|Reprinted from 1987 Brookings Institution Archives, The Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C.|
|Robert S. Brookings|
|Robert Somers Brookings was born on January 22, 1850, in Cecil County, Maryland, to Richard and Mary Carter Brookings. After Richard Brookings' death in 1952, Mary Carter Brookings married Henry R. Reynold and moved her family to Baltimore. Robert Brookings left school at sixteen and, in January 1867, he followed his older brother Harry to St. Louis, Missouri, where he took a job with Cupples and Marston, woodenware manufacturers. His rise was rapid and steady, fueled by exceptional business talents. By 1882, when he became vice president and general manager of Samuel Cupples Woodenware Company, Brookings was a wealthy, successful man.|
Brookings had been active in St. Louis civic affairs for some time and in 1896, at forty-six, he decided to retire completely from business and devote the rest of his life to public service. His first philanthropic efforts were for Washington University. As president of the board, he undertook the tasks of rebuilding the university on a new campus and establishing a medical school. He succeeded at both.
At the same time, Brookings started to get involved in political affairs. In 1913, he visited Berlin with Andrew Carnegie to represent the United States at the seventy-fifth anniversary of the German Emperor's reign. In 1914, he attended a meeting n New York and promised his support for a private institution dedicated to the research of government administration. He fulfilled that promise in 1916 by becoming vice chairman of the new Institute for Government Research. The following year, President Woodrow Wilson placed Brookings on the War Industries Board and, as the work of the board developed, he was appointed chairman of the Price-Fixing Committee for the salary of a dollar a year. From that time, Brookings made his home in Washington, D.C.
In 1922, Brookings helped establish the Institute of Economics, a private institution dedicated to economic research. Serving as both chairman and president, he also contributed a building at 26 Jackson Place, N.W., to house the new institute. At the same time, he was elected to the Smithsonian Institution's Board of Regents and continued his work for Washington University in St. Louis. In 1924, he organized the Robert Brookings Graduate School of Economics and Government as an independent educational institution in Washington, D.C., holding the positions of chairman and president, and later played a crucial role in the 1927 merger of the school with the Institute for Government Research and Institute of Economics. Chairman of the board of the newly formed Brookings Institution from its inception to his death in1932, Brookings was instrumental in raising needed funds, hiring highly qualified scholars, and formulating the philosophy and policies of the new research institution. In 1931, he secured the donation of a new building on Lafayette Square from Isabel Valle January Brookings, who had become his wife on June 19, 1927.
As his health failed, Brookings was forced to retire from active participation in many of his public service activities. However, his letters continued to record his thoughts and recommendations, especially about the Brookings Institution. He also expounded his economic philosophy at length in several books published during his last decade: Industrial Ownership (1925), Economic Democracy (1929), and The Way Forward (1932). Robert Somers Brookings died on November 15, 1932.
|Reprinted from Leslie's Weekly, January 5, 1918|
|Men Who are Winning the War|
Robert Somers Brookings, Plowboy, Merchant and Philanthropist,
Now One of Uncle Sam's Big Purchasing Agents
|By William H. Crawford|
|I was walking down Pennsylvania Avenue with Senator Borah when I saw a very distinguished-looking old gentleman just in front of us. His hair was snow-white and bushy; so were his whiskers. There was a certain alertness about his movements that was not in keeping with the evidences of his age. There goes Dr. Bell, thought I at first; then that it could not be, because this man was slenderer than the telephone wizard, and much more spry. My curiosity was aroused, so I said to the Senator, "Who is that gray-haired gentleman?" The Senator looked surprised at my ignorance. "That," said he, "is Robert S. Brookings, the great St. Louis business man who is helping to 'win the war.' Why don't you write a story about him?"|
A little while later I was talking to Frank A. Scott, chairman of the War Industries Board, when he suddenly remarked to me, "I'll tell you. Robert S. Brookings can give you that information. He's got all the facts at his fingertips. He is a most interesting man, by the way, and is doing a wonderful work for the Government, but so quietly and unostentatiously that it is not attracting the attention that it deserves. I will take you in and introduce you to him." Then as we walked down the corridor, Scott continued, "By the way, why don't you write a story about him?" The Fates settled it. Twice in one day I was advised by two distinguished citizens to make Brookings a subject of one of the "Winning the War" series.
Every one seemed more impressed with the importance of his work than Mr. Brookings himself. After he had given me the information that I sought, I asked him if he would give me some points about himself. A look of amazement came over his face as he said, "I am not working for notoriety, but to help my country, which I love. I am doing nothing but my duty, so why should the people be interested in me?" However, I think that Borah and Scott are better judges of his importance than is this modest, business wizard.
