Wanamaker’s Enduring Legacy

Over the past several weeks, I have shared with you the stories of a number of exemplars who earned their living, gained great wealth, and served both their fellowmen and their God through their work. In the two most recent posts, I shared a little about a young man named John who revolutionized the way retail business was conducted, treated customers fairly and courteously, and retained good employees by helping to meet their current and future needs. That young man was John Wanamaker.

One thing about Wanamaker was that he was “never content to stop with what he had achieved. His eye and thought was always ahead.” His success and philanthropy resulted in his being voted the most popular man in Philadelphia. His character was impeccable, leading to his being suggested for several political offices, but he declined them all–until President Benjamin Harrison nominated him Postmaster General in 1899. As Postmaster, he worked to improve mail delivery across the nation and around the world. Two of his most successful innovations were Rural Free Delivery and parcel post service.

Wanamaker later participated in Pennsylvania state politics. He was so appalled at corruption in state government that he dedicated himself to reform, helping elect seventy-five reformers to the legislature and breaking the hold of the political machines.

John Wanamaker’s life has been summarized as “tireless twenties, thrilling thirties, fiery forties, fearless fifties, serious sixties, sober seventies.” He valued time and made the most of it.

Wanamaker died of heart failure on December 12, 1922. Fifteen thousand people attended his funeral. His pallbearers included the governor of Pennsylvania, the majors of Philadelphia and New York, the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and Thomas Edison. He was buried in Fairmount Park in Philadelphia. A memorial tablet at Bethany Collegiate Church, where he started a Sunday school class for boys, states his secret: “Thinking, trying, toiling, and trusting in God is all of my biography.”

Wanamaker’s life is proof that honesty, dedication, and hard work can produce business success. More importantly, it shows that one can practice godliness and live out one’s higher calling in even a “secular” occupation. As he himself said, “The chief difference between man and man is not in birth, good looks, or opportunities. It is in what they do and the way they do it. A man with a purpose, who never stops following his star, makes his goal; and the other man, whose wishbone is where his backbone belongs, seldom fails to get anywhere but into the bed of indolence.”

(All direct quotes in this and the previous posts on Wanamaker are from The Romantic Rise of a Great American by Russell H. Conwell, Harper & Row Publishers, 1924.)

[Copyright (c) 2017, Dennis L. Peterson]

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