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Interview with: Abe Lack
Interviewed by: David Courtwright
Date: November 3, 1975
DC: 00:02 Interview with Mr. Abe Lack, November 3, 1975. [inaudible] What year was that?
AL: In 1897.
DC: How was it that you came to reside in this country?
AL: My father came first. He was spotted more or less as a revolutionary because he marched in a parade when Russia or Latvia declared that they will have a Duma, D-U-M-A, which was similar to a parliament. And all those who marched in the parade were spotted as revolutionaries, and he came to the United States. I was left with my family. I was attending a Russian school at that time. But after he came to the United States and made sufficient money to send for me, I came to Omaha.
DC: This was when?
AL: That was in 1910.
DC: It must have been very difficult for him to scrape together the money.
AL: Well, it was. It was. My father was really a scholar and not a businessman, and his earnings were very small. Of course, when I came here I was placed in an ungraded room until I had acquired the language and until they could classify me as to what grade I could be permitted to attend. I got a job as a Western Union messenger boy. I borrowed enough money from friends to buy a bicycle. And in those days I think Western Union was paying about two and a half cents per message for delivery. I made enough money and saved up sufficient to augment my father’s saving, and then we sent for the family.
DC: By what date did you have all of your family in this country?
AL: By 1913 or ’14.
DC: And you were living in Omaha at this time.
AL: 02:35 We were living in Omaha. And then as usual, those immigrants sought out their relatives, and we found there were relatives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, who were doing very well, so the family migrated to Tulsa. By that time, I graduated Omaha High School, and I enrolled in what was then called Kendall College. Now it’s the University of Tulsa. I only attended the university one year. We entered the war, and the whole class enlisted in the Marine Corps, me included.
DC: Hmm. Why the Marines?
AL: They had a good recruiting officer.
AL: I was physically underdeveloped, I wasn’t an athlete, I was lightweight, and I felt that possibly the Marine Corps would toughen me up a little bit and give me a little bit more backbone.
DC: It did do this, I take it.
AL: Well, it was rough, building the island of Parris Island and pushing wheelbarrows with shell all day. Building the roads in Parris Island was tough. And the Marine Corps in those days was much tougher than it is today. The sergeant had complete control over his company, and he said that his job was to toughen you so when you meet the tough German you wouldn’t be afraid of him.
DC: Did you actually go to France for the war?
AL: No. On November 11 I was in Hoboken, New Jersey. I had already filled out my postcard that I arrived safely overseas when the armistice was declared, and I didn’t get to go, much to my joy.
DC: To back up a little bit, before the war what kind of reception did you receive as a Latvian immigrant in this country?
AL: I learned to speak English very rapidly. My playmates were—I had no race prejudices like it existed in those days, and I remember most of my friends were colored boys. They were very receptive to anyone who would play with them. We spoke English only, and I learned English very rapidly. In fact, when I entered the public school after a few months, they put me in the 6th grade. And after I graduated public school I went to high school, took ROTC after school hours, and I finished high school in three years. But while I was attending high school, I had a job with the old General Film Company inspecting films from 5:00 until 12:00. And later I worked for my first love, the Western Union, in the operating room from 5:00 to 12:30. So it was a long workday and a short day otherwise.
DC: 06:34 You were very ambitious then.
AL: Yes, I was. That was the only way I could survive.
DC: After the war was over you went back to Tulsa?
DC: And what did you do there?
AL: I bought a small grocery store because by that time my father was engaged in the grocery business, and some friends loaned me $3,000 to buy a little grocery store. I was in it about nine months, did well, and I met a friend who opened up an auto supply store in Okmulgee, Oklahoma. He was complaining that business was just too good and growing too rapidly and he could use a partner. I bought a third interest in that company in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, and both of us worked very hard. We opened at 7:00, we closed at 9:00 in the evening, and the company grew and prospered. But by that time I was married, and my wife became ill. I think it was malaria. I thought possibly the climate wasn’t agreeing with her, so I sold out my third interest and I went to Florida and engaged in the real estate business.
