling into space, the Stratos capsule was tethered to a helium balloon—but 10 times larger. At the size of 30 million cubic feet, it was the largest manned balloon ever flown. The ascent to an altitude of 127,852 feet took about two and a half hours. 

Just as he prepared to jump off the ledge of the capsule, Baumgartner said, “I’m coming home now.” 

“I know the whole world is watching and I wish the whole world could see what I see. Sometimes you have to go really high up to understand how small you really are.”

Thirty-four seconds after jumping, he hit Mach 1—just under 700 miles per hour. Fifty seconds after jumping, he reached March 1.25, a record speed of 843.6 miles per hour for a freefall. For 30 seconds, Baumgartner was supersonic.

He also set two other world records: the highest balloon flight (superseded by Alan Eustace in 2014) and the highest unassisted freefall. This Red Bull Stratos record is still a standing record, as Eustace’s jump was assisted with the use of a drogue parachute.

On Oct. 14, 2012, Felix Baumgartner made a freefall jump from space. Thirty-four seconds after jumping, he reached a top speed of 844 miles per hour and achieved his goal of being the first person to break the sound barrier without an aircraft. From a height of 127,852 feet in altitude, it took him nine minutes to get back to Earth, half of that time being in freefall. (Courtesy of Art Thompson)

It was just 65 years before, to the day, that Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier piloting the Bell X-1 Glamorous Glennis.

Back on Earth, about 9.5 million concurrent viewers were transfixed watching the feat, as 3.1 million tweets pinged across the globe. 

In all, it would be viewed by 3 billion people. 

It was an unmitigated success for Red Bull, a marketing coup—delivering a big uptick in sales, by 7 percent to $1.6 billion in the United States, and by 13 percent to $5.2 billion globally. 

Igniting people’s imagination was certainly one part of the formula, Thompson said. But he also brought to the table a more intangible ability: an ability to connect with and understand people from different backgrounds—scientific, medical, military, aerospace, and yes, even daredevil mindsets.

The Flight Test Museum and the Future

Stratos also made Thompson proud, partly because many kids told him it inspired them to get into engineering. As chair of the Flight Test Museum Foundation, he sees a unique opportunity. 

California’s Antelope Valley, also known as Aerospace Valley, is home to many aviation firsts due to the presence of Edwards Air Force Base, the United States Air Force (USAF) Plant 42, and NASA’s Neil A. Armstrong Flight Research Center, as well as companies such as Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Virgin Galactic, and Scaled Composites.

“Some of the most brilliant minds in the world are located [here],” Thompson noted.

He is now overseeing the move of the museum, currently on-base, to a new home—75,000 square feet of space just outside of the base. It’ll house the museum’s rare aircraft, but it will also be a STEM education center, as well as “neutral ground” for industry players, government, and schools to come together to discuss the future and inspire the next generation to want to be part of something greater.

What concerns him is the phenomenon of students being “plugged into the Internet permanently” and being “spoon-fed” set answers like “a stone wheel is the best thing on a car.”

A rendering of the planned building for the Flight Test Museum outside the gates of Edwards Air Force Base in California’s Antelope Valley. Designed by architecture firm Gensler, it resembles the shape of the Nighthawk, a stealth plane built in the 1980s. The museum will hold more than 80 historic aircraft; completion is due in 2024. (Courtesy of Art Thompson)

People want the answer quickly, Thompson said, but they don’t always know why they’re getting it. “We lose some of the creative aspects of invention and inspiration—because they settle for that answer.” 

Thompson’s parents, both science teachers, made it a point to expose him to as many interesting things as possible. “One of my best Christmas presents when I was a kid was when my parents got me a stack of lumber with a saw and hammer and nails. I was five or six years old in the backyard and started building pirate ships and forts.”

His inquisitive nature even became somewhat of a liability for his family. “One of the fears was, if they gave me something that I was going to take apart, and if I understood it really well, often, I didn’t bother putting it back together because—why?—I already knew how it worked.” 

When he was 13, he bought his first car, an old Karmann Ghia, for $500. He rebuilt the engine and redid the wiring harness—and drove it around without a license.

“Physics is so fascinating, because you see it in everything. And I remember as a kid, when math became a physical shape, all of a sudden, my mind exploded—because math formulas, you know, create not only two-dimensional shapes, but three-dimensional shapes.”

“If you can expose [children] to all the fascinating things in the world, at a really early age, that develops your synapses. All of that activity is making all those neural connections and mapping that make you want to do more and be more.”

It’s why he’s so passionate about the Flight Test Museum. “This becomes a world now that exposes people to what’s possible,” he said. “This is engineering in motion. It’s physics in motion.”

From February Issue, Volume 3

Features American Success Entrepreneurs Giving Back

Philanthropist Earl W. Stafford on How Faith Taught Him to Give Wisely: Help People Help Themselves

East of Philadelphia, over the Delaware River, lies a hamlet named Mount Holly. This New Jersey town is where Quakers first settled in the late 1600s. At one time, during the Revolutionary War, it became the state capital.

And, in the late 1940s, Earl W. Stafford was born in this same tight-knit community—a community he dubs “one of those George-Washington-slept-here towns.”

Raised in humble circumstances with meager means, Stafford is one of 12 children. He believes his upbringing made him the industrious business leader and philanthropist he is known for being today. He learned the values of charity, ethics, and kindness surrounded by the love of family and neighbors. “We weren’t rich by any stretch. If we wanted money, we shoveled snow, recycled bottles, cut lawns. It stuck with me,” Stafford recalled. He was fortunate, thanks to a neighborly, business-minded woman, Ms. Mason, who taught him the basics of business selling hot dogs and soft drinks around the block. He said that that entrepreneurial spirit still resonates within him today.

A Business Idea

After high school, Stafford went on to honorably serve in the United States Air Force for two decades, specializing in air traffic control. Equipped with leadership skills, along with an undergraduate degree from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, an MBA from Southern Illinois University, and a graduate certificate from Harvard Business School, Stafford was ready to serve the world.

He had hope for success upon leaving the Air Force. Stafford founded a new aviation-related manufacturing company in Washington, D.C., called Universal Systems & Technology, Inc. (Unitech). He utilized his expertise in air traffic control services to create training programs and simulation technology used by the FAA and the Department of Transportation.

But it was difficult for the first four to five years.

“I wasn’t getting paid, and the lights and phones were sometimes cut off,” he admitted. “We endured; God worked it out for us. I stepped out in faith based on the values I was raised with.”

Stafford’s company eventually rose in revenue to the tune of millions. The success wasn’t lost on him or his faith community.

