Interview with John D. Rockefeller (history assignment)
Interview with John D. Rockefeller
By: Jordan Scott
Jordan Scott: So, Mr. Rockefeller, may I call you John?
Rockefeller: Sure. Go right ahead.
JS: During your childhood, is there anything that sticks out? Tell me a little bit about how you grew up.
JDR: Well, I was born July 8th 1839. I was the second of six children. I was born in Richmond, New York. Not far from here actually. My father was a traveling salesman; all the people in town called him “big bill” or “devil bill”.
JS: Oh and why is that?
JDR: Throughout his life, he spent most of his time on tricks and schemes instead of doing plain, hard work. A lot of people said I was like him in that way…but I’d have to disagree.
JS: And your mother?
JDR: She was a housewife. And she had to put up with my father being away a lot of the time. He actually was involved with bigamy. It was hard on her.
JS: I can imagine. In spite of your father, how did you manage to grow up into a successful business man?
JDR: I was always well behaved, serious, and a studious person. I was an excellent debater and I expressed myself precisely. When I was 16, I got my first job as a bookkeeper. I made 50 cents a day. And I donated about 6% of my earnings to charity at that point in my life.
JS: And when did you start making the big bucks?
JDR (quietly laughing to himself): Well, in 1859 I went into business with my partner Maurice Clark and we built an oil refinery. However, I ended up buying out the Clark brothers for $72,500 at an auction. It was the day that determined my career. After that I pretty much sky rocketed. I was well-positioned to take advantage of post-war prosperity and the great expansion westward, which was pushed on by the growth of railroads and an oil-fueled economy. I borrowed heavily, reinvested profits, adapted rapidly to changing markets, and I hired observers to track the quickly expanding industry.
JS: Did you ever get married, or start a family?
JDR: In 1864, I married Laura “Cettie” Spellman. We had four daughters and one son together. Her judgment was always better than mine. Without her keen advice, I would have been a poor man.
JS: Wow, that’s pretty funny to hear. Would you call yourself whipped?
JDR (chuckling): Maybe a bit.
JS: Tell me about your career, what exactly were you involved with?
JDR: I pretty much owned the largest oil refinery in the world. And I was the predecessor of the Standard Oil Company. Then in the 1890’s I expanded into iron ore and ore transportation, forcing a collision with my steel magnate friend, Andrew Carnegie. In 1901, U.S. Steel was now controlled by J. Pierpont Morgan because he bought Andrew Carnegie’s steel assets. He was a kind of a jerk; I wasn’t a huge fan of his.
JS: Oh wow! Did any of the newspapers know about this?
JDR: I think they knew. But anyway then he offered to buy my Standard’s iron interests as well. A deal brokered by Henry Clay Frick exchanged Standard’s iron interests for U.S. Steel stock and gave me and my son membership on the company’s board of directors. In full retirement at age 63, I earned over $58 million in investments in 1902.
JS: I know during the Gilded Age, the newspapers and public eye looked at you with some disapproval. Can you tell me about any of that?
JDR: Well of course they constantly talked about me in the papers because I was so successful, none really did much damage except there was one extremely effective attack on me and my firm in the 1904 publication of The History of the Standard Oil Company, by Ida Tarbell. She was a leading muckraker.
JS: Can you elaborate some more on that?
JDR: Well, I responded by calling her “Miss Tarbarrel” in private but held back in public saying only, “not a word about that misguided woman. Instead I began a publicity campaign to put my company and myself in a better light. Though I had long maintained a policy of active silence with the press, I decided to make myself more accessible and responded with conciliatory comments such as, “capital and labor are both wild forces which require intelligent legislation to hold them in restriction.”
JS: That’s all very interesting. Now, I’ve heard a lot about your charity work- but I also hear that during the Gilded Age, no one knew about your donations and you were not very well liked. Is this true?
JDR:Unfortunately, yes. From my very first paycheck, I gave ten percent of my earnings to my church. I always believed in the Efficiency Movement, and I argued that to help an inefficient, ill-located, unnecessary school is a waste...it is highly probable that enough money has been squandered on unwise educational projects to have built up a national system of higher education adequate to our needs, if the money had been properly directed to that end.
JS: That’s a very powerful quote. What other charity work did you do?
JDR: In 1884, I provided major funding for a college in Atlanta for African-American women, which became Spellman College, I believe.
JS: Yes, that’s right.
JDR: I also gave 80 million dollars to the University of Chicago. Although, no one knew about that.
JS: Isn’t it hard to know that all the money you gave away wasn’t given any recognition?
JDR: No, not really. It wasn’t about getting the recognition. It was about helping people and helping society progress.
JS: A lot of people today now realize what you’ve done for our country- if you could talk to someone from today, what would you want them to know about you?
JDR: I just want them to know that everything I did in business- the monopolies, the so- called deceit, the taking over of smaller businesses, it was all done for the good of our country. Never was I power thirsty, or trying to control everyone. I believed in educating everyone, so they could all get to the position I was at.
JS: What do you think about our economics today?
JDR: I think the taxes are absolutely outrageous- 40%?!? Never in my wildest dreams would I imagine that…and I’m also surprised there aren’t more BIG business people on top anymore. Oh well, I guess I was the only one who could accomplish that.
JS: And what do you think of President Obama?
JDR: No comment.
JS: Well, thank you for sitting down with me John. You’re life was very impressive, I’m sorry you died from arteriosclerosis.
JDR: It’s alright. I was at my beach house in Florida. Things ended pretty pleasantly.