“I have always had an insatiable desire to learn,” Eddie Rickenbacker told his hometown newspaper in 1955, when he was at the peak of his power as president of Eastern Air Lines. You could say that again. Eddie sought knowledge with an unmatched ferocity. What he couldn’t get from books or classrooms he gained from experience and mentors. To call him an autodidact is accurate but also misleading. Captain Eddie was, rather, the epitome of a life-long learner.
Twelve years earlier, 1943, Rickenbacker visited Columbus and made an impromptu visit to his old digs at East Main Street School. Much had changed from the turn of the century, but the new cohort of staff and students were eager to hear what he had to say. “As far as my studies were concerned,” he said. “I had no trouble with them. The only difficulty I had was because of the mischief I got into, and I got low marks in deportment.” The bottom line: He didn’t take full advantage of what school had to offer. And yet, he closed with this admonition to his young listeners: “This foundation made it possible for me to go on to what limited success I have attained. Here is where I learned how to learn. You children have a wonderful opportunity—make the most of it.” The first two sentences are Eddie the schmoozer, well-practiced in political comments. The last, a genuine expression of regret.
Eddie’s father died unexpectedly in the summer of 1904. The future Ace of Aces dropped out of school and went to work fulltime two months shy of his fourteenth birthday. (He always maintained he was 12, not 13, as if so much depended on that extra year of lost childhood.) Eddie felt deep responsibility to fill (at least part of) his father’s shoes as breadwinner. But the record also suggests he felt, just as much, a strong personal ambition to make his mark in the world. If a job didn’t offer future advancement, young Eddie was not afraid to quit and try something else. He was willing to take a pay cut if it could mean the start of a career and not just a job. When he fixed on the automobile for his future, he wheedled a job out of William Evans and then from Lee Frayer. He signed up for a correspondence course in automotive engineering and began the arduous task of learning how to learn on his own. It was a skill that he would master as well as anyone.
Automobile historian Beverly Rae Kimes was definitive: Eddie Rickenbacker “was no engineer.” Yet he learned enough—the hard way—to become an uncommonly good mechanic. “I gained the practical and fundamental knowledge, that experience alone can teach,” he said, “and which is so essential to success.” The things he might have learned in a schoolroom he had to learn only years later and “superimpose” them on “a pattern of practical experience.” Eddie taught himself. Eddie learned on the job. This went for all the various jobs he held, in engineering, sales, management, aviation, finance, and leadership, more generally.
Aviation above all. Without a college education, Rickenbacker was not considered eligible to become a pursuit pilot, no matter how eagerly he wished to serve his country. So Eddie had resort to “devious efforts,” as he put it, to get himself into the air. He connived to get to a French flying school, but, even so, his training was as brief as possible before he was assigned to “engineer” the construction of the new American airfield at Issoudun. Without official sanction to continue his aviation education, Rickenbacker had to sneak time in the air on his own. This was an extremely dangerous endeavor but the only avenue open to him if he wanted to fly.
How was he to learn gunnery? More conniving, but, frankly, he wasn’t a very good shot. An eye injury from 1911 surely affected him. The lack of any experience didn’t help. Only by dogged determination did he reach the required level of competence. It was that way for Eddie with a lot of things in his life. He got by on brute determination.
It helped, too, that the wannabe-ace gained a mentor in Raoul Lufbery. Luf was as important for Rick in his piloting days as Lee Frayer had been in his automobile racing days. “Everything I learned, I learned from Lufbery,” Rick would later say. This was hardly true, of course. Lufbery had come of age with the Lafayette Escadrille in the early years of the war when one-on-one dogfights were the norm. Rick became an ace after those days were already past. He shared much of his mentor’s spirit, but Rickenbacker developed his own principles of aerial combat that kept him alive and made him Ace of Aces. The Dicta Rickenbacker, we might call them in honor of German aviator Oswald Boelcke who wrote the original rules for German fliers. Rick’s, written in a different era of aerial combat, added up to a kind of “calculated risk management,” in the words of Rickenbacker biographer, David Lewis.