Stafford (L) and his wife Amanda, following his reenlistment in the Air Force, 1971. (Courtesy of Earl W. Stafford)

“One day, my pastor called me. He wanted me to go to Haiti to build a church. I thought of every reason not to go. But I found myself in Port au Prince, a bit disgruntled,” he said. “After a week or so there, getting dirt under my fingernails,” he continued, “I realized that these people were not looking for a handout. They were looking for a helping hand.”

Humbled by the experience, Stafford returned home with a new perspective. His belief in God opened his heart and eyes to recognizing similar circumstances in which people needed help, he said.

The Meaning of Giving

In serving others, Stafford found purpose outside of his career. In 2002, he founded The Stafford Foundation as a faith-based philanthropic endeavor. One of its capstone projects early on was the People’s Inaugural Project, an initiative to bring disadvantaged Americans to experience Washington, D.C., and celebrate the presidential inauguration in 2009. Stafford’s vision brought together several nonprofits that helped to select and welcome some 400 individuals from all walks of life—including wounded veterans and men and women staying in homeless shelters—and from all over the United States. It was a grand event.

With first-class accommodations and dressed in tuxedos and fine gowns, the charity recipients mingled with multi-millionaires. “You couldn’t tell the haves from the have-nots! They intermingled and integrated into the ball filled with over several thousand people.” Stafford continued for the next five years working side by side with those organizations to support the recipients through job training programs and scholarships. The foundation also ran a “Give Before You Get” program: giving homeless or at-risk populations an opportunity to lend a helping hand by building homes and volunteering at hospitals and assisted living centers.

(Adhiraj Chakrabarti)

These projects allowed Stafford the opportunity to explore exactly how to serve others—to do good in the world. “One of the things the Foundation realized,” said Stafford, “is that we live with our hearts instead of our heads. We want to help everyone.”  He believes that the Lord has helped him find the missions that need the money most.

The work Stafford feels is most pressing today is for the foundation to provide assistance in Africa. Across more than 25 countries, the foundation has helped to build over 20 churches along with orphanages, training centers to teach women to read and write, and a business center to help small businesses grow. “We want to help people to help themselves. In fact, there are more ways to be helpful than writing a check. Helping others doesn’t have to be on a grand scale or on the front page of the news to impact people. We are judged not by what we give but how we give,” he said.

With grandfatherly wisdom, he believes it is important to listen to God. “When God uses you, it doesn’t mean you are the total solution. It means that sometimes you are part of a solution. When I reach the usefulness needed, God allows others to step in and help further.” He believes wholeheartedly that one can impact others in immeasurable ways. In the community where he grew up, if someone was in need, others gathered and tried to help, even if they didn’t have much themselves. “I knew my mother more than once sent a pot of something to a family who needed it more than we did.”

These kinds of values Stafford understood as an obligation to be “your brother’s keeper”—and he says we still have that obligation to each other today. “It’s not about ego. And it’s not about evaluating impact,” he stated. “We must continue to serve and plant the seed, and one day we will see what grew. We can’t be so satisfied with ourselves when we don’t know the impact we have had,” he said.

From January Issue, Volume 3

History American Success Entrepreneurs Features

Grumman Engineering Had to Get 30,200 Pounds of Apollo Spacecraft to Moon and Back

In the fall of 1962, a little airplane manufacturer on Long Island, Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation, beat out seven competitors for the lunar module contract. How did this happen?

The story begins when Leroy Grumman, the company’s founder, struck out on his own in 1929. Working out of a rented garage, he began developing some of his own experimental airplane designs. In 1932, he presented the U.S. Navy with the FF-1, his first production fighter aircraft. The plane’s design continued to be improved, leading eventually to the creation of the F4F Wildcat, Grumman’s first fighter with folding wings.

Diagram of the Apollo Lunar Module cockpit. (Jasmina Zhang for American Essence)

Grumman built tough planes. The “cat” series, built for the U.S. Navy, had a reputation for getting their crews home. The sturdy aircraft, designed and built for carrier deployment, earned the company the nickname “Grumman Iron Works.” Aluminum, however, was the material Grumman engineers had real mastery over, forming it into beautiful aerodynamic shapes to build their planes.

Enter Aeronautic Engineer Tom Kelly

Grumman engineer Tom Kelly spoke of his involvement in the early development of the moon lander: “I guess I’ve been involved in Apollo-related work as long as anybody in Grumman, actually. I started on the thing in 1960—April 1960.” Kelly and his team competed for NASA-funded studies. Though they didn’t win any of them, Kelly said, “we went down and gave our own study conclusions to the NASA people right along with everybody else—we had a very active interest in-house, and we just wouldn’t let it die; whether it was funded, or not, we kept going with it.” Kelly’s work ushered in a whole new era for the company.

Buzz Aldrin removes the passive seismometer from a compartment in the SEQ bay of the Lunar Lander (Apollo 11 “Eagle”), July 21, 1969. (Public domain)

Grumman was not one of the larger competitors for NASA contracts. They initially offered to be a subcontractor in General Electric’s bid to build the command module and service module. North American Aviation beat them out. NASA had originally intended for the command module and service module to land on the moon and take off directly from the lunar surface to return to Earth. That particular spacecraft configuration proved to be prohibitively massive. It would require a rocket larger than anything already developed just to get it into space. But an engineer at Langley Research Center, John Houbolt, suggested taking along a smaller spacecraft, just to land on the moon. It would then launch from the lunar surface and rejoin the command module, which would now remain in lunar orbit.

The lander would be discarded after the astronauts transferred back inside the command module, which alone would return to Earth. Rendezvous in lunar orbit seemed risky, but it saved so much weight that it allowed the program to go forward at a pace that would meet President John Kennedy’s challenge to land on the moon within the decade. When NASA decided that they would develop the program around the lunar-orbit rendezvous approach, Tom Kelly and his team were well prepared to offer their proposal. Grumman wrote up the proposal, and General Electric became the subcontractor for the lander’s electronics.

When they won the contract in 1962, Kelly and his engineering team realized that they would be faced with the same challenge that had faced Leonardo da Vinci, the Wright brothers, and Charles Lindbergh: weight! Every step forward in human flight had involved overcoming the limitations imposed by gravity. NASA gave them an initial estimate of 30,200 pounds for the spacecraft. The craft that landed on the moon and then launched from the lunar surface to rendezvous with the command module had to fit within this prescribed limitation. They had seven years.