DC: This was what year now?
AL: In 1924. The real estate business was experiencing a boom and then a bust, if you remember, and I was busted with it. So my former partners wired me to see if I’d like to come back and possibly regain my interest in the business. I didn’t make a very good contract, so when it came to regaining my interest, I didn’t get it so I decided to go into business for myself. I surveyed the whole area so I wouldn’t be in competition with them and divided Texas into four areas and examined every area—West Texas, East Texas, The Valley, and Houston. And Houston to me looked like a coming city. Although competition would possibly be bigger, I felt that I could overcome competition by just working a little harder and longer.
DC: What was it you saw in Houston that convinced you it was a growing city?
AL: 09:52 First, it was the area. I felt it was a port city and as a port city it will grow faster than an inland city. Second, I found that Houston had businessmen with risk capital. They had vision and were willing to risk their capital when an opportunity presented itself to make investments for the future. So I selected a place, Main and Dallas, and opened up a store on June 10, 1932, which happened to be my birthday.
DC: I must say that you made a rather shrewd guess about the economic future of Houston. But it couldn’t have looked too bright in 1932.
AL: No. About two or three months after I opened up, the banks closed.
DC: Did you have money tied up in them?
AL: My daily sales were so small I didn’t have enough to deposit, so I accumulated my money and I made good use of it.
DC: This was something I’d also like to pursue a little bit. When the banks closed, what was the impact on the business community in Houston?
AL: I was in no position to know what the impact on the entire economy was.
AL: I was confined to my own little business from 7:00 in the morning to, say, 11:00 at night. I did know that people still needed automobile parts. They needed it for transportation in Houston. And people became a little tighter with their expenditure, so a small store which did not hire much help and operated by himself and his wife could sell merchandise at possibly a little lower prices than the other institutions who had a much bigger overhead. So my business did not suffer much, and I made a profit the first year.
DC: Who were your competitors at this time?
AL: Western Auto across the street. I felt at that time that they had a large organization with 15 or 20 salesmen and were doing a terrific business, and if I could get just the overflow and the dissatisfied customers, I would have enough to conduct a profitable business.
DC: Did you ever consciously evolve a set of business principles? You’ve mentioned a couple of things to me, like keeping your overhead low, working yourself, maybe having prices a little bit lower. Was there anything else?
AL: 13:26 I think frugality in operation was paramount. You had to watch every item of expense. And while today if you need something done you look in the Yellow Pages of the phone book and you call somebody to fix it, at that time you just had to learn to fix everything yourself. Customers were valuable. You had to treat each customer with greater care and greater consideration. I think the principles aren’t as good today as they were 40 years ago. But today when we get a flow of business, we possibly are not as conscious of it and we don’t value the customer as well today as we did years ago.
DC: That’s very probably true. Back to the Depression, I realize that you had your nose in your own business, literally, but did you notice any particular year or time when things started to turn around in Houston, when Houston started coming out of the Depression?
AL: If I remember correctly, around ’34 or ’35 things started brightening up. As a matter of fact, in 1934 I opened up a second store at Washington and Houston Avenue, and that was very profitable. In fact, the young man that I employed at that time to change tires is still with me today. He is our vice president.
DC: (chuckles) I certainly hoped he wasn’t still changing tires.
AL: No. He is a very capable man. I don’t remember where store number three— Store number three was about a year later on Quitman and North Main. But here’s where I made a mistake. I thought North Main will grow as fast as South Main and the city will not spread out in one direction but all around. Well, I was wrong. North Main did not grow.
DC: Not to the extent that South Main did.
AL: No. After that I started opening one or two stores a year. I stretched my capital. I used my resources, my manufacturers. I sold them on the idea that if they’re going to get volume, they can only get volume by me growing, and the only way I can grow is by them helping me by giving me longer datings to buy merchandise and establish more outlets. And it worked.