Rick returned from the Europe with medals (Croix de Guerre and Distinguished Service Cross), new rank (captain), new title (Ace of Aces)–and a heap of expectations. He turned down endorsement contracts and a role in a movie, but he felt obliged to accept the speaking contract. (He did need the money, not just for himself but to support his mother.) Predictably, he was a wooden speaker. He had no training, no experience. He spoke too much like the street tough he once was, peppering his speech with “haints” and (allegedly) “dese” and “dose.” But Rick worked his contacts, once again, to guide his self-improvement. In this case, war correspondent (and erstwhile sportswriter) Damon Runyon came to Rick’s aid. He hooked him up with elocution lessons with Madam Amanda of the Met (“Throw out your left arm. Throw out your right arm. Throw out your voice. Throw out your chest.”) and helped write his 8,000-word speech. Over the next fifty years Rick would igve at least two hundred speeches and a hundred twenty radio broadcasts. In public speaking, Eddie Rickenbacker became nothing if not a pro.
He accomplished this, in part, by actively making a study of vocabulary. If automotive mechanics could be learned on the job, after all, so could the English language. Twenty years later, Captain Eddie was both proud of his self-improvement and still self-conscious about his need for it. He says he told a gaggle of fellow aviation executives, “God damn it, all I know is single syllable words. I don’t know the three- and four- syllable words that you fellows know. I didn’t have the privilege of going to Harvard or Yale or Princeton or Dartmouth or Cornell, or any of the other places.”
The man of action—the sportsman, the aerial warrior—turned into a man of affairs and a public figure. He made public predictions for the future of aviation, most of them spot-on with only a few notable, if wide, misses. Reversible propellers, headlights and navigation lights, airfields in every major city, insurance against fires and crashes: these were easy calls, even if some took more than a decade to become commonplace. Kite parachutes to soften landings, airships 2,000-feet long, landing strips on the tops of buildings were bolder predictions and never came to pass. Rickenbacker made more predictions in 1937, all of them safe bets coming from an industry insider. (Except, curiously, three months after the Hindenburg exploded, he repeated his prediction that Zeppelins would continue to grow in size.)
Aviation policy? Of course. But economics and international relations? In “America Holds the Key to World Peace,” Rickenbacker put together a plan for war-debt relief that he said he shared with “financiers and statesmen.” He said they “gave it their approval,” though, ultimately, the plan went nowhere. I have seen a transcript of the plan but no evidence that it was shown to anyone. The question for this post: Whence cometh Rick’s authority on post-war debt management? Surprisingly, it came from his honeymoon.
After their September 1922 wedding, Eddie and Adelaide (née Frost, formerly Durant) took a six-week honeymoon to Europe. Eddie showed his bride many of his old haunts in France, and they visited with some of his former opponents in Germany. They also saw the miserable poverty that afflicted the country. Images of deprivation stayed with Rick after the couple returned home. He pondered, and he penned his “plan,” even as he went back to work selling his new marque. “The real menace of world peace today,” he argued, “is the deplorable condition in which the German people find themselves.” Employing rhetorical skills he did not learn in the classroom, he averred that it was un-American “to knock a man down and then keep kicking him around.”
Then he pulled out, as if from thin air, the profound understanding that all economic activity is two-sided. An impoverished Germany—an impoverished Europe—hurts the United States. If the United States forces “super-effort and super-productiveness with starvation wages upon all European countries,” then, ultimately, “it will be unable to compete with them for the commerce of the world.” Furthermore, the USA will lose European consumers for its surplus (agricultural) product. As I read his so-called “plan” I kept thinking of Keynes’s Economic Consequences of the Peace. The authors’ backgrounds and points-of-view, the tone of their works, could hardly be more different. Yet the purpose of both their projects was essentially the same. As Rickenbacker put it: It was in the home country’s “self-interest as well as fairness to lend a hand.”
His plan in brief: reduce Germany’s debt load. Then provide a loan from USA (interest rate not given) for to be used to help pay back debt to other Allies. Then Allies can pay back $11B owed to USA. (He knows the figure for American credit but never cites the German debt figure nor by how much to reduce it.) Almost gleefully, he asserts that the money loaned to Germany need never leave American banks. “At one stroke, we could control the policy of Europe and without the cost of one dollar to our own people.” It all sounds so easy, so painless. The limits of the autodidact begin to become apparent.
