Leonard E. Read was a larger-than-life figure. A prolific author and FEE’s founder, he is well known for exhibiting strong character, uncompromising principles, and a steadfast vision. Over the course of his life, Leonard worked his way from a poor farmhand, to a business-owning entrepreneur, to a Chamber of Commerce executive, to starting the Foundation for Economic Education and authoring more than 30 books. He made it his life’s work to revitalize the spirit of liberty and individual responsibility that was waning with the passage of the New Deal.
Many might know Leonard Read for these things, but in honor of his 121st birthday (born September 26, 1898) here are 10 fascinating aspects of his life and persona you might not have known.
1. His Grandfather Served in the Civil War under General Sherman
Leonard comes a long line of military service, including two ancestors who fought in the Massachusetts militia during the American Revolution, and a grandfather, Edward C. Read, who fought with the New York volunteers during the Civil War. Edward Read marched through Georgia under General William Tecumseh Sherman, known for his infamous “March to the Sea.”
Edward Read also fought in the Battle of Lookout Mountain. Under the command of Joseph Hooker, Edward helped force a Confederate retreat during this decisive battle, one that would open the way for Sherman’s March the following year.
Leonard was delighted in hearing these stories from his grandfather and took away important conclusions applicable to his own life:
When I am accused of being in Cloud Nine, the fact must not be overlooked that there is something to it. Had it not been for the clouds on Lookout Mountain, grandpappy would probably have been shot and, had this happened, my pop would not have been born. It is reasonable to conclude from this evidence that LER would not exist. Ergo, a cloud is responsible for me.
2. His Father Died When He Was Only 11
Near the end of Leonard’s fifth-grade year, his 40-year-old father, Orville Baker Read, developed a small pimple on his face, which became infected. Orville popped the pimple prematurely, which caused the infection to travel through his lymph vessels into his bloodstream, causing septicemia, also known as “blood poisoning.” This caused Orville's untimely death.
Excerpted from Mary Sennholz’s biography of Leonard Read (among the other quotes listed in this article), here’s how 11-year-old Leonard adapted:
It has been said that difficulty is a nurse of greatness, that it rocks her children roughly, but guides them to strength and proportion. Young Leonard, grappling with great aims and wrestling with mighty impediments, either would succumb to the difficulties or grow by a certain necessity to the stature of greatness. He worked 16 hours a day, or 102 hours a week. His day began at 4 a.m. when he biked 1 1/2 miles to Uncle John’s farm to milk the cows and clean the stables. Then back to town to the village store where merchandise needed to be unloaded and stacked from 7 until 8:45 a.m. After school, he waited on customers from 7 to 9, selling dry goods, hardware items, produce and groceries. On Saturdays, he manned the store from 7 a.m. to 12 p.m., on Sundays from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. But all such tasks were not onerous to Leonard, for he knew that they were only temporary and preparatory for greater things to come.
Tragedy, though no doubt painful, molded young Leonard into the man he would become. He became more industrious, more responsible, and more persevering, an ethos that accompanied him throughout his entire life.
3. He Was an Entrepreneur From The Start
Leonard founded his own produce company later in life, but even as a kid, he was always up to some sort of entrepreneurial activity.
He set muskrat traps around swamps and lakes and would sell their furs for 25 cents. Also, with a friend, he would pop large amounts of popcorn and sell it at public gatherings. He also tried to grow mushrooms (non-magical) in a friend’s cellar. Leonard always had a zest for life and entrepreneurship. He explained it this way:
One way to check whether you ought to be doing this or that is to feel your zest pulse. If it’s low, chances are you ought to be elsewhere, or doing something else. My zest pulse seems to be high in everything.
4. He Served in WWI and Nearly Died 4 Times
After finishing boarding school in 1917, Leonard enlisted in the Aviation Section of the US Signal Corps. Leonard intended to become a pilot, but their policy was only to allow college graduates to become pilots, and Leonard only had high school accreditation. He was disappointed and made a plea to his commanding officer for pilothood. The officer was so impressed that he recommended him for pilot training.
Before that could happen, Leonard’s squadron was ordered to France, and he was so eager that he forwent pilot training. He became a “rigger” tasked with maintaining the structural functioning of planes. Usually, airplane mechanics are isolated from the dangers of war, but Leonard found himself near death twice on the way to France, once during a test flight, and again during his return from France.