DC: Were these new stores that were springing up exclusively automotive?
AL: 17:06 They were at first exclusively automotive, and later I added on major and traffic appliances and sporting goods.
DC: How did you decide whether or not to add a given item?
AL: At that time automotive parts were limited. You had your Model A Ford. Your total number of items that you handled was about 1,200. I felt that you need to broaden the line of merchandise to satisfy more people, and so I added on sporting goods and later appliances. When we added appliances, I found that I had a credit problem. You’ve got to sell those things for 24 and 30 months and, of course, this increased the volume. In most cases I bought the locations I was in. I organized a small building company that built those locations. In those days you could build a building for $3 to $4 a square foot, whereas today it costs you $18 to $40 a square foot. The disadvantage, however, in buying your own locations is that if you did not pick the right locations and the area did not grow, your real estate didn’t grow either.
DC: You mentioned the third location you picked was not very good. Were there any others that you kind of missed on?
AL: Yes, quite a number of them. (chuckles) I made my share of mistakes, but I buried my mistakes as quickly as I could.
DC: When you looked at a potential location—whether or not it would be profitable, whether the city would grow around it—what kind of things did you look for? Was it intuitive, or did you have specific things in mind?
AL: I think it was more or less intuitive. I checked the number of people living in the area. I wasn’t able to ascertain the growth factor of that area. Small businesses don’t have the equipment and the technique that large organizations have. So it was intuitive, and when I found I made a mistake, I tried to correct it or dispose of it.
DC: What was the role of the political leaders in determining the growth of the city? Supposedly, they were people that knew where the city was going.
AL: When I saw builders and city leaders put their money into certain areas, I felt that they had more knowledge than I did in developing that area. However, my mistake was that when I sold merchandise on credit my capital was always tied up. I did not have the capital to take advantage of the areas. For example, when I had to move from Main and Dallas because Sakowitz took over the location, I moved to Milam and where the Bank of the Southwest is now, right across from the Esperson Building. I was able at that time to buy property where the Humble Building is at $4 a square foot, but I didn’t have the money. Now, today it’s possibly worth $40 or $50 a square foot. By the same token, when the Houston National Bank has seven acres on Main and Holcombe where the Fannin Bank is, the offer made is seven acres for $49,000—$7,000 an acre. It was way out of town. They told me, “You don’t need any money. We’ll carry your loan on it. Just buy it.” I didn’t have the vision that those seven acres are possibly worth $10 or $12 million today.
DC: 22:28 I also read that you had considered buying some land by the Shamrock.
AL: That was right across the street from the Shamrock.
DC: Oh, I see.
AL: The Shamrock wasn’t there then. I felt it was just a good place to hunt rabbits. It was way out of town. But the building of the Shamrock is what made that area.
DC: So in general then, you would say that the small businessman has two disadvantages, one of not having fluid capital and the other of not knowing as much about where the city is planned to grow.
AL: That’s right. A small businessman must follow the leaders because the leaders are more knowledgeable. They have people who can make surveys. They’re more scientific, while a small entrepreneur doesn’t have all these facilities, so he has to place confidence in the leaders. Now, when our mayor built practically a whole area on the—what area would that be?—in the east end of town—
DC: Mayor Holcombe?
AL: Mayor Holcombe. Mayor Holcombe knew. He made that area. And so I got a store there in that area. I had to follow the leader and place confidence in him.
DC: In general, the political and the big business leaders of Houston have been worthy of your confidence?
AL: Yes. Houston enjoyed both industrial stability and also financial stability. When I came to Houston, it had a population of about 250,000 people. When you read the figures as Houston’s population increased to 275,000 and 300,000 and 350,000, I felt that the future of Houston is assured. When I saw people put their capital into big buildings and continue to build apartments and skyscrapers, I said, “Those people wouldn’t invest their money unless they felt that Houston had a future.” When I see the bank’s deposits continue to grow and new banks open up, I couldn’t help but have confidence in Houston.
