About the Author
Rich DeVos is an American businessman, cofounder of Amway, and owner of the Orlando Magic NBA basketball team. DeVos served in the United States Army Air Corps in World War II. He and his wife, Helen, have four children, sixteen grandchildren, and two great grandchildren and live in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Vero Beach, Florida.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Simply Rich CHAPTER ONE
Growing in the Right Atmosphere
MY GRANDFATHER’S GIFT FOR the art of selling was almost magical to me. I don’t know if I was a born salesman, but I remember as a boy being fascinated by my grandfather and other men like him in my neighborhood. Their livelihoods in those hard times depended on their talents for selling.
My grandfather would let me ride with him in his Model T truck as it sputtered and rattled through our streets, filled with the fruits and vegetables he bought from farmers in the morning and then sold door-to-door. He was a people person; housewives who interrupted their cooking and cleaning, wiping their hands on aprons or dish towels as they came out of their houses at the sound of his truck horn, seemed to be attracted as much by his humor, easy demeanor, and conversation as by the color and freshness of his produce.
It was on that route that he gave me my first opportunity to try to make a sale. I earned just a few pennies, but that memorable achievement was a definitive moment in who I became as a man.
I can’t dismiss my roots as a kid growing up during the Great Depression in the ordinary midwestern town of Grand Rapids, Michigan. From the standpoint of money and material possessions, we were barely scraping by. But I remember my boyhood years as a happy time of rich experiences. Life was friendly and cozy and easy. Even the need for hard work and sacrifice during those tough times made me stronger and taught me important life lessons. I was fortunate to grow up in the right atmosphere.
My foundation was built at home and the homes of friends, on the streets and playgrounds, in classrooms and church pews; from my parents and grandparents, teachers, and pastors. I learned how to run my own business as a paperboy. I experienced the rewards of that first sale from my grandfather peddling produce door-to-door. I wrote and delivered my first speech as senior class president in high school. My budding Christian faith was planted and nurtured during family devotions and in Sunday school. I was assured by the lasting bond and successful partnership of a loving mother and father. I gained a confidence and optimism from my father’s constant encouragement, and first began to think of myself as a potential leader because of the kindness of a wise and thoughtful teacher.
The Grand Rapids where I was born on March 4, 1926, was nothing special as American cities go. Our claim to fame was being called “Furniture City” for the number of companies manufacturing home furnishings. I remember a postcard from my boyhood years: “Welcome to Grand Rapids, Furniture Capital of the World.” The banks of the Grand River, which runs through Grand Rapids, were lined with brick furniture factories, their smokestacks printed with each manufacturer’s name: Widdicomb, Imperial, American Seating, Baker, and others. In those days, electric streetcars rattled along the downtown main streets of Monroe Avenue and Fulton Street, the cars on the road were of the Model T era, and trains still rumbled across the trestle bridges over the river. Traveling a few miles east from downtown on Fulton Street, you came to my neighborhood: two-story, three-bedroom homes on quiet, treelined streets; a smattering of mom-and-pop retail stores; the nearby forested campus of Aquinas College; and plenty of parks to play in.
My family, like most others in Grand Rapids, was of Dutch descent. I can still hear the thick Dutch accents that were so common in my neighborhood: first-generation immigrants still speaking of family back in the “olt country,” pronouncing j’s as y’s and s’s as z’s (“Yust put the dishes in the zink”). The Dutch who immigrated first to Holland, Michigan, and then found their way to greater opportunities in the nearby, much larger city of Grand Rapids, were hardworking, thrifty, practical, and strong in their Protestant Christian faith. They were lured to America not so much by economic necessity as by the promise of being free to be able to be whatever they could dream to be. Letters still survive of Dutch immigrants writing home to brag about the freedoms they enjoyed in America, which were unimaginable in the Netherlands of that time—where if you were born a baker’s son, for example, you likely would always be a baker.
