In 1894 he was 1 of 10 kids from a scottish family just managing to squeak by in a small, gray town in the Scottish Highlands. A mere decade later he sat in the Waldorf-Astoria, in a cutaway suit, hobnobbing with some of the most powerful men of his time. My grandfather had come a long way—though not quite so far as it appeared.
He had left home at 14, armed with an eighth-grade education and a burning ambition to be somebody. He worked as a clerk, as a printer’s devil, learned shorthand, and eventually landed himself a job as a reporter. Then it was off to the wider world, first to South Africa and then on to America. He had lived frugally up to then. But not long after he arrived here, he abandoned his good Scotsman’s ways and set himself up in style. Suddenly his hard-earned savings were being squandered on lavish rooms, evening clothes, and card games. By all rights he belonged in a cold-water flat in Brooklyn, but his extravagance had a purpose. He was a business reporter, and he intended to succeed. And what better way to get to know his subjects than to live among them?
My grandfather died just after I was born, and though I knew the basic facts of his life, he had no reality in my mind. But the gamble he took on this delightful, presumptuous piece of theater was so unexpected, so much more vibrant than the clichés I had attached to him, that when I learned of it he came instantly and palpably to life.
It was then, too, that I came to understand something more about history. The great figures and momentous events I had studied in school were indeed important, but it is the small moments and human insights that make them real.
And it is vital to preserve a sense of history. Without it, we are adrift before the future. But unless we keep history alive and vital, we risk losing its meaning.
This is especially true in a field that can seem as austere as business sometimes does, and since business is naturally a discipline of considerable interest to me, I am especially happy to be able to welcome my friends at MassMutual, the single sponsor of this special issue of American Heritage , which is given over in its entirety to the epic of American business during the past century and a half.
That time span coincides with the life of MassMutual, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, with Robert J. O’Connell at the helm; the history of the company’s travails and triumphs—a microcosm of the nation’s own—begins on page 43.
I hope you will find that this lively account of the economic making of our nation gives you not only the big picture but some of the sense of pleasure and intimacy that I experienced when I learned of the businessman who had so much to do with my own career—the young reporter sitting there in opulent rooms, wary and exultant in his new tuxedo, nurturing a business as so many other millions of American entrepreneurs have and always will.