On the morning of May 16, 2007, Bernard Rapoport arrived at a VIP reception inside an old classroom at his alma mater, Jefferson High School. The room was abuzz with fellow grads, giants in their field, sipping coffee, enjoying pastries. Each was invited, like Rapoport, for a unique occasion.
In the room stood a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, a retired Army Brigadier General, a Hollywood producer with a classic film, “The Big Chill,” that earned a Best Picture Oscar nomination. In the next hour, they and others would be inducted as charter members into the Jefferson Alumni Hall of Fame. As Rapoport gazed about the room, his throat tightened, his eyes grew moist.
As a Hall of Fame organizer and alum (Class of ‘77), I introduced myself to the gentleman who had become a great philanthropist, donating millions to charitable causes. As we shook hands, I studied his face, watching it fill with emotion. Perhaps he could read my mind. For without being asked, Rapoport (‘35) explained: “This is the first time,” he said, “that anyone has honored me without asking for money.”
The wealthy know the expectation attached to awards. We celebrate your achievements, you write a big check. The invitation extended to Rapoport asked for nothing except his presence. “Bernie” or “B,” as friends used to call him, was moved and you could see it in his eyes.
Before “B” made his riches, he grew up with pennies. The son of Jewish immigrants, B knew poverty as a youth. His father peddled blankets for 10 cents in impoverished San Antonio neighborhoods. At age 6, he came home from school to find the family furniture in the streets, his parents evicted. For years, the Rapoports’ never had running water, gas and telephone service at the same time.
A bright student, B graduated from Jefferson during the Depression and earned a scholarship to the University of Texas. He worked through school at a jewelry store. After earning his degree in 1939 (BA Economics), B took a job in Austin, and later in Wichita Falls. While flying to San Antonio in December 1942, B had a layover in Waco. There, he met Audre Newman and fell in love. Within weeks, they married.
Not long after, Audre persuaded her husband to open a jewelry store in Waco. B remained in the jewelry business for several years.
In 1951, he borrowed $25,000 and started a company in Indianapolis, Ind., American Life, which sold low-cost hospital insurance plans. With the assistance of his uncle and company president, Harold Goodman, American LIfe grew quickly. In two years, the start-up went from receiving $95,000 in premium income to $1 million.
In 1954, B and Goodman formed a new company, American Income LIfe Insurance. By 1956, the company was operating in 13 states. Two years later, American Income moved its headquarters to Waco. The company’s income reached $31.5 million In 1973. The company was sold for $563 million in 1994.
Wealth brought out the best in B. He donated millions of dollars to UT for scholarships and endowed chairs. In 1987, he spent $46 million to start the Bernard and Audre Rapoport Foundation, which benefited education and the arts and supported numerous Jewish institutions. Fortune magazine named him one of America’s “40 Most Generous Philanthropists.”
Former UT chancellor William Cunningham once told the New York Times, “I have never known anyone who liked to make money as much as he did, and liked to give it away as much as he did.”
On April 5, 2012, B died in Waco. He was 94. His passing generated an outpouring of tributes and considerable media attention. He was recalled as a kind man with a big heart. He was remembered for starting a volunteer tutoring in Waco’s public schools, for serving himself as a weekly volunteer. “Through education,” he said after winning the Horatio Alger Award in 1999, “we accord people their dignity.”
When I read of his passing, I found myself back in the classroom, shaking his hand, looking into those eyes. I will never forget that moment, the sound of his voice, the emotion he conveyed. A man who had given so much was now receiving, and the honor, poignant and priceless, moved him as he had moved others.