The Reverend Albertus Van Raalte, who in the mid-1800s founded Holland, Michigan (whose residents still celebrate their Dutch heritage annually by dressing in traditional clothing and wearing wooden shoes during Tulip Time), wrote in a letter to the Netherlands that most of the Dutch seeking work in Grand Rapids were unskilled and lacking in education. Fortunately, many of the men were able to learn to be skilled craftsmen in the furniture factories, and many of the young ladies were maids in rich people’s homes. But there were many others who manifested another Dutch trait: having an entrepreneurial spirit. Three of the largest religious publishing houses in the nation were started by people of Dutch heritage in Grand Rapids. The Dutch established in Grand Rapids the headquarters of the Christian Reformed Church and founded Calvin College. The Hekman Biscuit Company started in Grand Rapids and later became the Keebler Company. And you may be familiar with a chain of Midwest superstores called Meijer and an international direct-selling company called Amway, both founded in Grand Rapids by Dutch Americans. So I owe much to my Dutch heritage: a love of freedom, a solid work ethic, an entrepreneurial spirit, and strong faith.
I was born during the Roaring Twenties but have no memory of that volatile era when America was progressing rapidly to a seemingly ever-greater prosperity. My childhood memories are of the era known as the Great Depression. When I was ten years old, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to a second term and in his inaugural address he reminded Americans that he still saw a third of the nation ill-housed, ill-clothed, and ill-fed. A quarter of Americans—at a time when most homes depended on a single breadwinner—were out of work. My father was out of work, having lost his job as an electrician and needing to make ends meet with odd jobs for three years. We could no longer keep the house that he had built and where I’d spent several wonderful years of my boyhood.
My first house was on Helen Street, where I was born at home in the days when most families could not afford deliveries in a hospital. My second home was on Wallinwood Avenue, where I remember that polishing the floors was a satisfying chore because we were so proud to have hardwood instead of plain wood floors. The house had three bedrooms upstairs, and the only bathroom was downstairs, which was typical for houses in my neighborhood in those days.
When my father, Simon, lost his job, I had to move with him and my mother, Ethel, and my younger sister Bernice back to Helen Street into the upstairs rooms of my grandparents’ house, where I remember sleeping under the attic rafters. My father rented out our Wallinwood house for twenty-five dollars a month. While the move was hard on my parents, I remember viewing it as kind of an adventure sleeping in an attic. It was also a fun way to spend more time with my grandparents. While I didn’t realize it at the time, that experience gave me perspective and a much greater appreciation in my later years when I achieved a level of success that afforded me and my family a very comfortable lifestyle.
We lived there for about five of the worst years of the Depression. We were poor but no poorer than most of our neighbors. We didn’t think it unusual to get our haircuts from a neighbor who had a barber chair in a bedroom of his house. Ten cents was a huge sum in those days. I remember a teenager coming to our door selling magazines and crying because he couldn’t go home until he sold the last one. My father had to tell him honestly that we didn’t have a dime in the house. But those weren’t bad days for me as a boy. I felt safe and secure in our tight community. We lived in a Dutch-American ethnic neighborhood, so I also felt a sense of belonging. I grew up in a community on the eastern edge of the city called “the Brickyard,” named for three brick factories that were built next to some clay hills that were mined to make bricks and tiles. The factories employed the hardworking new arrivals from the Netherlands, most of whom did not yet speak English but found a welcoming and familiar community in the Brickyard.
Our community was close not only because of our common Dutch ancestry and because so many extended families lived together, but also because of physical proximity. The houses were tall and skinny, mostly two stories and built very close to each other on small lots separated by very narrow driveways. The houses on narrow streets and alleys were so close together that neighbors could borrow from neighbors without ever leaving their houses. They just stretched a little and passed whatever was borrowed through a window.
In addition to my grandparents, my cousins lived in the neighborhood. I remember growing up with family discussions around the dinner table and plenty of playmates in the backyard. Few grandparents today live with their children and grandchildren, but I have fond memories of the benefits of their love and wisdom. Despite some struggles, I recall much more love than worry. I believe we are more a product of our homes than of any other single influence. Later in life, as a young father of four children, when I traced my development in the home and the influence of my parents, I remember being sobered by the enormity of the responsibility. What seemed so natural and easy as a child takes on a whole different dimension as an adult when you finally grasp all the conscious effort it takes to create a home life with the right atmosphere.
Before today’s diversions such as television, computers, and video games, we had to be inventive in making our own fun. Some of the best times I remember were spent inventing activities for my sisters and playmates to enjoy. The younger of my two sisters, Jan, still remembers me as a great fudge maker who created a lot of different types of flavors of fudge. I even rigged up a string system to pass fudge from our kitchen window to a window at our neighbor’s house.
