American entrepreneur and philanthropist Bernard Rapoport (1917–2012), the son of impoverished Russian Jewish immigrants, co-founded the successful American Income Life Insurance Company, which was distinctive in its support of union labor. The Bernard and Audre Rapoport Foundation, which Rapoport founded with personal funds in 1986, supported education and the arts as well as the Democrat Party and various liberal causes.
Bernard “B” Rapoport was born to Russian Jewish immigrant parents in San Antonio, Texas, on July 17, 1917. His parents, David Rapoport and Riva Feldman, marched in opposition to Russia's czarist regime during a 1905 rebellion. David Rapoport was arrested and sent to a labor camp in Siberia, but he escaped after two grueling years. Meanwhile, Riva's parents feared for her safety amid the darkening cloud of anti-Semitism. Each was able to find passage on a boat to the New World, and they each arrived in San Antonio, Texas. There, the couple married and raised their family.
Rapaport grew up on the poor side of the railroad tracks running through San Antonio, where his father eked out a living by selling rugs from a pushcart in their mostly Mexican neighborhood. Taking ten cents down, and ten cents per month for each rug, David Rapaport pushed his cart around the unpaved streets for years, speaking Spanish by necessity before he mastered English. With the help of an uncle who had immigrated much earlier, the family—which now included Rapoport and his sister Idel—was able to find decent housing and build a better life.
Being an immigrant and a Jew in Texas in the 1920s had its challenges: It was not unusual to be on the receiving end of disrespect, derisive laughter, targeted jokes, and name-calling. Texas's Anglo population tended to be suspicious of “foreign elements,” and the thick accents and halting English spoken by Rapoport's parents and their friends was often answered with scorn.
Politicized during their time in Russia and now living in voluntary exile, Rapoport's father and his friends brought their politics with them. Intellectuals and avid Marxist socialists, they believed that the workers of the world would eventually unite and bring about a socialist utopia in which everybody would work together and all would have their basic needs met. They often gathered to discuss world politics and raised what little money they could for the cause. Standing on a wooden soap box, David Rapoport agitated on street corners, making speeches while his young son stood near him. Daughter Idel later remembered playing dolls with her best friend; instead of doll tea parties, their dollies attended political meetings.
By 1928, the violent rise of Russian communism had become common knowledge and David Rapoport's views softened. He shifted his support to the Socialist Party of America, supporting its presidential candidate, Norman Thomas, a Presbyterian minister living in New York City. At this point, the elder Rapaport retired his pushcart and became an insurance salesman for the Texas Life Insurance Company. Although his clients were still lower class, he now had an office job, and this thrilled his son.
Fate interceded in Rapoport's life in 1930. An avid baseball fan, the 13-year-old was leaving a city bus on the way home to tune in the radio coverage of a baseball game in the World Series when he was struck by a car and tossed into the air, landing bloody and unconscious on the pavement. Rapoport came to, neighbors gathered to help, and he was transported to the hospital. His leg was badly broken and required 18 months to heal; this shortened limb would disqualify Rapoport from military service when he came of age. His parents hired a tutor who kept his education on track, and he also alleviated his boredom by reading through his father's library of Russian literature and communist theory.
Graduating from high school in 1935 at the top of his class, Rapoport was offered a scholarship to the University of Texas at Austin. Unable to afford the move, he took classes at a junior college and transferred to the state university the following year, funding his education with a job as credit manager at an Austin jewelry store. During this period, Rapoport met a Jewish political activist who convinced him to study communism.
While taking classes on economics and government, he read up on communism, and as a graduate student he planned to write his thesis on the theories of German political philosopher Karl Marx. Finding communism not to his liking, he left his thesis unfinished and left graduate school in favor of a job at a jewelry store in Wichita Falls, Texas. Despite ending his formal education, Rapoport continued to study philosophy and social theory, framing his viewpoints within the context of advancing the public good. At this point, he focused on career and family, saving enough money from his job to help fund his sister's education at Columbia University.
It was 1942, and Rapoport was between flights on the way to San Antonio when he met his future wife, Audre. It was love at first sight and the couple was married within a few weeks. Soon his wife convinced him to open his own jewelry store, locating it in Waco. With backing his stepfather, Rapoport started his own business, running his jewelry store successfully for the rest of the decade and also welcoming the birth of a son, Ronald. Meanwhile, he looked for other opportunities, both professionally and in politics. An effort to help a candidate running for state office ended badly, however, and he decided to steer clear of politics for the time being. The jewelry business was also proving frustrating: Rather than waiting for customers to find him, Rapoport wanted to actively sell something.