DC: 25:25 This is a theme you keep coming back to, the idea of Houston businessmen being willing to invest, willing to risk. It was something you looked at when you first decided to come here. Is it still true, do you think?
AL: Yes. All you’ve got to do is look at Houston’s skyline, look at Houston developments, look at the new areas that are opening up every day. People are still willing to risk their capital on their judgment and their findings, and so Houston today is growing at a rate of—what is it?—5,000 a month.
DC: It’s very rapid. I don’t know the exact figure.
AL: So if you figure people like compound interest, it’ll keep increasing and increasing and increasing.
DC: Is there a point beyond which you would not like to see the city grow? Is it possible for this city to become too big?
AL: Personally, I think most people like to see their city, for their own convenience, remain as it is because while enlarging a city gives you more entertainment, more culture, it makes life also a little bit more difficult. All you’ve got to do is look at the freeways between 3:00 and 5:00. As far as your business is concerned, as the city grows your business opportunities increase. The things that you can buy and the things you can enjoy increase. Compare Houston’s culture, for example, today with 35 or 40 years ago. You have one of the finest symphonies in the country, you have ballet, you have a magnificent opera association, you have Jones Hall which houses many attractions which come to Houston, you’ve got a large art museum with a beautiful collection of paintings, you have the Miller Memorial. And by the way, I watched this morning—what is that play?—Treemonisha. I watched it when it was playing here. I’m glad they gave the Houston the credit of being the first discoverer of it. It was on this morning’s Today Show.
DC: I happened to see that as well.
AL: 28:38 It was very well done, beautiful. So Houston has many attractions to offset the difficulties of living.
DC: I realize, of course, many of the benefits of growth. But a number of other people I have interviewed who have been in Houston for a long time have commented that yes, growth is fine, but they knew Houston as a kind of friendly, small town when they were young, and that’s gone.
AL: Well, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. For everything you get you’ve got to give up something. But Houston has many citizens with great vision. While everything cannot be concentrated in the inner city, there are suburban areas springing up, like for example, Woodlands. It’s going to be a beautiful community with residences, shops, playgrounds, maybe someday factories, offices, where people don’t have to travel all the way in. Houston has developed a great many clusters of regional shopping centers, regional business areas, with people around it to overcome the hazards and the difficulties of driving in to the inner city. Look at the Galleria, for example, and that area.
DC: Right. That’s a good example.
AL: I passed by Galleria for years. I think there was a real estate office there at that time. I said, “Gee whiz, if I only had the money, that’s the corner that I would buy.” Well, as I get older I realize that if I used good judgment and didn’t put all my eggs in one basket and kept a little liquid funds instead of putting it into my business, I would have been able to take advantage of the rare opportunities which were offered in real estate in Houston. I think the greatest growth in Houston was in real estate, and I think there’s a great growth yet to be experienced in real estate, although today money is tight and the real estate activity is very limited.
DC: It has dropped off, right.
AL: But that’s only temporary because as Houston grows you’ve got to have housing, you’ve got to have new business areas close to where people live, and I think this is just a temporary condition.
DC: Looking out of your window over Hermann Park, I see cranes on the horizon over by the medical center, so it’s still going on.
AL: 31:57 Yes. They’re building on all the time. There’s possibly more building in Houston than most cities of equal size. I think Houston is about third in building in the United States, although it’s fifth and sixth in population.
DC: Let’s go back now. We’re kind of getting ahead of ourselves a little bit. Besides Oscar Holcombe, who were some of the other key figures in the growth of Houston in the 1930s and the 1940s?