On his way to France, Leonard, along with 2,500 American soldiers, boarded the Tuscania and steamed across the frigid Atlantic. The conditions were turbulent. It was windy, rainy, and snowy, with pounding waves rocking the ship. One day, Leonard went up to the deck for fresh air and exercise. The ship was rocked by a wave and threw Leonard off-balance.
He fell on his back and skidded across the deck all the way over the edge of the ship, but was able to grasp the railing before falling overboard. He was dangling over the water for a few seconds before a few shipmates came to the rescue and pulled him back up from the deck. Due to the frigid waters and traveling formation of the ship fleet, if he would have fallen overboard he almost certainly would have died from hypothermia.
Only one day after that, Leonard was below deck when a torpedo from a German submarine ripped through the ship. After many shipmates either escaped to safety or perished from the icy sea, Leonard was the only one left on the sinking ship. In his dark solitude contemplating imminent death, Leonard felt someone tap his shoulder. It was a stranger telling him of a collapsible lifeboat he discovered on the poop deck. Leonard helped lower the boat and slid down as the last man to escape the sinking ship. Minutes after escaping they saw flames rising through the smokestacks of the ship as it was eventually engulfed in flames.
But Leonard and his shipmates were still in danger because the lifeboat was now sinking. The men aboard had to bail water with shoes, caps, and cupped hands. It was soon discovered that a drain hole was left open and a piece of cork was used to plug it. The boat was saved and a few hours later a group of Irish sailors found them and lifted them aboard. In total, 213 of the initial 2,500 men had perished.
Later working as a rigger in England, Leonard just completed his work on a plane used for training. Proud of his accomplishment, he boasted to a British test pilot about to conduct the test. The pilot then challenged Leonard to put his money where his mouth was and join him on the test flight. Leonard quickly accepted, though he had never flown in his life. Eager to take off, the pilot encouraged Leonard to keep his seat belt off, saying “you don’t need them on this flight.” Having trust in the veteran pilot, Leonard accepted and sat back relaxingly.
The pilot ended up really testing the plane, completing a series of vertical loops and turns. This maneuvering caused a seatbelt-less Leonard to have to hold onto struts above him to avoid being tossed against the cockpit roof, something that could cause death from impact. As he held on terrified for his life, the pilot noticed and promptly returned to base.
Then, with the end of WWI in sight, Leonard’s squadron and others were ordered to return to the states. They boarded a freighter, the Virginian, in St. Nazaire to sail toward Virginia. After six days at sea, during a calm day, the alarm bell rang. A voice came over the loudspeaker and barked, “Fire in the baggage room. All hands on deck. All hands on deck.” Leonard ran to his station, as did hundreds of other men. The engine stopped and so did the ship. Smoke was pouring out of the baggage room. Nearly 4,000 men were on the deck waiting to abandon ship. They waited nearly two hours, but the order never came. The fire was put out eventually, and The Virginian staggered home and reached Virginia two days later.
5. He Was an Avid Golfer and Scored Five Hole-In-Ones
Leonard started golfing as a young Chamber of Commerce executive in Seattle. He enjoyed it throughout his lifetime and was convinced that golf contained the proper amount of exercise necessary to develop and maintain physical fitness (his excellent health in his early 80s was a case-in-point). When Leonard was asked “Why do you play golf so often?” he would answer “What for? To play golf, of course.”
Regarding the lessons golf had to teach, Leonard was convinced that golf was demonstrative of the “magic of believing”—that in belief lies the secret of success. Leonard also drew this conclusion:
All my opponents had flubbed and I could easily have made a winning score. But I didn’t! What is the lesson? Don’t depend on winning by the opposition’s errors—it’s fatal. We should never have a sense of exultation by reason of the liberal’s goofs. We can never win save by our own perfection. [emphasis added.]
6. He Wanted to Become a Surgeon
Ever since Leonard was a little kid, he dreamed of being the healer of the town. He valued the prestige and respect that the profession commanded. In addition, with the passing of his father, he couldn’t help but dwell on the fact that if he had possessed the knowledge and resources, he could have saved his dad from a preventable death.
In those days, doctors, by reason of their extensive education and their daily opportunity to observe human needs, were nearly always community leaders. This was especially true of the family doctor in a small town. He served in various public offices, especially on boards of education, and in other service organizations. For a young man as eager to learn and work as was Leonard, nothing less than the highest and most respected position in the community was his goal. Besides, he could not dismiss the thought that had he been a great healer he could have saved the life of his father.
