Parenting from the Top Ten Percent

posted in: Eddie Rickenbacker | 0

Forget the one percent, says David Brooks. It’s all about the top ten–or perhaps twenty–percent. My family falls at the cusp of this upper income quintile, yet family wealth (see Thomas Picketty) has loomed even larger in our household’s well-being. We have lived within our means but mostly have had the security of knowing our parents had resources we could fall back on in case of emergency. Our children have never wanted for anything and, perhaps as a result, have never been particularly materialistic. They have not gone to expensive private universities, but as my daughter begins to stake out her career, we always make clear that financial considerations should not affect her decision. Unpaid internships are always on the table. Enriching experiences, subsidized by us, will carry her farther in the end. It is a privilege of growing up in the Top Ten–er, Twenty–Percent.

In 1904, when Eddie Rickenbacker’s father died, his family’s status, already modest, was downgraded, surely, into the bottom twenty percent. Just thirteen at the time, Eddie dropped out of school and worked a string of menial jobs for the next two years. Thirty-five years later, Rickenbacker was president and general manager of Eastern Air Lines and surely in or near the top one percent. How did this man–raised on the mean streets of Columbus, come-of-age on the dirt tracks of the Upper Midwest, hardened in the life-and-death combat in the skies over France–how did he raise his own two adopted sons, David and William? Did he strengthen them with tough love? Did he expect them to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, the hard way, as he had? Not at all. His parenting was–though different in significant ways–remarkably similar to my own (and my wife’s). Both of us promoted enriching experiences for our children rather than youthful wage labor.

We can infer much about Rickenbacker’s parenting because of the letters his elder son chose to publish in the book From Father to Son (1970). Bill Rickenbacker had as many letters as he did because his father was an avid correspondent. Equally important, Rickenbacker pere sent Rickenbacker fils away to boarding school at the tender age of eleven. Letters were an essential form of communication early on.

We have this one reference from Eddie to early memories from before Bill went away: The years in Bronxville were “some of the happiest years of my life because of the fun I had with you and David in watching you grow physically and mentally.” Nevertheless, Bill (and his brother David) was sent away to school. Theirs quickly became a long-distance relationship between “Daddy” and “My old Pal Bill,” much to the benefit of the curious historian.

As a youngster, Eddie had nurtured dreams of becoming an artist, but the demands of survival threw cold water on such fantasies. Instead, he applied his visual-spatial aptitude, as well as his uncanny nose for problem-solving, to automotive engineering, a more practical and remunerative trade. Four decades later, Bill did much that his father had not able to. “You must…be getting a great kick out of your oil painting.” Eddie wrote while Bill was in high school. “It is certainly a grand hobby and one that you can always use. I used to have a love for watercolors in my school days, but I was much younger than you are now. However, keep it up.”

Eddie encouraged his son’s music, too: “I will be anxious to hear you play Beethoven’s Sonata when you return in June. Personally, I would give my shirt if I could play the piano….” (One recalls how Eddie, during his Maxwell racing days, was among the first shop managers to play recorded music for his workers.)

Bill learned five languages–French, Spanish, German, Greek, and Russian–and almost pursued a career in philology. (Bill came by his talents naturally. His biological mother was a “gifted pianist,” his father a “brilliant linguist.”) In a strange twist of fate, the mechanic who butted heads with Ivy Leaguers on the airfield of Issoudun, found his son attending Harvard. Even before Bill matriculated, he was way ahead of his father: “Gosh! You certainly get me down with your great, big words. I have to go to the dictionary to look up the meaning of them, to say nothing of your French quotations. You know, it has been a long time since I spoke French in World War I, and I have forgotten most of what little I knew.”

A few months later, after starting college, Bill prompted much the same response: “You must have looked that dictionary over very carefully with all the big words you used in your letter. I am sorry I have no time to find a dictionary and get their exact meaning, I but I think I catch on.” Here was the crux of the issue. As a self-made man Eddie must have reveled in his son’s educational successes. At the same time, they probably stirred up some of the old feelings of shame at his own shortcomings.

“The money I am spending towards your education gives me more satisfaction than you will ever know,” Eddie wrote later in Bill’s freshman year. “I am happy that you and Dave have helped throughout the years to inspire me to make the money that makes this education possible.” Eddie uses this sentence to support the bigger argument of the letter that follows. William would do better coming home for the summer rather than work. His reasons are revealing. “I do not think that you would be happy in the first place and in the second place, the years are slipping by, and this summer would be one of the happy ones to have you with us because it would be for the first time that the four of us have had the privilege of spending the summer together for several years.”