Armstrong trains in the Lunar Module simulator at the Kennedy Space Center on June 19, 1969. (Public domain)

Overcoming Challenges

Kelly’s team worked tirelessly to conserve weight in unusual ways—in particular, the engineering of the astronauts’ seats. Grumman built 15 landers, 6 of which actually went to the moon. Some of the others are on display in museums, and visitors often ask where the astronauts’ seats are. In 1964, the design team eliminated them. The astronauts flew the lander standing up. In gravity that was one sixth that of Earth, the astronauts could fly, land, and take off standing in the craft. Their legs were all the shock absorbers they needed. With no seats, the astronauts also had more room for donning their space suits for the walk on the lunar surface. They could also hang their sleeping hammocks for the rest they needed while on the moon. Removing the seats saved weight in itself, but the move also allowed the astronauts to stand closer to the craft’s windows, allowing them to be significantly smaller. This saved hundreds of pounds of glass as well.

Astronaut Pete Conrad would refer to the cabin design as a “trolley car configuration.” Bethpage, New York, where the landers were built, is just 30 miles east of Brooklyn, where trolley car motormen actually stood up while operating a throttle with the left hand and a brake with the right. According to Kelly, those trolley cars had already inspired the name of a baseball team. Manhattan residents, who had more subways, sometimes referred to Brooklyn’s inhabitants as “trolley dodgers”; hence, the team’s name came to be the Brooklyn Dodgers. Did the trolleys of Brooklyn also influence the design of the lunar lander? Conrad’s reference suggests it might have.

The Apollo 9 Lunar Module (Spider) photographed from the Command Module on March 7, 1969, the fifth day of the Apollo 9 Earth-orbital mission. (Public domain)
Armstrong after the completion of the Lunar Extravehicular Activity on the Apollo 11 flight; photographed by Aldrin on July 20, 1969. (Public domain)

The landing module (LM) had to operate in extreme temperatures. The team came up with the Kapton sheeting (a kind of Mylar foil covered with gold leaf) that gives the lower part of the craft its “tinfoil” appearance. It simply reflected the solar heat away from the spacecraft, much like a windshield reflector does for a parked automobile. Because the lander never had to fly in atmosphere, it needed no aerodynamic design—no smooth, rounded surfaces to resist airflow. It could just be a long-legged, boxy shape. The first manned LM, flown in the Earth’s orbit by Apollo 9, would be called “Spider.” After one more dress rehearsal in lunar orbit by Apollo 10, the “Eagle,” flown by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on Apollo 11, would land on the moon. The date was July 20, 1969—eight years after John F. Kennedy laid down the challenge.

Tom Kelly and the Grumman team did some thinking beyond the task at hand that proved invaluable just two missions later. They recommended designing “lifeboat” capabilities into the LM. These capabilities would save the lives of the Apollo 13 astronauts when their command-service module was crippled by an explosion. The crew fired up the LM and used it to provide life support and navigation right up to the time that they jettisoned it. The command module was the only part of the spacecraft that could reenter the atmosphere. Though the LM “Aquarius” was consumed in a fiery reentry itself, the “Grumman Iron Works” team had successfully delivered one more crew safely home. In 1994, Grumman merged with the Northrup Corporation to become Northrup Grumman, one of the country’s largest aircraft manufacturers. In 1994, Grumman merged with the Northrup Corporation to become Northrup Grumman, one of the country’s largest aircraft manufacturers.

This article was originally published in American Essence magazine. 

Features American Success Entrepreneurs

There Are Only 47 of These Vintage Tucker Cars Left in the World, and They’re Worth Millions Each

Since the dawn of the American automotive industry over 100 years ago, car enthusiasts have been debating which car is the most collectible of them all.

While some, such as the 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air, and the 1964 and a half Ford Mustang, are at the top of many collectors’ lists, most will agree the Tucker 48 is indeed the be-all-end-all car to have in a collection. Even if you don’t have a collection, one Tucker trumps a dozen Oldsmobiles.

Who and What Is a Tucker?

From a young age, Preston Tucker was in and out of the automotive industry. Even though he never had formal training or a college degree, he had a thorough understanding of how mechanical things worked, particularly automobiles.

It was Tucker’s childhood dream to design and mass-produce cars for the American market using elements that were either his inventions or rarely used before. After the war, he was able to raise $20 million (over $259 million in today’s money) to do exactly that through the Tucker Corporation.

Tucker and his crew made 51 cars by hand. There were subtle differences among them and the designers were constantly making small improvements as they went along. Parts were not 100 percent interchangeable from one vehicle to another.

“You can’t take a door off one and put it on the other,” said Mark Lieberman, a Tucker owner and historian. “There were changes in the engine that were made. There were changes in the suspension that were made.”

Each car is known by its number. There’s the prototype, known as No. 1000, also referred to as the Tin Goose. Then there are 50 Tucker 48s, numbered 1001–1050. However, prior to the Tin Goose was the Tucker Torpedo. “It was never a car; it was only a plaster model,” said Lieberman. To make things even more complicated, Nos. 1026 and 1042 are known as Tuckermatics because of their unique transmissions.


Safety was a priority for Tucker. In all of the cars, he installed a windshield that would pop out should the driver or passenger be thrown through it, thus avoiding lacerations.

You know when you’re looking at a Tucker because it has three headlights. Tucker installed one in the middle of the front end that was connected to the steering wheel.

Automotive visionary Preston Tucker drives one of the cars he designed. (Courtesy of the AACA Museum)

Then there was the sponge rubber crash panel, which was essentially the first padded dashboard. Tucker also had this material on the doors, making the Tucker 48 the first car with a padded impact area. The automotive industry has since embraced this feature. “It’s been a staple ever since,” said Lieberman.

Tucker wanted his car to have seat belts, which no other manufacturer had at the time. However, the marketing department felt seat belts would send the message that the car wasn’t safe, and Tucker was overruled on that one.

The Tucker 48 had four-wheel, independent suspension. “Unheard of at the time,” said Lieberman. “Now it’s commonplace on many automobiles.”

The Big Three and the SEC

At this time in America, just about every car owner owned one made by one of the “Big Three” car manufacturers, Ford Motor Company, Chrysler Corporation, or General Motors.

The automotive establishment in Detroit was not happy with Tucker’s unorthodox methods of manufacturing and marketing and perceived him as a threat. History has painted The Big Three as being the villains in this saga, but that isn’t necessarily true.

A smear campaign was done with false charges of fraud, brought on by the Security and Exchange Commission. Tucker and his executives were tried and acquitted, but the SEC succeeded in putting the Tucker Corporation out of business.

Where They Went

After the demise of the Tucker Corporation, the 51 cars were scattered about the country. In the 1950s, a showman named Nick Jenin bought up 10 of them and toured the country, bringing them to state fairs on two car carriers, where he promoted the story of Preston Tucker.

“Ezra Schlipf is another gentleman that bought quite a few of them and resold them,” said Lieberman. “There were guys that became known as Tucker specialists.” Collector David Cammack purchased three, none of which he’d even start, let alone drive, for fear of damaging them. Cammack also collected Tucker artifacts, such as original documents and blueprints, making his collection the most extensive of them all.

