Bernard Rapoport was an American original. When he passed away last week at age 94, we lost a great spirit.
Born and bred in Texas, son of Jewish Russian immigrants, B always said that he learned about Marxism and hard work from his father and a love of learning from his mother. He worked his way from poverty through college, and then found the love and partner of his life in Audre. They put together the money to create American Income Life Insurance Company. The two of them built it together, creating a dynamo that earned them hundreds of millions of dollars. For them, wealth was a gift to be spent not on personal luxuries, but on helping the causes that inspired them.
Bernard and Audre lived modestly in Waco, Texas. They doted on their son Ronnie, and particularly their beloved granddaughters Abby and Emily. And they exercised their passion for politics, democracy, education, a feisty free press, and Democrats. They were generous supporters of the University of Texas, where B eventually served as Chair of the Board of Regents. They were leading donors to promising liberal Democrats – from Paul Wellstone to the young Bill Clinton. They were major supporters to a range of liberal institutions and initiatives – from the Texas Observer to the Institute for Policy Studies and the Campaign for America’s Future where I first encountered them.
Bernard delighted in the fact that he had met my wife – Barbara Shailor – before I did, having encountered her when she was working in Sen. Fred Harris presidential campaign. Harris and Bernard were two of a kind – funny, smart, irreverent, populist, and bigger than life. He delighted in telling me about his daddy – “Did I ever tell you my father was a Communist?” – and the lessons he had learned from a childhood of proud poverty. That upbringing committed Bernard to the American dream – to the belief that every child should have the opportunity to get an education, work hard, and lift themselves up.
He had a searing passion for justice. He was devoted to Israel, but supported a state for the Palestinians, and knew they had to be treated with respect. He was a champion of civil rights. He had an old Texas eye for beautiful women, but had no doubts about equal rights for women. His greatest commitment was to the “least of these,” particularly children growing up in need. He deeply believed, from his own experience, in the importance of good, public education for those children.
In his later years, B bemoaned the rising inequality in America, and the decline of working families. He scorned the current tax code that allowed him to pay lower tax rates than middle income families. He thought markets couldn’t work if working people didn’t get a fair share. He couldn’t understand how patriotic Americans, no matter how wealthy, would not support expanded public investment in what made America great – education, science, modern infrastructure, opportunity. He was a staunch Democrat, but was saddened at evidence that Democrats too were corrupted by the big money politics of our time. His views were at the cutting edge of progressive possibility. At the Campaign, we were honored to present him with our lifetime achievement award as a progressive champion.
B was smart, well-read, passionate about ideas – and always curious. When I traveled to Waco, Audre and B would usually take me to the Outback Steak House, their local favorite for dinner. He’d grill me on politics, declaim about his current passion, and share the latest gossip. Audre would periodically add wisdom and more than a little realism to the discussion. He’d ask after my wife, and sing her praises
In his last years, B only wished he had more money to give away, to counter conservative and centrist money flooding into politics. He was looking for the populist movement or leaders who would help turn America around. Had he been younger, there is no doubt he would have helped to seed that movement.
B always considered himself blessed, but he was our blessing. His generosity helped support bold ideas, independent reporting, good schools, and reform leaders. He engaged us, challenged us, and showed us what loyalty really meant. He was wonderful character, with a great heart. And he will be truly missed.