Honoring those who give: Central Texas philanthropists to be recognized

Bernard Rapoport

Bernard Rapoport, who built an insurance empire and spent his last decades giving his wealth away to universities, Democratic campaigns and charitable causes in Israel and his adopted hometown of Waco, died late Thursday night.

He was 94 and was in the hospital for illness related to previous heart failures, said Lyndon Olson Jr. of Waco, a close friend.

“It’s a huge loss, period,” said Olson, a former U.S. ambassador. “He was quite a human being. I’ve never met anybody more gracious and kind.”

Olson said that before Rapoport checked into Providence Health Center earlier this week, he had been in the habit of putting in a full day at the Rapoport Foundation, the charitable institution he founded. Just last week, he was cracking jokes and bending Olson’s ear about big ideas he had.

“He was Bernard Rapoport right to the end,” Olson said.

Rapoport, a national political power broker who helped elect President Bill Clinton, was especially devoted to Waco, his adopted hometown. Between 1989 and 2010, the Bernard and Audre Rapoport Foundation gave some $16 million — a third of its funding —  to various Waco causes, including efforts at early childhood education.

He also funded Jewish causes in Israel, the Texas Observer magazine and the University of Texas system, whose board he chaired in the 1990s.

He was also known as a fund-raiser and donor for Democratic candidates as far back as the 1940s, long before he became wealthy. He was credited for helping advance the political careers of U.S. Sen. Ralph Yarbrough, Congressman Chet Edwards, Gov. Ann Richards and a young Bill Clinton, whom he met during George McGovern’s presidential campaign.

Rapoport spent four years as chairman of the University of Texas System Board of Regents, which he served from 1991 to 1997. He has contributed $26 million to UT, endowing five professorships and giving $500,000 a year for scholarships. The UT-Austin economics building is named for him.

Rapoport’s high-profile liberal advocacy might seem to have put him out of Waco’s mainstream, but he would have stood out in any crowd.

He was a Marxist-turned-capitalist who urged his own company to unionize and then prospered selling life insurance to unions. He was a champion and critic of American capitalism, seeing it both as a potential engine of social improvement and sometimes a cause of injustice. He saw education, philanthropy and labor unions as part of the cure.

“I think in the first place you make a lot of money because you live in a country where it is possible,” Rapoport said in a 2010 interview. “Secondly, you have to take on extra responsibilities if you are fortunate in being in that position. For me, you have to have a sense that it is not all yours.”

Those concerns also underlay his politics, said Ben Barnes, a former Texas lieutenant governor and Democratic Party activist.

“I think most public officials and would-be candidates know that if they are for the issues that B is interested in —  if they are for education and if they are for social justice in this state — B is going to contribute to them whether their political future is bright or not,” Barnes said  in 2010. “B might write a check to someone he knows is going to get beat, but he believes he has an obligation to support that person because they have stood up for things he believes in.”

Bernard Rapoport was born in San Antonio on July 17, 1917, to David and Riva Rapoport, Jewish immigrants who had fled Russia after participating in an anti-czarist uprising.

They lived a life of poverty among Mexican-American immigrants, who called his father “patron” for his advocacy and care for them.

His father sold blankets and cut-rate insurance, and often failed to pay his light bill. He instilled a sense of social justice and Marxist economic theory in young Bernard, taking him to workers rallies. And under his father’s influence, the boy grew up reading the great Russian masters — Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky and Pushkin —  forming a lifelong reading habit.

“We lived in a little house, and we had enough to eat,” Rapoport recalled. “We didn’t have any clothes to speak of, but I will tell you what we did have. We had a big library. My father raised me that I had to read a book every day.”

He attended the University of Texas on partial scholarship, supporting himself by working in Zales jewelry store on Congress Avenue in Austin.

After graduation, he began work on a doctorate, hoping to become an economics professor. But at age 23, he encountered a philosophical crisis that caused him to abandon that pursuit. His experience working at a jewelry store gave him admiration for the leadership of entrepreneurs who could start businesses. Contrary to the teachings of Marx, he saw profit as a just reward for such leadership.

After some unsatisfying years working at a jewelry store in Wichita Falls, a friend introduced him to Waco girl who would change his life and bring him to Waco.

In January 1942,  he went on a blind date with Baylor student Audre Newman at a Waco dance hall. The first date didn’t go so well, but they met for breakfast the next morning, and he ended by proposing marriage to her.

“I have always been a good salesman, and I am always impatient to do the things that I want to do, so I wasted no time in this matter,” Bernard  wrote in his autobiography. “After breakfast, I asked Audre to marry me, and she said yes.”

He worked as a jeweler in Waco and became active in the  unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign of Homer Price Rainey in 1946. The couple moved to San Antonio in 1949, and shortly thereafter he discovered a gift for selling insurance. He opened a Waco branch office for an insurance company.

In 1951, he jumped at the chance to develop a start-up insurance business with Audre’s uncle in Indianopolis. He built the company up to a sales force of 300, and turned it into a stock company, American Income Life, doing business in several states.

The company grew quickly through the 1950s, and under Audre’s influence, he moved it to Waco in 1958.

In the 1960s, he hit upon a new business strategy: Sellling to labor unions.

To win over unions, Bernard asked the Office and Professional Employees International Union to organize American Income’s home office in Waco in June 1966. American Income became the only insurance company in the country that could claim that the people who processed the policies were union members.

In 1963, American Income did between $6 million and $7 million worth of business, according to Bernard‘s autobiography, "Being Rapoport : A Capitalist with a Conscience." Ten years later, the company was bringing in $31.5 million. Nearly all of that growth came from its success with labor, Rapoport  says.

“Because of (Bernard's) upbringing and his father’s upbringing, he felt this was a part of the community he could serve and part of the community he was comfortable with, so he could really tackle it with a passion,” said Roger Smith, current president and CEO of American Income Life Insurance Co.

His political involvement grew through those years and into the 1970s, as he bankrolled candidates even while personally cash-strapped.

Rapoport also began funding the Texas Observer, a liberal investigative publication, in 1962.

“I have always believed that it is essential to the preservation of our society that we maintain a conservative voice, a liberal voice and a middle ground,” Rapoport wrote in his autobiography.

It wasn’t until 1980 that Rapoport was financially stable enough to give tens of thousands of dollars to state and federal political candidates. Most went to U.S. Senate candidates.

Friends included Sens. Edward Kennedy, Tom Daschle, Walter Mondale, and Alan Cranston.

He met the Clintons in 1972, when Bill Clinton, a Yale Law School student, was organizing the George McGovern presidential campaign in Texas.

“Tall with a really bushy head of hair, Clinton was memorable in his physical appearance,” Bernard  wrote in his autobiography. “He was impressive and seemed to me to have a promising political future, although I can’t say honestly that I was among those who saw a future president of the United States whenever he came into view.”

After the disastrous McGovern campaign and Clinton moved back home to Arkansas, Bernard  contributed to every one of Clinton’s campaigns. When Clinton ran for president in 1992, Bernard  served as one of his lead fundraisers. The Rapoports and the Clintons maintained a friendship over the years.

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