AL: I think the heads of the big oil companies, the big industrialists, have done a great deal for Houston. There’s the steel companies like Armco. I get the impression that they are very civic-minded and very much interested in Houston. Humble Oil, of course, transferred its main operation here. There’s Keller Construction Company that left New York and came down here and here they used good judgment. The big industries, the heads of the petrochemical industry, have made Houston the center of petrochemical and the oil industry. And, of course, the oil companies have to have a great deal of funds to risk capital, and I think they are the original wildcatters, the original people who risked capital, and others have followed them. Of course, needless to say, Jesse Jones was the prime mover for Houston. He was very public-spirited and a man of great vision. The insurance companies have done well here in giving employment to people and creating a lot of capital, because as people pay their insurance premiums they deposit it in banks which gives the banks loaning capital. One hand washes another.
DC: Others I have spoken to have stressed the diversification of Houston, the advantage of, as you say, not having all of your eggs in one basket. Would you agree with that?
AL: Yes. It’s diversified, and I don’t know how it compares with the other cities. Detroit, for example, may have diversification, but its prime mover is the automobile industry. Houston may have diversification, but its prime industry is oil and, of course, they have steel and they have other things. But when you think of Houston, you think of the oil capital and the petrochemical capital of the world.
DC: What role did Louie Welch have in this growth?
AL: I think Louie Welch was very astute and very capable. I would credit him with racial—how would you?—having racial peace in the community. I think he understood what it takes to have not only industrial peace but racial peace. We didn’t have the strikes or the racial animosity that may exist in some other towns. I think he was very broadminded and very liberal.
DC: Specifically, what policies did he pursue that brought racial harmony?
AL: 36:16 By listening to both sides, and like Johnson used to say, “Let us reason together.”
DC: Hmm. So you think then that the relative racial tranquility in Houston was directly linked to its prosperity.
DC: The fact that it did not suffer an urban riot like Detroit or like Los Angeles.
AL: That’s right.
DC: In the business community in the late ‘60s and the early ‘70s in Houston, was there a kind of fear that any day now the top could go off? Did people worry about this, to your knowledge?
AL: I didn’t feel that way. Of course, you’ve had some hotheads. You have it in every city. But as a whole, Houston was blessed with leaders in all racial groups who said, “Let’s sit down and let’s iron it out. Let’s reason together.” I think more can be gained by understanding one another’s problems than by confrontation.
DC: You’ve been very active in the Chamber of Commerce over the years, and I’d like to now ask you what has been the role of the Chamber of Commerce in the growth of Houston.
AL: Well, I feel guilty and possibly have not been as active as I should have been because of the stress of running small businesses. But I think the Chamber of Commerce must be given credit for maintaining contacts with producers of capital and presenting Houston in a favorable light that would enable people to come and investigate Houston’s possibilities. I remember seeing a movie that I think the Chamber of Commerce was instrumental in making where they could take a film to an industry in New York and show them the living climate in Houston, how pleasant it is in November and December as compared to the snow and the inclement weather in New York. And if they can’t bring them in down here, at least they bring the pictures to them where they can see it. And I think the Chamber of Commerce has done everything first class. Just look at their magazine.
DC: Yes, I’ve seen it.
AL: 39:16 I think it’s the most outstanding little magazine of any Chamber of Commerce in the United States. I enjoy reading it. It’s newsy, it is beautifully put up, it reflects the spirit of the Chamber of Commerce.
DC: Is the Chamber of Commerce more oriented toward attracting the large businessman or the corporation instead of the small businessman or small entrepreneur?
AL: Oh, I think you can accuse any Chamber of Commerce of going after the big entrepreneur. And it’s only natural because you can only show growth—just like a bank, they can show more growth by a million dollar deposit than they can by a ten thousand dollar deposit, although there may be more ten thousand dollar depositors. But if you get the big ones, the small ones will follow.
DC: Sometimes I wonder about the condition of the small businessman in Houston today. I observe skyscrapers going up, as do we all, and I understand that the corporations are prospering. But if the small businessman is in trouble now—and you must have some sympathy for this because you’ve been through all of this—where does he turn in Houston? Can he get help from the Chamber of Commerce?