Robert Somers Brookings is chairman of the committee under the General Industries Board for the purchase of finished products. He has the confidence of the National Council of Defense, of the Cabinet and is very close to the President. Through his hands will pass the purchasing of all finished supplies needed by our army and navy in the carrying on of this war. Mr. Brookings comes to his task fully prepared for this difficult work, having had vast experience in purchasing for one of the largest mercantile houses in America, dealing in supplies that the Government will need, having been a member of the firm of Samuel Couples Wooden Ware Company for many years. Mr. Brookings, now at the head of a large force, is working night and day to aid the Government in securing the right products for use in the war at the right prices.
It was with considerable difficulty that I prevailed upon Mr. Brookings to talk about himself. He is greatly interested in philanthropy, especially along educational lines, and my story would be much longer if I were writing of Mr. Brookings from that viewpoint. Every few minutes his conversation would drift back to the subject nearest his heart. I quote from his own remarks:
"My father was Dr. Richard Brookings of Cecil County, Maryland. He graduated at the Maryland Medical College of Baltimore, and practiced his profession in that county. The country at that time was sparsely settled both with people and physicians so that father's practice covered a territory twenty miles from his home. He was often obliged to ride miles on horseback to attend poor people in distant territory, and his old saddle-bags are still among my treasured possessions.
"Father died when I was three years old, leaving mother with several children and very little money. Through careful management, mother succeeded in giving us a fairly good education. I was preparing to enter college at seventeen when mother died, and I was then obliged to earn a living. I decided that there was a better field for a young man out West, and selected St. Louis as the place to begin. I arrived there with very little money, but was fortunate in almost immediately securing a position with the growing firm of Couples & Marston. I attribute whatever success I have met in this world to the influence of these two men. A young man could have had no better instructor or guide than Samuel Couples. From the time I entered his employ until the day of his death, I was intimately associated with him
"I had been in the employ of Couples & Marston less than a year when it became evident to me that the one field for which I was fitted was salesmanship; so I appealed to Mr. Couples to give me a chance to go on the road. Duties of this kind had not been assigned to so young a man by this firm before, but Mr. Couples decided to give me a chance. I was told to pack my grip with samples and try my luck. My trial trip was down the Missouri River, visiting small towns where the river steamers made landings. If I made good, I was to continue; if not, I was to go back into the office. Possibly my extreme youth aroused the sympathy of the merchants. Anyhow, they gave me the orders and in a year or two I was covering the entire territory from the Gulf to the British possessions, and all the way to the Pacific Coast. My employers gave me a partnership before I was twenty-one.
"The firm grew rapidly. It was the old story of a business developing quickly in the West and Southwest. Our firm was soon recognized as the leading institution of its kind in the country. I continued actively in business until middle life, when, having amassed all the money that I needed, I retired from active business and have since devoted my life to so disposing of my fortune as to make it of the greatest advantage to humanity, until called to Washington to lend my experience and energy to the Government."
This brief résumé of his life does not tell of the hardships encountered in his rise from poverty to affluence and power. It makes no mention of the valiant struggle that he made to assist his mother, how he followed the plow all day, or industriously wielded the hoe or rode the harrow; how as a little chap he perched upon the meal sack and rode to the old mill; how the mother gathered her children about her in the evenings and taught them lessons in self-reliance and dependence upon a higher power.
It gives no account of his school days in West Nottingham Academy, a country school near his home, to which he was sent as a youth. It tells nothing of the industry and intelligence which he must have displayed to have inspired a keen business man, such as Mr. Couples, to entrust a seventeen-year-old boy with such responsibility. It tells nothing of his trepidation as he approached his first customer, nor of the joy that he must have felt when he obtained his first order, nor of the glow of satisfaction he must have felt upon receiving from his employer and benefactor his first letter of approval and praise for work well done; nor of the enterprise and industry that were necessary in order to enable him to so rapidly build up the trade of his company until it extended over the entire Western section of the United States; nor of the stage-coach and wagon drives to cover virgin fields of trade.