Fearless, Rickenbacker continued to weigh in on economics. Two years later, this time regarding the role of confidence, he again channels Keynes. “You know the only way to make business bad is to begin by saying it is going to be bad. Undermine confidence by prophesies of hard times to come.” He was responding directly to pessimists who had been predicting market saturation of the automobile industry. Again, the self-educated economist recognizes the dynamic nature of economic growth. The automobile, he says, “has wonderfully increased activity in all other [economic] lines by adding hundreds of millions to the wealth and therefore the purchasing power of the nation.”
A decade later, Rickenbacker would strike a similar note regarding the aviation industry: “In this dynamic country there is not just so much business to be apportioned like cuts of a pie.” That note would be sounded ever more prominently in decades to come as classical liberal economics came back into favor.
Rickenbacker’s ability to excel in so many different domains is remarkable and can be attributed to his ability to harness a synergy between intuition, empiricism, and reasoning. Others observed these traits in him. As telling, Rick looked for them as assets in others. In the young men fighting in fascism in World War II, he found “initiative, imagination, confidence, and cold, hard thinking,” all built on a “foundation of knowledge skill and experience.” He might have said the same thing about himself at a similar age.
Talking to one young Army mechanic, Rick asked how he liked the work. “Like it? I’m nuts about it!” Rickenbacker reported him saying. “I didn’t know I liked machinery so much. I majored in history and English in college–an awful bore. I never had a chance to work with things like this before….” This was music to Rick’s ears and not only confirmation of his deepest beliefs but vindication of his own life story. “Learning the hard way is still the best way,” he always said (except when giving advice to his son Bill just after the war, when he explained, “I do not want you to learn the hard way as has been my experience.”
As much as he extolled the value of learning by doing, which he did often, he always expressed regret about dropping out of school (though he insisted on at least one occasion that he was a “jump out,” not a dropout). The same year that he told the Columbus Dispatch of his “insatiable desire to learn,” he told another audience, “I had to work twice as hard at whatever I was doing, compared with what I could have done if I had had the benefit of even a high school education.” At sixty-five, apparently, Rickenbacker still felt the loss (out of proportion, possibly, to the value actual graduates would have ascribed to it). Nevertheless, Rickenbacker continued, “All through my life, I have been trying to catch up for those four years of high school that I lost.” Oh, he did much more than catch up to his East Main Street Elementary School cohort. In whatever it was he was steering—his Maxwell Special or his Spad XIII—he zoomed past all of them.
Eddie Rickenbacker Papers, 1915-1972. Ohio State University Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, Columbus, Ohio.
- Life Story, vol. 2, 498, 671.
- Statements, “America Holds the Key to World Peace, November, 1922. “You Can’t Get Something for Nothing,” for The Open Road for Boys magazine, 1935. “Statement for Teen Etiquette,” June 1955.
- Broadcasts I, “Broadcast Given in Detroit by Captain EV Rickenbacker,” 192.
- Speeches and Addresses I, Predictions (for Aviation), June 1919.
Boyne, Walter J. Aces in Command: Fighter Pilots as Combat Leaders. Washington, DC: Brassey’s, 2001, 34.
Farr, Finis. Rickenbacker’s Luck: An American Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1979: 88.
Jones, Johnny, “Visit to School by Rick Recalled,” Columbus Dispatch. November 19, 1967.
Kilgallen, James. CD. Jun 19, 1955, E-1.
Hopkins University Press, 2005, 198.
Lewis, W. David. Eddie Rickenbacker: An American Hero in the Twentieth Century. Baltimore: Johns
Rickenbacker, Edward V. (as told to Gardner Harding) “50,000 Planes Can’t Be Wrong.” Collier’s 103, April 29, 1939, 9-10, 60-61.
Rickenbacker, Edward V. “Masters of Tomorrow.” American Magazine. June 1944, vol. 137, 17, 78-80.
Rickenbacker, Edward V. Rickenbacker. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1967, 289.
Images: Wikimedia Commons
- By Air Service, United States Army – Gorrell’s History of the American Expeditionary Forces Air Service, 1917-1919, National Archives, Washington, D.C. via http://www.fold3.com, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24986178
- By Sam Shere (1905–1982) – Zeppelin-ramp de Hindenburg / Hindenburg zeppelin disaster, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19329337