Throughout the 1940s, Rapoport's father had done well with his job at Texas Life Insurance. Now Rapoport asked if he could try his hand at insurance sales, and he showed a definite talent for the job. His successful first efforts caught the attention of his wife's uncle, Harold Goodman, who provided an introduction to the president of Pioneer American, another insurance company. Offered a job as general agent for the company, Rapoport jumped at the opportunity and found his calling. He soon opened his own Pioneer American agency in Waco.
Goodman was immediately impressed with Rapoport's achievements and in 1951 he proposed that the two men start a company together, selling low-cost hospital insurance plans. As a result, American Income Insurance was chartered in Indiana. It ended its first year with demonstrable success, added life insurance, and doubled its revenues in each of the second and third years. By 1954, Rapoport and Goodman reincorporated to form a stock company called American Income Life Insurance, doubling the company's assets and tripling its reserve in the process. Planning to take the company national, Rapoport moved the company's home office to Waco four years later, where he and his wife had decided to raise their family. He was soon selling low-cost health insurance in 13 states and oversaw a sales staff of approximately 300 people.
The American Income Life Insurance Company proved wildly successful under Rapoport's leadership. True to his roots, the new CEO encouraged his employees to unionize, the only insurance company to do so. He also made it part of business to support unions in general. Over time, the company added supplemental insurance for union members, made a practice of waiving premiums for union workers during authorized strikes, developed a college scholarship fund for children of union members, and donated to union strike funds. American Income Life Insurance grew continuously over the 40 years Rapoport was at the helm, and it was sold in 1994.
Outside of the business, Rapoport busied himself supporting causes he believed in. In 1986, he used $46 million of his own money to create the Bernard and Audre Rapoport Foundation. The mission of the foundation was to “improve the fabric of social life” by donating to promote education, arts, and culture. Grants were given to universities, independent arts and education nonprofits, schools, and scholarship funds. By 1998, he and Audre had donated more that $15 million to his alma mater, the University of Texas, and would continue to donate $1 million every year after. The foundation also supported charitable causes in Israel and, closer to home, those that benefitted the children and youth of Waco.
The Rapoports were staunch Democrats, and Bernard became a power broker as his wealth grew. He and his wife had actively supported major and minor candidates from the start of their marriage, and they donated heavily to the presidential campaigns of both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. As chair of the Board at the University of Texas, Rapoport oversaw the creation of inner-city and South Texas campuses, providing better access for working-class students. He also became a major funder of the Texas Observer, a liberal magazine devoted to investigative journalism. At the national level, Rapoport was appointed by President Clinton to the Advisory Committee on Trade and Policy Negotiations (ACTPN). Appointed to the Library of Congress Trust Fund Board, he was also a longtime member or trustee of several liberal institutes and research centers.
Rapoport maintained his intellectual edge over the years by following his father's dictum to read a book every day, and philosophy, economics, and social theory were among his favorite topics. While he held progressive views, he encouraged a lively and respectful dialogue among liberals, conservatives, and centrists. Perhaps recognizing the influence he could muster due to his own financial standing, he was concerned by the growing accumulation of wealth at the top tier of society and believed that a large government would likely act to improve the lives of its citizens. The day before he died at age 94, Rapoport spent the day working at the foundation; he died in Waco, Texas, on April 5, 2012.
Baylor Institute for Oral History online, http://www.beingrapoport.org/ (January 5, 2017), “Bernard Rapoport.”
Bernard Rapoport Legacy Project online, http://www.beingrapoport.org/ (January 5, 2017), Don Carleton, interview with Rapoport.
Lake Placid News online, http://www.lakeplacidnews.com/ (May 29, 2014), Frank Shatz, “World Focus: Doing Good in the World.”
Texas Observer online, https://www.texasobserver.org/ (January 5, 2017), Lou Dubose, “Bernard Rapoport, 1917–2012.”
Waco Tribune online, http://www.wacotrib.com/ (April 7, 2012), J.B. Smith, “A Legendary Life: Bernard Rapoport.”❑