The second of the two Tuckermatics, No. 1042, had sat idle at the Michigan State Fair Grounds, even though it was owned by Jenin. The powers-that-be decided a good way to get this car off their property was to have an event where, for the price of a dollar, anyone could smash it with a sledgehammer.

In 1988, Paramount Pictures released the feature film “Tucker: The Man and His Dream,” starring Jeff Bridges as Tucker. It was produced in part by George Lucas’s Lucasfilm Ltd. and directed by Francis Ford Coppola. The biopic didn’t do well at the box office, but it introduced Preston Tucker to the general public. “The values of Tuckers wouldn’t be what they are today without the movie,” said Lieberman. Lucas owns a Tucker 48 and Coppola owns two.

The steering wheel of a Tucker, which directs the center headlight. (Courtesy of the AACA Museum)

The Resurrection of No. 1006

Lieberman has been a car enthusiast his whole life. In 1992, when he was 29 years old, a friend told him of a Tucker for sale. The story the friend verbalized was that in a parking structure in downtown Detroit, where he stores his car for the winter, there was a Tucker that might be for sale. Lieberman found this claim hard to believe. He went to the building, which was “packed full of dilapidated vehicles and cars in storage.” He met with the owner of the place, a retired police officer, who walked him over to a “dark, dingy corner.”

“Lo and behold, there’s three headlights looking at me from this corner,” said Lieberman. The exterior of the car was covered in dirt, and the interior was being used, literally, as a garbage can. This included Wendy’s bags and wrappers, a kitchen food processor, and a bathroom scale. Plus, the side windows were broken. “I didn’t care. I wanted it all,” said Lieberman.

After a few minutes of negotiating, Lieberman wrote a check and called for a flatbed to come get his newly found treasure. The trip home was in the pouring rain, which gave the car its first wash in decades, “leaving this trail of black behind it.” Lieberman didn’t realize until he arrived at his house that there was a convoy of drivers following them, who wanted to buy the Tucker from him on the spot. Lieberman has since restored the car to its original splendor (pictured) and at one time or another has owned five Tuckers.

A collector on Long Island currently owns No. 1044, which once belonged to Lieberman. “I pulled that car out of a barn where it sat since the ’70s,” he said. The barn was in Ohio, and he bought it in 2016 or so. “I just got it running and driving and I sold it at auction,” said Lieberman, where the current owner purchased it for about $1.3 million.

The Tucker Automobile Club of America

Lieberman has owned five Tucker 48s and he’s the senior director of the Tucker Automobile Club of America in Hershey, Pennsylvania. The club is part of the AACA Museum, which Lieberman describes as “the center of the Tucker universe.” On display there are Cammack’s three cars, Nos. 1001, 1022, and 1026, as well as the artifacts he collected. No. 1026 is the only surviving of the two Tuckermatics.

While the Tucker Corporation is long gone, Preston Tucker LLC exists today, located in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It was started in 2012 by Tucker’s two great-grandsons, Sean and Mike Tucker. The great-grandsons work closely with Lieberman in restoring the autos. “The three of us know every bolt, every fastener, and every component of these cars,” said Lieberman.

The great-grandsons, Bob Ida and his Ida Automotive, and Bruce Devlin were the craftsmen who restored No. 1044, from the barn in Ohio, with parts supplied by Lieberman. Currently, all of them are involved in the restoration of three more Tucker 48s.

Other Locations

The Museum of American Speed in Lincoln, Nebraska, currently has a Tucker on display, as does the Tallahassee Automotive Museum in Florida. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in D.C. has No. 1039 on display, which was acquired through a 1992 narcotics arrest by U.S. Marshals. The automotive museum at The Imperial Palace Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas also had a Tucker on display for many years. The establishment is now called The Linq, and the museum is long gone. The car, No. 1008, is now at a museum in Chicago. No. 1030 is currently at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.

Senior director of the Tucker Automobile Club of America and five-time Tucker 48 owner Mark Lieberman, with two Tuckers at his Michigan-based car dealership, Nostalgic Motoring. ( Courtesy of Mark Lieberman)

The LeMay Collections at Marymount in Washington state has No. 1007 on permanent display. It was purchased in 2002 at an auction for $334,800. Although its initial engine was replaced in 1948, the transmission is original. “The car came with a Cord preselector transmission from the factory and remains in the car,” said volunteer Tim Hallen. Its most recent restoration was completed in 1993. The original color of the body and interior was green, but both have been redone in a non-Tucker blue.

There’s a Tucker in Japan, one in Germany, one in Australia, and one in Kuwait. The City of Cacapava, Sao Paolo, Brazil, owns No. 1035, and the Maine Classic Car Museum has No. 1028 on display.

The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation has one on display, which is ironic because the Ford Motor Company was one of the Big Three that was supposedly responsible for putting the Tucker Corporation out of business. The disclaimer on its website reads:

“Tucker built 51 cars before a shortage of money and a surplus of bad publicity closed his company. Some think the Big Three conspired to destroy him. More likely, he was overwhelmed by the enormous cost of building an automobile company from scratch. Tucker raised over $20 million, but probably needed ten times that much to secure his firm’s future.”

Lieberman feels this statement is “all very true.”

“All cars are accounted for,” said Lieberman. “Of the original 51 cars, including the prototype, 47 survive.” He estimates that of the 47, just over half actually start and move but aren’t really roadworthy. He estimates about 10 or more can be driven long distances.

Tucker’s Legacy

Preston Tucker died in 1956, at the age of 53. So he never saw the worth of each of his 51 creations surpass $1 million. He never saw his life played out by actors on the big screen. So it’s up to collectors with the desire to keep the Tucker 48s intact, and craftsmen such as Lieberman, Ida, and the great-grandsons to help them do that, to keep Tucker’s legacy alive.

Perhaps if Tucker could witness these things, he’d know that there are 47 machines that represent American ingenuity, American entrepreneurship, and the American Dream.

And those things will always survive, even if the 47 remaining cars don’t.

This article was originally published in American Essence magazine. 

Features American Success Generation to Generation Small Farms

Historian Victor Davis Hanson on the Farmer’s Virtues

It’s nearly a 200-mile commute home for historian Victor Davis Hanson from the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, where he travels once a week, to his quiet family farm in the fertile Central Valley of California.

As a classicist, he’s at ease with the ancient world but often brings a historian’s insightful perspective to current events. And he’s also a fifth-generation farmer.

His house, surrounded by almond orchards, holds many stories—from the generations who sacrificed all of their soul, sweat, and hard-earned money trying to save the farm, to later generations who decided this wasn’t the life for them and moved away with no intention of ever returning. Of the original 180 acres that were passed down through the years, only 42 remain—rented out to a farmer who owns 12,000 acres in the surrounding region. This is California, where agriculture has gone almost all corporate, leaving farming families with few choices: mainly to scale up vertically and jump into agribusiness, or to sell and move away.