I loved sports, but with few resources, I also had to be creative to be able to play. I built my own basketball hoop, and I flooded a vacant lot in the winter to create a frozen pond where we went ice-skating. I remember the echo of Ping-Pong balls off the concrete floor and brick walls of our dark basement, where I taught my sisters to play on a table next to the old coal furnace. Jan still recalls my wicked left-handed spin.
I also have fond memories of playing baseball with my cousins in the street. In hard times, there were fewer cars on the road. Our ball would get so beat up that we’d have to wrap yarn around it and stick rags inside because we couldn’t raise enough money in those lean times to buy a new one. Playing ball in the street could be hazardous to neighbors’ windows, and we likely broke one or more. I do remember one irate neighbor woman—we must have been intruding on her property too much for her taste. She ran from her house wielding a butcher knife and yelled at us to get off her lawn.
The best part of the day was listening to shows on the radio like The Green Hornet and The Lone Ranger. On Sunday afternoons our family would work jigsaw puzzles while listening to a mystery program on the radio. When we finished one puzzle, we would swap it for another one from our relatives. I remember walking to a relative’s house about two blocks away, carrying five boxes of puzzles and trading them for whatever puzzles they might have. My grandparents had a card table in their home that always was covered with puzzle pieces and a puzzle in progress. Everybody in the house would stop by and put a piece in until the puzzle was eventually finished. I also read books, but because of the expense and lack of new books, I had to settle for whatever was on the bookshelf in our house. These were usually older books, so by default I was reading Tom Sawyer and other classic literature. A real treat for me was the penny I got each Saturday, which I usually spent on candy.
As I reflect on the childhood activities that filled my life, I really think in many ways it was a blessing that circumstances forced me to be innovative in creating fun and engaging others in the process. It certainly helped shape my ability to think creatively and come up with new ideas, and it also helped develop my social skills. Kids today—including my own grandchildren—are too focused at times on computers and electronics and not enough on personal interaction.
I grew up even before the age of television, when parents in the evening read their books and newspapers, spent time with their hobbies, or took walks, and children played under the streetlights. Long before the existence of backyard patios and decks, people spent more time on front porches and conversed with neighbors passing by. Before air-conditioning, the sounds of neighbors talking, or their radios, wafted through the windows on the summer breeze. Those were days when you could still hear the clip-clop of horse-drawn wagons on the streets, the chugging of Model T cars, the calls of peddlers, the clinking and clanging of the milk and ice deliveries, and the clatter of coal tumbling down chutes into coal bins.
My parents instilled a strong work ethic early on in my life. One of my chores was to keep our furnace stoked with coal every morning and evening. Our coal deliveries were dumped onto our driveway, so I first had to transport loads of heavy, dusty, and dirty black coal into our basement and then open the creaking cast-iron door and shovel coal onto the glowing embers in the furnace. The work kept us from freezing during those harsh Michigan winters, but our house still remained cold by today’s standards of forced-air furnaces. My sister Bernice still remembers that house being so cold that we had to stand over a furnace register while getting ready for school. For heat we had coal, and for refrigeration we had ice. Neighbors would post signs in their windows with the number of pounds of ice they wanted delivered. I once joined a friend on his ice-delivery route and remember lugging fifty- and hundred-pound blocks of ice up stairs and wedging them into people’s iceboxes after making room by rearranging their milk and food. Each icebox had a drip tray for the melting ice, and I recall many a time when I’d pitch in with my sisters to mop up a flooded kitchen floor because we forgot to empty the tray.
With my parents as role models, I accepted work as part of life and essential to a successful home and family. My sister Bernice may have remembered later in life hating to dust the rungs on all the dining room chairs, but I don’t recall her ever as a young girl complaining or refusing to do simply what was expected of her as a contributing member of our family.
In our Dutch-American community, Sundays mostly meant going to church and Sunday school. Going to church was not optional. We were part of the Calvinist, Dutch Reformed tradition. We lived by a clear set of rules: honor your parents, set aside money for the Lord’s work, give to others, be honest, work hard, and strive for good mental attitudes. We did not share a meal before first giving thanks for it in prayer, and when the meal was over we’d read a portion of scripture.
Nearly every business closed on Sundays. Alcohol was frowned upon, and dancing and even going to movies were sus...
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