While having breakfast at the Chickahominy House on Jamestown Road, the late Bernard Rapoport enlightened his friends often about what it means "to live the American dream."
He was a "dirt poor" Texas boy, he said, who has become a multi-multi-millionaire by transforming a small, struggling insurance company into the billion-dollar American Income Life Insurance Co. In his autobiography, he called himself a "capitalist with a conscience."
He was fond of saying, "The only justification for making a lot of money is to give it away to support worthy causes."
Rapoport's father, David, was a Socialist, exiled by the Czarist regime to Siberia. He escaped from there and sailed to America. Settling in San Antonio, Texas, he made a living as a pushcart-peddler.
"My papa never in his life made more than $4,000 in a year," Rapoport said in a 1998 interview with the Lake Placid News and the Virginia Gazette. "He just wasn't a good businessman. But he had great integrity and a tremendous sense for fairness and doing what is right. ... In our family, what we ever talked about was education and more education."
Getting a college education wasn't easy. He held down several jobs, juggling them to fit his classroom schedule.
"Nevertheless, the University of Texas provided me with a wonderful opportunity to gain an education. All for the price, of $1,440, my expenses for four years," he said.
He never forgot his debt to his alma mater. By 1998, he had already donated more than $15 million to the University of Texas and kept giving $1 million more every year. In 1986, Bernard, and his wife of 56 years, Audre, decided to establish the Rapoport Foundation. Since then the foundation has dedicated more than $55 million in grants "to improve the social fabric of life."
According to the mission statement, "The Foundation seeks innovative solutions to intractable and persistent problems and strives to cultivate emerging talents and promising models. The entire Rapoport family is actively involved in the Foundation operations, which has touched many lives in the areas of education, arts and culture, health and human services and civic participation."
Among the recipients of grants in the fields of education, arts and culture, in fiscal year 2012, had been the William & Mary Foundation, $125,000; Bill Moyers Independent Production Fund, $100,000; the Math Fellows Program in Waco, $125,000; and the University of Texas, Rapoport Service Scholarship Program, in Austin, $392,818.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been donated by the Rapoport Foundation to support democracy and civic participation, health services and in support of arts and culture.
The report issued by the Rapoport Foundation stresses that the primary focus of the foundation is on programs that benefit children and youth in Waco and McLennan County, Texas. But other proposals are also considered as long as they offer imaginative, and when possible, long-range solutions to the problems of the most needy members of society, and ideally, solutions that can be replicated in other communities.
To Rapoport, who passed away in 2012 at the age of 94, earning the respect of the community by doing good has always given him great satisfaction. As his son, Ronald, the John Marshal professor of government and former chairman of the department at the College of William & Mary, noted, "He lived a great life, accomplished an amazing amount, touched innumerable people, and lived long enough to receive the accolades he deserved."
As the chairman of the Rapoport Foundation, Ronald is determined to uphold his father's legacy.
Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from the Virginia Gazette.