As an instance of his untiring business energy, even when off on pleasure trips, they tell the following story about him: Once, when visiting Alaska for rest and recreation, he was sauntering through a store and saw some clothes-pins that he recognized as having been manufactured by his company, but they bore the trademark of another firm. Immediately he was interested. He inquired of the merchant as to where he had purchased them, and was told that he had bought them cheaper than he could from the Couples firm. Mr. Brookings could not understand how a man could buy them from a manufacturer and sell them for less than Couples & Marston could afford to sell them, so he immediately began an inquiry. He found out that his firm's Alaskan business was being handled via the Cape of Good Hope, a long, expensive sea trip for an inexpensive but bulky article. The freight rates were high, greatly increasing the cost to the merchant. He also found that his competitor was shipping them via Vancouver, a much less expensive and shorter route. The trade in Alaska would not amount to much, and the difference in price at which he had sold wholesale and the one that he would secure by selling direct was not a large sum. Yet he immediately saw to it that the shipping directions were changed, that the Alaskan trade was vigorously pushed, and today nearly all Alaska buys its clothes-pins from the Samuel Couples Wooden Ware Company.
Nor does Mr. Brookings' own story recount the splendid work that Mr. Brookings has done along educational lines, since he determined to pay back to the world those blessings which his industry had enabled him to collect. It tells nothing of the growth of the great Washington University under his wise guidance. A very large part of Mr. Brookings' reputation depends upon his management of this institution. He was elected a director of the University and, in 1896, resigned as vice-president and general manager of the Samuel Couples Wooden Ware Company, and accepted the presidency of the University. The school at that time had a good local reputation, but it was far from wealthy and had not attempted to spread beyond the confines of its immediate territory. Soon, however, it reaped the benefit of Mr. Brookings' executive ability. He endowed the University with his own personal funds and, securing the interest of his friends, placed it upon a solid, financial foundation, as well as organized it along business lines. New schools were opened and those that already existed were more closely correlated, and only the best professors and instructors that could be secured were selected, as is evidenced by the fact that Secretary of Agriculture Houston was called to the Cabinet from the chancellorship of this school. From a second-rate or third-rate college it improved until it is one of the largest and best managed universities now in America.
The Couples Station in St. Louis is doubly a monument to him: First, to his ingenuity and business acumen, for it was devised by him, although it is named for his senior partner; Second, to his generosity, for he and Mr. Couples gave it to Washington University for an endowment. Large shippers in St. Louis had long been handicapped by the distance from the railroad station to their places of business. They had large drayage, storage and warehouse bills to pay, which in the days of keen competition militated against them in price-making. In order to avoid this, Mr. Brookings succeeded in getting his partner to cooperate with him and they purchased a large tract of land conveniently located in the city and placed a tremendous building upon it, the construction of which was such that railroad tracks could be laid to the doors of each separate section of the building. Then he put in every modern, mechanical contrivance for rapidly unloading freight, and invited the shippers of St. Louis to come in under this one roof. As a consequence, the St. Louis merchants can handle their goods without any expense of cartage, drayage, warehousing, etc. They have now an advantage over the wholesale merchants in other cities.
The Station was a financial success from the beginning, and now yields an income of nearly half a million dollars a year. It has tracks connecting with every railroad that enters St. Louis. Chambers of Commerce of other cities have visited it with an idea of adopting its time-saving and money-saving advantages.
When Mr. Brookings and his partner determined to endow Washington University, they assured it a certain income by giving to it the Couples Station. Mr. Brookings is still general manager of the Station, but turns over his twenty-five thousand dollars salary to the college. And this is not Mr. Brookings' only philanthropy. The Mercantile Library, an old institution in St. Louis, was badly located in an unpopular section of the city. It had very little endowment and was not patronized sufficiently to provide funds for its upkeep. Mr. Brookings was elected a member of the board of directors and immediately began to use his business acumen for the advantage of the library. Bonds were floated sufficient for a new building, accommodating the library and having large office space. The rent received was sufficient to pay its bonded indebtedness and taxes, and provided sufficient funds for the library's maintenance.
In 1913, Mr. Brookings gave an additional million dollars to erect a medical department in Washington University. When he was elected president of the trustees, he cancelled the University's indebtedness out of his own fortune.
Although Mr. Brookings has never married, he has a large and beautiful country home at Crystal City on the western banks of the Mississippi. The estate is large, and over it a herd of deer roams at will. It is noted for beautiful gardens and immense oaks. There is a large library where Mr. Brookings spends most of his time when at leisure, and his art gallery is surpassed by few in America.
The life of Robert Somers Brookings should be an inspiration and lesson to every ambitious American boy. It teaches that a man may overcome difficulties by pluck, industry and intelligence, and that he can rise from poverty to success by his own efforts. It also teaches that man does not live for himself alone, for Mr. Brookings believes that the accumulation of wealth or wielding of power for personal ends and glory does not constitute one's duty to the world. His life shows that as much energy and intelligence should be given to our duties to humanity as to our own personal aims.
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