It is important to note that Bill was not going to spend a summer hauling heavy trays in a hot glass factory or capping bottles in a smelly brewery, as Eddie had done at age fourteen. He was going to be paid $1,500 (1946 dollars!) to be a golf pro (giving lessons, manning the pro shop, and–someone’s got to do it–playing low-scoring rounds of golf). “I want you…to be prepared by knowledge gained now to be able to place yourselves in a position of being able to send your children through school in years to come. Consequently, I hope that you will pass up this lucrative opportunity and spend the summer with us where you can enjoy all of the golf that you care to and at the same time have the leisure for studies in preparation for your future.” [emphases mine] Leisure for golf and studies. Think about long term career enhancement rather than the short term remuneration. These were the priorities Eddie the Striver–Eddie the Workaholic–had for his son. It seems strange until one remembers that several times in his own life he took pay cuts to advance his career.

Two years later, the message was very similar. Thinking about Bill’s summer plans before his senior year of college, Eddie and Adelaide discussed the matter and “have agreed that the ideal combination for balanced health, a balanced diet, and balanced intellectual, as well as expense, program would be for you to come into the city with me on Monday mornings, do your studying on Mondays and Tuesdays, and your researching at the library. This would give me the opportunity and pleasure of having breakfast with you in the morning and dinner in the evening when you are free. Then you can go back to the country on Wednesday morning, with your head crammed full of learning and your heart full of music, balanced with some good golf on the side.” Not exactly a helicopter parent but a bit of a micro-manager–one who is looking out for his own pleasures as well as his son’s. Who’da thunk it?

Eddie sounds more indulgent of his son than my own parents were of me. Or than I have been of my own children. Still, I often second-guess our parenting…

I met a high school student last month who said he works 3:00 to 10:00 every evening after school. He gets his homework done (when he does get it done) late at night. But the money! He had no regrets. He was willing to pay in time for cash. In fact, almost all the middle class high school students I encounter talk about holding down jobs in a way mine never did. They took the money for granted and took the time, instead. Time to study, to be sure, but also time to manage stress and to stay involved in extra-curricular activities: theater and Tae Kwon Do. Now that they are poised for independence, I wonder if they will make the leap. Were we too soft?

Then there is Eddie Rickenbacker; for many, the paragon of a hard-ass. He wasn’t so different. He might have been, in a way, softer.

Regardless, Bill felt the need to prove himself worthy of the Ace of Aces. At twenty-three he joined the Air Force and learned to fly fighter jets. During his training in Texas, Eddie, the strict fiscal conservative, was “glad to note that you are continuing to bank $80 a month.” Yet the possibly indulgent father also declared he was even “more happy to hear that you are playing some golf and doing a bang up job of it.” Eddie liked to know that his son had time for “fun,” perhaps because he had been experienced so little at a similar age.

“It is my hope and Mother’s hope,” Eddie wrote to Bill while he was still in college, “that we can leave you boys substantially protected financially so that such a career [an author, a scholar, or a man of service] would not be impeded for lack of financial resources.” Today’s Top Twenty Percenter might not use the same phrasing, but the sentiment would probably be the same: Take advantage of all the enriching experiences we can provide you. Don’t let money stand in the way of your personal growth. 

Bill grew up to become editor-in-chief of the National Review; then established his own investment business. In retirement, he read his way through fifteen volumes of Burke and twenty-one of Ortega y Gasset (in the original Spanish, it goes without saying). He played the piano four hours a day. Captain Eddie, a man who worked with his hands, had given his son the wherewithal to pursue a life of the mind.


Rickenbacker, William, ed. From Father to Son: The letters of Captain Eddie Rickenbacker to his son William, from boyhood to  manhood. New York: Walker and Company, 1970: 87, 27, 38, 36, 54, 63, 64, 96, 131, 102, 145, 81.

Lewis, David. Eddie Rickenbacker: An American Hero in the Twentieth Century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005: 293-294.

1940s Golf:

1986 National Review Cover:

Wooden Nickels author page:

David and William:

2007 Income Quintile Graph:

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