The America where 40 acres per family was the norm is now long gone. But its personality, the strength of its communities, and its work ethic were all deeply shaped by family farming. In this conversation, Hanson talks about this important aspect of our nation’s heritage.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

American Essence: Looking back at America, and its early days as a nation, what was interesting to Europeans about what American farmers were doing?

Victor Davis Hanson: The history of Europe was always too many people, and too little land. When the American nation was founded, 95 percent of the people were homestead citizens, and they had their own land. They were completely independent and autonomous; they raised their own food. They were outspoken, and they were economically viable.

Observers who came from Europe, [for example] Alexis de Tocqueville, noticed that the American citizen was not a peasant. He was not indentured, he was not attached to a manor, or he wasn’t like an English subordinate. He wasn’t a Russian serf. He was an independent person because he had all of this land. And until the mid- or early 20th century, that was a peculiar characteristic of America—there was so much farmland, and there were so many people from all over the world that wanted to be independent farmers. That had been impossible in their own land.

And even today, when we have people from Asia, or India, or Mexico, it’s astounding how many of them want to buy land, because that was an unavailable, yet they have it deeply ingrained in their psyches: If you have land, you’re going to be protected, you’re independent, you can raise your own food.

Victor Davis Hanson walks among the almond orchards surrounding his home in Selma, Calif., with two of his beloved dogs. (Samira Bouaou)

American Essence: You mentioned a quote in an opinion article you penned in 2015. Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison in 1787, “I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries, as long as they are chiefly agricultural; and this will be as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America. When they get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become as corrupt as in Europe.” What is the connection between farming and preserving a virtuous society?

Mr. Hanson: That’s an old idea that farming serves two purposes. It’s not like agribusiness. It doesn’t just produce food, but it [also] produces citizens. The idea behind it goes back to Greece, if you read Xenophon’s “Oeconomicus” or Varro the Latin agronomist, the message that comes out of that is that farming requires your brain and your brawn. So you plan an orchard, but then you physically have to enact that, so if you’re a farmer who can only think, you’re not going to succeed in a pre-industrial society, but if you’re just a brute, you’ll make mistakes. So they felt that farming gave a person the perfect balance between the head and the body. And then it allows them to connect in a realistic fashion with nature. People in town … were either afraid of it or they romanticized it. But the farmer was a partner with nature. He knew that he had to kill bad bugs to produce wheat. But he also understood there were good bugs that ate the bad bugs. So he tried to find a balance.

In classical agronomy, the idea was that that process created a different type of citizen. In other modalities, people either didn’t own the land that they worked, or they were indentured—in other words, they had small plots, but they didn’t have a title to it. So if you give a man a title, and they own it, they improve it, and you have inheritance laws that allow them to pass it on, then you create an involved citizen. If the citizen is a serf, or peasant, or renter, then you cannot have a constitutional government because they’re restless, they’re envious, they’re angry, and they don’t improve the property when they rent something.

American Essence: Thomas Jefferson saw the yeoman farmer as key to the preservation of a good government. Yet over the centuries, that ideal has been displaced. A smaller and smaller chunk of the population farms the land, pushed out by agribusiness and government.

What then is there to conserve when we speak of conserving the farm and traditional food production?

Mr. Hanson: When the Founders ratified the Constitution, 95 percent of the constituency was farming. … By the end of the Depression, World War II, we’re down to 20 percent. It’s now down to 1 percent of the population is involved directly, or maybe 2 percent. So it’s maybe 4 or 5 million people out of 330 million.

The Founders were worried about a number of things. People wouldn’t know where their food came from. They wouldn’t have that experience of working physically, with nature, to grow something. They wouldn’t have a compound rather than just a house. The farmhouses, when I grew up, in the last vestiges of farming, were multi-generational.

So this house, I was told, in 1935, had 28 people living in it, and the other buildings around had another 30 during the Depression. When I grew up, this house was full: My grandparents lived here, they had a daughter who was crippled, we lived down the road, the kids free-ranged, cousins were here, neighbors dropped in. It was just booming. And that was what farmhouses were. So my grandmother had the Wednesday Walnut Club [consisting] of all the people who had walnut groves, and they tried to do self-improvement. Or they had the Eastern Star or they had the Masonic Lodge or the Elks Club. And when you look at them, they were all about self-improvement.

Davis Hanson contemplates the future of family farms in America. (Samira Bouaou)

So it was the type of sinews and community that encouraged Little Leagues, hospitals, PTAs, community schools, but it’s wiped out now. All the houses around 40 acres, they’re wiped out. The person that I rent 42 acres to, he owns 12,000 acres. And the houses that he rents from used to be homesteads. They’re now usually inhabited by people from Mexico, many of them here illegally. There is an MS-13 group down here, there’s a gangbanger there. There’s prostitution there. There’s dogfighting. Because people are renting the home, and the land has been farmed by a corporation. So there’s no community. It’s rich and poor. And so that’s what Jefferson and other people were worried about. [Family farming] was a way of maintaining a middle class.

The $64,000 question is, can that ideology be transferred to a modern industrial society? So if you have an independent trucker—to take just one example—he owns his own rig, he’s a mechanic. He is an expert in refrigeration, and he’s responsible for his own load. He’s very different than a teamster that works for Walmart. In other words, he goes to a trucking dispatcher, and they say, “Mr. Smith, you’ve got to take 20 tons of steel to Dallas,” and he figures out the route, he works on his own truck, and he does it. And that creates an independent-minded person. And you can see that when parents run into a school board and say, “You can’t teach my child this,” or “We’re not going to take this.” Often, they tend to be small business people. You have to have people like that in our society. You can’t have everybody working for the government or corporation.

American Essence: How can we maintain the values without that farming family backbone?

Mr. Hanson: It’s very hard because their values are based on shame in traditional societies, and we have transmogrified that into guilt. So if I was in this house 60 years ago, and my grandmother said to me, “You said the word ‘darn.’” She just wouldn’t have said, “You said the word ‘darn.’” She said, “Are you gonna go out there and say that word in front of everybody? What are they gonna think of us? They’re gonna think we taught you that. You don’t say that or you’re going to shame the entire family.” Whereas today, it’s maybe at most private guilt, “Oh, I feel so bad I said it,” but there’s no mechanism to enforce behavior.

