Julius was born in Springfield, Illinois, in a house directly across the street from where Abraham Lincoln had once lived. A small influence, surely, but it seems to have been enough.
Soft-spoken, Julius grew to be highly organized, but he could never abide bureaucracy. And although he was unusually focused and highly attentive, he never worried. “Early in my business career,” he wrote, “I learned the folly of worrying about anything. I have always worked as hard as I could, but when a thing went wrong and could not be righted, I dismissed it from my mind.”
Quietly, Julius gave away more than 50 million dollars during his lifetime, mostly to empower black Americans. So liberally did he distribute his wealth that more than once he was forced to borrow money from the bank to cover his own living expenses. Receiving neither applause nor acclaim, Julius faithfully and silently built dozens of YMCAs and YWCAs in America’s impoverished inner cities and provided dollar-for-dollar matching funds to construct 5,357 schools across the South. The only recognition he would ever receive would be the friendship of Booker T. Washington.
So how did Julius make all that money? Ah, that’s another story entirely, but we’ll spare a paragraph to tell it: Smiling Richard was perhaps the world’s greatest salesman. His amazing ads prompted thousands of people to send him money for his merchandise. But Richard was woefully unorganized, so his customers often had a difficult time getting what they had ordered. At best they received incorrect items or were erroneously told the item they had ordered was out of stock. But in spite of all these problems, Smiling Richard’s marvelous ads continued to bring in orders faster than factories could supply the goods or the orders could be shipped from his warehouses. He fell behind… 30 days, 60 days, then 90 and 120. That’s when Julius stepped in to solve Richard’s problem by creating a system that would allow Richard’s employees to accurately handle up to 100,000 orders a day. This may seem a mundane achievement by today’s standards, but it was considered a miracle of efficiency back in 1895, so Julius was asked to be president of the struggling young company that had been founded only 9 years earlier by Richard Sears and Alvah Roebuck. Immediately upon assuming the presidency, Julius introduced money-back guarantees and insisted that all future advertising be honest in its descriptions of the company’s products. “Sell honest merchandise for less money and more people will buy,” Julius said. “Treat people fairly and honestly and generously and their response will be fair and honest and generous.” Under Julius Rosenwald’s leadership, Sears and Roebuck became one of the world’s most successful corporations.
Julius died in 1932 as quietly as he had lived. And should you visit his grave in Chicago’s Rosehill Cemetery, you’ll find only a single word carved on his tombstone: “Rosenwald.” The tiny stone marker says nothing about how he lived a modest Jewish life, or how he spent $63 million of his own money trying to make the world a better place.
Roy H Williams
PS – Throughout his life, Julius was often overheard quoting the 15th Psalm, “LORD, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill? He whose walk is blameless and who does what is righteous, who speaks the truth from his heart and has no slander on his tongue, who does his neighbor no wrong and casts no slur on his fellowman, who despises a vile man but honors those who fear the LORD, who keeps his oath even when it hurts, who lends his money without usury and does not accept a bribe against the innocent. He who does these things will never be shaken.”