Throughout his WWI experience, Leonard admired the surgeons who would help those who fought in brutal battles. To him, they were true men of virtue. When he would tell war stories, Leonard talked more about the surgeons than he did his own experiences.
Leonard had his eyes set on the University of Michigan Medical School, which was one of the best training centers for physicians and surgeons in the country. However, his $750 severance pay from the war would barely get him through freshman year. He decided to find a higher income job instead of going to school and working part-time so he could later pursue his career on savings. He then went from insurance collector, to cashier for an ice cream company, to starting his own produce business, to the Chamber of Commerce, to starting FEE.
7. He Was a Top-Notch Chef
After Leonard’s father died, his mother sold the land, implements, and livestock on their farm, then bought a large house, which she converted to a boarding house—the first of its kind in the small town of Hubbardston, Michigan. Leonard’s mother, Ada Read, came to be known as the best chef in town after serving her guests exquisite meals. Being raised in this house, Leonard became an accomplished chef in his own right.
In Mary Sennholz’s biography of Leonard Read, she wrote of his expertise and love of cooking. In fact, Leonard was such a good cook, he even had a recipe published in a famous cookbook. He would also cook for the students who attended FEE seminars.
Leonard was proud of the fact that Crosby Gaige’s famous cookbook, Dining With My Friends (Crown Publishers, 1949, pp. 199–201) published one of his favorite recipes—Bouillabaisse—under “A Dinner Fare of Fun.” One of his most widely enjoyed creations was his “Chicken Livers Leonardo” which he prepared and served at the mid-week receptions in honor of the seminarians attending the FEE summer schools.
8. He Had a Few Vices
Though Leonard took great pride in his health and well-being, he still had a few vices. Leonard smoked 15 cigarettes a day. He would fill his silver cigarette case every morning and smoke no more than that. Leonard was also a bit of a social drinker. On the consumption of alcohol, he said:
While alcohol does slow the reactions, it does, by the removal of inhibitions, release mental reactions otherwise locked behind the inhibitions. I have on many occasions experienced this, particularly when doing some writing during the cocktail hour.
9. His Integrity Changed His Political Beliefs
Leonard was once a proponent of heavy government involvement in the economy. When he was the manager for the Western Division of the US Chamber of Commerce, a Los Angeles businessman, Bill Mullendore, was vocally critical of the New Deal and the Chamber of Commerce for supporting it. This frustrated Read, so he decided to challenge Mullendore to a debate to set him straight. What happened was that Mullednore actually set him straight, and the two became lifelong friends. Leonard then set out on a deep inquiry into the world of free-market economics and the philosophy of liberty and eventually started FEE because of it.
Leonard expounded his freedom philosophy in a book entitled Romance of Reality, published in 1937. It was this book that persuaded the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s largest, to oppose the collectivist drift by intellectual methods, and that Leonard was the man they needed as General Manager. Leonard became a nationally prominent figure during his six years in Los Angeles, gaining the confidence of leaders in business and public life.
Read came to New York in 1945 as the Executive Vice-President of the National Industrial Conference Board, but continued to nourish a dream born a few years earlier—of an independent organization which would stand uncompromisingly for freedom and publish literature in the modern idiom. The Foundation for Economic Education was the result, and the rest is history.
10. He May Have Invented the Modern Clothes Washer
Leonard was an enterprising and innovative young man, and because of his nature, he might have invented what we’ve come to know as a “washer” for our clothes.
Full of youthful hope and enthusiasm, he contacted a Washington patent attorney who was soliciting inventive thought in the Popular Mechanics magazine. He submitted detailed descriptions and blueprints of his special washing machine. But the attorney replied that the idea was impractical and useless and, therefore, not suited for submission to the U.S. Patent Office. Two years later Leonard was greatly surprised to see a model of his washer in a local hardware store. But the name it carried was not his.
La Vie en Read
Leonard Read was a man full of vigor who lived a life larger than many could even dream of. From growing up on a farm in a small town and losing his father at an early age to nearly dying during WWI to starting his own business and establishing his own economic foundation, his life is worthy of admiration, and at most points, emulation.
His legacy lives on through FEE and various other organizations dedicated to advancing the freedom philosophy.