I remember my grandfather would say, “Now you’re driving to high school. So I know what you boys do. You all go have a beer on Friday night, but you’re under 21. You want your parents to wake up on Saturday morning and it [a newspaper headline] says, ‘Hanson boy caught with Coors beer in his car’? They will do that, and then what are we going to do?” So that was the emphasis. That’s what the modern therapeutic society rebelled against and said, “That’s judgmental,” but they didn’t replace it with anything other than, “Oh, it wasn’t my fault,” or “I had a bad childhood,” or “I was offended,” or “It was unfair,” or “They did this to me because of my race or sex or gender.” That was a very different method of maintaining a more collective morality.

This article was originally published in American Essence magazine. 

Features American Success Entrepreneurs Generation to Generation Giving Back

Remembering Henry Villard, the Renowned 19th-Century Railway Financier, Through the Eyes of His Great-Granddaughter

Her name alone is nearly poetic, but it is history and grandeur that give Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave her befitting nomenclature.

She is the great-granddaughter of Henry Villard, a Bavarian native who came to America with only 20 borrowed dollars in his pocket—only to make groundbreaking financial ventures and become president of the Northern Pacific Railroad and owner of the New York Evening Post. He also built what has become one of Manhattan’s most recognizable architectural landmarks: the Villard Houses, a Gilded Age mansion that today houses the luxurious Lotte New York Palace hotel.

He believed so much in the greatness of America that he put his whole soul into the railway company—allowing it to complete the country’s second transcontinental railroad—and funded Thomas Edison’s early experiments in electricity, Alexandra reflected. Meanwhile, the Villard Houses remain one of the few surviving examples of stunning design by the acclaimed architectural firm McKim, Mead, and White.

Villard de Borchgrave attends the American Ballet Theater Gala in Washington, D.C., circa 1985, when she served as the chairwoman. (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

The American Story

Villard immigrated to the United States in 1853 from Germany at the age of 18. Within five years of arriving in America, he mastered the English language and began working for leading daily newspapers at the time. Villard covered the famous presidential debates between Abraham Lincoln and Democratic Illinois senator Stephen Douglas over the issue of slavery. Lincoln took a shine to him, and included him in his entourage. Villard was the only correspondent, then working for the Associated Press, to accompany the president-elect on his inaugural train from Springfield, Illinois to the nation’s capital. Then, during the Civil War, he was a war correspondent for The New York Herald and later for the New-York Tribune. In his coverage, he made sure black soldiers were properly commemorated for their service.

Henry Villard was a man of grit and determination. Portrait taken circa 1881. (Photo credit: Corbis Images/ Courtesy of Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave)
Henry Villard (R) with his wife, Fanny Garrison Villard, and daughter, Helen, at their Dobbs Ferry estate in New York state, circa 1898. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave)

He was there when Thomas Edison famously lit up the first incandescent light bulb at Menlo Park, New Jersey in 1879. Villard would later hire Edison to install lighting aboard his new steamship, the S.S. Columbia. That was the first commercial installation of Edison’s invented light bulb. The installation was successful as the ship made its trip around South America. “Of all of my patrons,” Edison said, “Henry Villard believed in the light with all his heart.”

In 1881, Villard secured control of the Northern Pacific Railroad company through what modern-day finance would call a leveraged buyout. At the time, Villard was the president of major railway companies operating in the Pacific Northwest. But one major competitor, Northern Pacific Railroad, stood in the way. He started buying shares of the company quietly. But it was not enough to gain control. He came up with the idea, known as the ”blind pool,” of raising money for the venture by asking his friends to invest in a secret opportunity. By not revealing the plan, the investors became eager to get in on the novelty. Meanwhile, his intentions would be hidden from the competitor company. The tactic worked, and he became president of the Northern Pacific Railroad.

Later, he bought two of Edison’s electric utility companies, Edison Lamp Company and Edison Machine Works, and formed them into the Edison General Electric Company in 1889. He served as president until its reorganization in 1893 into the General Electric Company.

A horde of visitors attends the “last spike” ceremony announcing the opening of the Northern Pacific Railroad, September 1883. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave)

Villard built his wealth from the ground up and was generous with it, paying off debts for universities and financing some of America’s most iconic colleges and architectural preserves, including Harvard University, the University of Oregon, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

He was so inspiring to his great-granddaughter, Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave, that she honored his legacy in a 2001 biography co-authored with John Cullen called “VILLARD: The Life and Times of an American Titan.” The book tells of his remarkable rise from humble beginnings, eventually becoming a powerful financier and befriending luminaries like then-general Ulysses S. Grant (while covering the Civil War), and steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, among many others.

The Descendant

As a photojournalist, Villard de Borchgrave built a reputation on the merits of her own talents, with her work appearing on the covers of international magazines such as Newsweek and Paris Match. The late president of Egypt Anwar Sadat, Henry Kissinger, and the late U.S. president George H.W. Bush are among the many world leaders she photographed, and her portraits hang in government offices around the world.

Villard de Borchgrave covers the October War in Egypt as a photojournalist, 1973. (Photo credit: J.R. Bonnotte)
Villard de Borchgrave greets Anwar Sadat, the third president of Egypt. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave)

She went on to establish a charitable organization called the Light of Healing Hope Foundation, which gifted books of hope to comfort patients receiving treatment at hospitals and hospices. With an eye toward helping those in the military, her foundation donated thousands of gifts to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Navy Seal Foundation, Wounded Warrior Project, and American Gold Star Mothers. During its 12 years of activities, her organization also provided uplifting books and journals to several children’s facilities, including St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the Ronald McDonald House Charities, and the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing. Villard de Borchgrave donated over 70,000 gifts which included her books of poetry and musical DVDs, for those who could not read, to over 100 medical centers nationwide. She developed and shared a total of eight inspirational publications including her first book, “Healing Light: Thirty Messages of Love, Hope, & Courage.”

Boutros Boutros-Ghali, United Nations secretary-general during the 1990s, wrote the foreword for “Healing Light.” Villard de Borchgrave and her husband Arnaud, who enjoyed a long career as chief foreign correspondent for Newsweek, had become friends with Boutros and his wife Leia while in Cairo in the 1960s. The couples were having dinner together in Paris when Villard de Borchgrave asked him to write the foreword, and so he did. “He just took a paper napkin on the table,” she recalled, and “penned it.”

Villard (R) holds his first grandson, Henry Serrano, with his son Harold beside them. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave)

Despite her many accomplishments, Villard de Borchgrave is most proud of her long marriage. She and her husband Arnaud, who passed away in 2015, were bonded for more than 45 years by their love of adventure and for each other. “In the 47 years since the first moment we met, Arnaud never failed to inspire me with his courage and determination,” Villard de Borchgrave passionately professed.

She also humbly pays homage to her parents, describing her mother as “a warm and giving person” and her father as someone who instilled a good work ethic in her, having worked on the U.S. Marshall Plan that helped rebuild European countries after World War II. Most of all, Villard de Borchgrave said, she draws inspirational humility from those who have been forced to overcome unspeakable tragedies. “I’m most inspired by the ability of those who are suffering,” she said, “to find a way to express gratitude despite the pain and hardship they are experiencing.”

Alexandra at the launch party for her book of poetry “Love & Wisdom,” at the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., 2018. (Photo credit: Colleen Dugan)

Not only has Villard de Borchgrave honored her great-grandfather’s legacy through her biography about him, but has also, through her own work, continued to carry forth the same message of hope, courage, and resilience that he displayed throughout his life. “Henry Villard believed in America,” she said. “To this day, our country offers unique opportunities to anyone with the courage and determination to realize a dream, just as he did.”

This article was originally published in American Essence magazine. 

American Success Features

Rhonda Sciortino: Empowering Survivors

I went from homeless to millionaire, but it wasn’t easy and it wasn’t overnight. Here’s my story.

I was homeless when I was 8 years old as a result of an uninsured fire in the little shack where I lived with my mentally ill grandfather and alcoholic and addicted grandmother. My parents were both long gone.

That time of being homeless made a powerful impression on me. When I think about it now, decades later, I can still feel the emotions of being scared, dirty, and hungry. I went to school every day for months, through fall and into winter, wearing the same filthy little dress and dime store flip-flops that I was wearing on the day of the fire. We slept in the back of our old pickup truck usually at a nearby lake. We fished and we dug around in trash cans for something to eat. When someone gave us a box of used clothes, some of which almost fit me, I was so excited. For me, it was like someone had handed me a million dollars. I didn’t know it then, but I can see clearly now that there was dignity in that box.

When I was 15 years old, I read that I could become an emancipated minor. Wow! No more living in filth (or staying with people who didn’t want us there), being screamed at, or being hit for any reason or no reason at all. I got a ride down to the courthouse, and I asked anyone who would speak to me how to get emancipated. I didn’t know that you were supposed to go with a lawyer or a social worker. My social worker had closed my case years prior, labeling me “unadoptable” because, she said, “no one wants to adopt school-aged children.”

After hours of hanging around the courthouse pestering people, a bailiff had mercy on me and escorted me back to a judge’s chambers. I stood outside the door while the man in the uniform went in and spoke to the judge. When he came out to get me, he said, “You’ve got 5 minutes.”

I told the judge that my parents had been gone for years, and that I wanted to be emancipated. “I can do it, your honor. I know how to take care of myself.” To my surprise, the judge didn’t summarily dismiss me and have the bailiff escort me out. Instead, he said, “OK, if you want to be emancipated, here’s what you’ll need. You might want to write this down. You’ll need to bring me a paycheck stub showing that you have a steady job, a lease for an apartment and a utility bill in your name showing me that you have a place to live, the registration for a vehicle to prove that you have a way to get to school and work, and passbooks for both checking and savings accounts.” I think he thought he’d never see me again.

I left there so excited! I went back to the ROP (Regional Occupational Program) office at the high school where I attended and asked them to help me find a job. They sent me on two job interviews—one at a bank and one in a little insurance office. I didn’t get the bank job, but the insurance agent hired me on the spot. Of course he did, because every time he asked me if I knew how to do something, I told him I was an expert at that! Most of what he asked about was a complete mystery to me, but I figured that I would learn and work hard and have a good attitude, and that all those things would make up for what I didn’t know how to do.

When that insurance agent taught me about homeowners insurance, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I was stunned to hear that this thing called “insurance” existed, which would have rebuilt our little shack, replaced our clothes and furniture, and put us up in a house while they were rebuilding our place after it had been destroyed by fire. It was like this man had lit an unquenchable fire in me. I became passionate about selling homeowner insurance because I never wanted anyone to go through what we had gone through. The only problem was that I was 16 years old and unlicensed.

I filed my application for an insurance license and was turned down. The rules were that applicants had to be at least 18 years old before they could take the test. I was completely dejected. I had taken everything the judge required for emancipation down to the courthouse, and had been declared an emancipated minor. I felt like I could do anything! But the Department of Insurance burst my bubble. My boss, the man who had lit the fire in me, prompted me to appeal. After all, as an emancipated minor, I could be tried as an adult if I committed a crime! So I appealed. I was declined. I appealed again. I was declined again. On the sixth appeal, my boss suggested I write a letter to the then sitting Insurance Commissioner saying that I was going to be at his office every morning when he arrived until he allowed me to take the test. I was approved.

(Jennifer Schneider for American Essence)

Successful Survivors

I passed that test, and I spent the next 40 years in insurance. Most of that time I was in my own business, Child Welfare Insurance Services, an organization that was founded solely to protect and defend the good people and organizations that care for children who have been abused. In that business, we educated the insurance industry on how to properly rate premiums for child welfare organizations that had previously been charged premiums as though they were hospitals or insane asylums. As a result, we put millions of dollars back into the budgets of the organizations we served. That was money that was spent on children rather than insurance.

I sold my company and decided to spend the rest of my life helping other people succeed because of what they’ve been through. That was exactly what I had experienced.

I realized that the most painful experiences of my life became the stepping stones to personal and professional success. The abandonment I experienced when my parents left taught me self-reliance. The poverty I experienced taught me how to manage money and how to appreciate even the simplest things like warm running water, clean sheets, and food in the pantry. Child abuse gave me an empathy for victims of abuse that can be acquired only through lived experience. Being homeless as a result of an uninsured fire gave me a passion for the very thing that would be the vehicle through which I could help hundreds of nonprofit organizations, and indirectly, thousands of wounded children.

I founded an educational nonprofit, Successful Survivors Foundation, for the purpose of helping others create their own successful lives. We launched the Love Is Action Community Initiative to encourage people in neighborhoods to come together to help to eradicate social isolation and the societal ills that emanate from it, including child abuse, domestic violence, human trafficking, substance abuse, suicide, and all the others.

In this second half of my life, I’m trying to help as many people as possible. Because I can only be one place at a time, I began to write. And I launched a podcast called Empowering Resilience. I’ve written 14 books, the most recent of which, “30 Days to Love,” is scheduled for release in November 2021. I’m working on turning my Your Real Success curriculum into a series of micro-learning courses, in the wild aspiration of helping millions of people to find and fulfill the purpose for which they were born and perfectly matched.

And the most recent fun I’m having is doing the interviews for the American Success segment of American Essence Magazine. There are so many truly remarkable people throughout our great country who live quiet and peaceful lives of service to others. In their own unique way, each one is making the world a better place. It’s such a privilege to be able to tell their stories. I hope you’ll check in with me monthly for the next story. And who knows, maybe one of these days, the story will be about you.

(Jennifer Schneider for American Essence)

What challenges or hardships have you faced and overcome?

“I’ve overcome abandonment, abuse, poverty, and many other adversities. The most important aspect of facing challenges and hardships is discovering the truth that despite how difficult or painful it may be in the moment, suffering is optional. We can choose to be positive, be good to others as best we can, and expect good things to happen. This is my formula, if you will, for turning our adversities into our advantages. Adversities give us priceless opportunities to develop character traits, such as empathy, and learned abilities that we cannot acquire any other way.”

Tell us about the life that you live now.

“I am happily married to my husband of 30 years, Nick Sciortino. When I married him, I got a great, big Italian family as part of the package. Their acceptance of me helped to love me into wholeness when I was still rough around the edges. I used to be skeptical of people, almost expecting them to hurt me. But I understand now that when people don’t behave well, it’s because all is not well for them. Now, instead of being skeptical and defensive, I try to approach people with kindness, mercy, and love.

I have a wonderful daughter and son-in-love and amazing grandchildren. I can honestly say that I now have what I call Real Success, which is a balance of five separate facets, including good relationships, good health, peace, joy, and financial provision. That’s what I want for everyone.”

(Jennifer Schneider for American Essence)

What are three things that you do for others?

“Through my writing, speaking, podcast, and media, I do my best to share the wisdom that I’ve acquired along the way. I’ve tried to learn from everyone I know. (Sometimes I’ve learned how NOT to behave—still, it’s all valuable.) So I pass along tips so that others can build on what I know and go farther than I ever will. On a personal level, I share my faith and values. In my journey from homeless to millionaire, I’ve learned what works to move us toward fulfillment of our purpose and the real success that accompanies it. I’ve also learned what doesn’t work. Those things that do not work distract us from the good life we were born and fully equipped to live. I share what I know to help others save the precious time of their lives that can never be retrieved.”

Some favorite quotes: 

“You can have anything in life that you want, if you’ll help enough other people get what they want.” —Zig Ziglar

“Do what you can, where you are, with what you have.” —Teddy Roosevelt

“The harder you work, the luckier you get.” —Samuel Goldwyn

A book that inspired you:

“The Body Keeps The Score” by Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk

“Man’s Search For Meaning” by Viktor Frankl

“Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis

Best advice:

“Forgive those who have hurt you. Be kind to everyone. Show love to others every opportunity you have. When you do those things, your life will be filled with kindness, love, and mercy. It doesn’t get any better than that!”

Rhonda Sciortino is the author of “Acts of Kindness,” “The Kindness Quotient,” and “Love Is Action,” among many other books. She hopes to nudge people toward Love.

American Success Features

Dreams and Determination

Jacqueline Thompson is living her dream life in Newport Beach, California, but it was a long, difficult journey to get there. As one of 12 children in Vietnam, her parents dreamed of getting their children to the land of peace and freedom—the United States. But in the 1970s, it wasn’t easy to get from their war-torn land to the United States.

(Courtesy of Jacqueline Thompson)

Jacqueline’s parents owned a thriving business that they had built from the ground up by hard work and sheer determination. They scrimped and saved every penny to get to the United States, and through the help of a college professor in southern California, they found a Catholic church that sponsored them to enter the United States.

There was a small house behind the church that had been donated, and the priest let them move in. Jacqueline and her 11 brothers and sisters, her mother and father, her aunt and uncle, and their three children, 19 people in all, moved into the tiny house behind the church. And despite the fact that they had only the clothes they were wearing, they couldn’t have been more grateful to finally be in the United States.

There was just one little problem. None of them spoke English. Jacqueline’s parents and her older brothers and sisters, who were already in their 20s, had been well-respected, educated members of their community. Now they were depending on the kindness of others, the generosity of the church, and for a short time, the government, to keep them all fed and clothed.

Jacqueline and her siblings all quickly learned English, got jobs, and applied themselves in getting educated. Can you imagine being in your 20s and learning a new language and getting a job in a new country? They never complained. Jacqueline’s older siblings did just that. They kept focused and stayed the course so they could support themselves their parents, and the younger children.

Jacqueline’s mother learned the new language and new ways along with her children; however, her father did not. Sadly, Jacqueline’s father didn’t adapt well to the new place, new ways, and new way of living. He passed away just a few years after arriving in the United States. As the second to the last of the 12 children, Jacqueline was still a very young girl when her father died.

Acceptance didn’t always come easily. “My family experienced discrimination back in those days, but it never deterred us from our focus. My family are devout Buddhists. We all get our compassion and acceptance of others from our parents,” she said. “Growing up, I never knew the difference between Asian, Anglo-Saxon, or African American, as no one in our family ever made racial distinctions. My first exposure to the idea that I was somehow different from others was in the 1st grade when a boy looked at me and used his index fingers to pull the corners of his eyes up so that they looked slanted. I wondered why he did that. I truly didn’t know. I went home and looked in the mirror for hours and still did not understand why he made his eyes look like that. I thought my eyes looked fine!”

Jacqueline wanted to work like her older brothers and sisters, so she went to work after high school every day with the first company that would hire her. She finished high school when she was 16 and was accepted into the University of Southern California. To support herself and to pay for her education, she started a line of cosmetics specifically for Asian women. Her company thrived, and so did she. By the time she graduated with a business degree, she had decided that she wanted to go into real estate.

That the Southern California market was extremely competitive was not a deterrence in her mind. “We arrived in Southern California in the fall of 1979. I was a little child when we came to the U.S. The United States of America is the only country I know, and I am very patriotic. I have always felt that part of the American Dream was to own a home. For me, for as long as I can remember, my dream was always to live in Newport Beach, California. I thought that real estate would be the best vehicle for helping me to achieve my goal while helping others attain their piece of the American dream too.”

As a result of hard work and determination, Jacqueline Thompson is now living her dream life in Newport Beach, where she helps people own their piece of the American dream by owning real estate. She has sold over $1.3 billion in residential real estate since starting in the business in 2005.

When she arrived in Newport Beach with no real estate experience and no connections, Jacqueline knew that she could succeed despite what she lacked because of the exceptional work ethic that she had learned from her family. She worked every day (yes, seven days every week for many years) to make it in the highly competitive Orange County, California, real estate market. She worked open houses every weekend for almost ten years straight to build her clientele. Even with her remarkable success, she continues to work 12 to 15 hours per day to ensure that her clients have the service they have come to expect from her. She doesn’t complain—she loves her work. Helping people attain their own American dream isn’t work, Jacqueline says. “It’s my joy to see people move to this beautiful area that I love so much.”

Rhonda Sciortino, author of 13 books, including “Succeed Because of What You’ve Been Through,” used the coping skills from her abusive childhood to create personal and professional success. She built two successful businesses, then turned her attention to helping others to find their purpose and real success.