AL: I doubt it. The Chamber of Commerce could give him some help in their surveys. But if the small businessman is in trouble, he needs money. And although bankers are more sympathetic today than they were 40 years ago—40 years ago you had to stand in front of a banker who was insulated behind bronze bars and stand there with your hat in your hand—today bankers solicit small business, and if it has merit, I believe capital is more readily available. I’ve often told my banker, who is still a remnant of the old type bankers, that you have to fear him. I said, “Look, you’ve got a commodity, which is money, just like I have tires. My commodity is tires, and I want to sell a tire. Your commodity is money. You should treat your money and be willing to lend it out with as little risk as possible as I want to sell tires. Your attitude is entirely wrong.” But they have changed the last 30-40 years. They are merchandising their money just like people merchandise their automobiles or their suits or their tires.
DC: And we speak of the money market.
AL: That’s right.
DC: How about the Small Business Administration? In your opinion, has that proven to be a success?
AL: 42:45 The Small Business Administration, I believe, has made a great many poor loans. They’ve been helpful, but I believe the Small Business Administration, while it helps people by loaning them money, what they need is more retired businessmen who will steer them and supervise them and watch them to see that the money is not dissipated. I don’t think Houston has a—what’s that small business organization?
DC: The SCORE program?
AL: SCORE. I don’t think Houston’s SCORE is as active as they are, say, in San Francisco. I had a brother-in-law who worked for me at one time and went to San Francisco and engaged in business, did well, retired, and utilized all his time for SCORE. I understood from him that they had a very active SCORE where businessmen took these small businessmen by the hand and not only secured capital for them but steered them so that the investment is secure and that he makes headway. I may be wrong.
DC: I don’t know. It just occurred to me as you were saying that that given all the corporations in Houston and all the corporations that have come recently, we have probably a young executive core and, therefore, not as big a pool of retired executives to draw from. That might have something to do with it.
AL: VITA is one of them—Volunteers International for Technical Assistance. That’s very active in Houston.
AL: As far as the small businessman is concerned, there are still opportunities for the small businessman, but America caters to the biggies. People want to shop in big stores. People are accustomed to stores being well equipped and handling a large variety. Look at the small grocery man. He is having a tougher and tougher struggle because the large stores with experts to advise them, with modern technological methods, with modern equipment like computers and new type cash registers, with volume purchasing, they have the edge over the small man, and the small man is having a more and more difficult task. A great many of them are better off working for big corporations. And if they were to put in as much time and effort as they do in their own small business, they’d possibly advance further and learn more than by struggling as a small entrepreneur.
DC: Did you notice this attitude when you came to Houston in 1932? Was there the same desire on the part of the public to shop in the big store, the Western Auto across the street?
AL: 46:52 Yes, there was to a certain degree but not as much as it is today. People were still at that time sympathetic to the small businessman. I know personally because I went through it. Instead of buying things from the larger store, I’d give the small man an opportunity. I’d give the small electrician or the small carpenter the job rather than the big one.
DC: That was one thing I was curious about. At what point in time did you cease to regard yourself as a small businessman?
AL: I still—well, I’m out of business today. I have sold my stores to White’s Auto Supply in 1963 or ’64.
DC: ’62, I believe, from my research.
DC: But the point is, you sold stores and you sold lots of stores. So at that time you were pretty spread out.
AL: Everything is relative. In relation to Sears and Western I was a small businessman.
DC: (laughs) Well, everybody is.
AL: See, when I sold my interest in Oklahoma, that company continued to grow and grow and grow and acquire until they had about 250 stores of their own and about 600 associated stores. And later they sold their business to Mr. Riklis, head of McCrory, for $27 million. When I sold my interests, it was only a small five figure amount.
DC: So you still retain a sympathy then for other small businessmen, and you would buy from them, as you say.
AL: Definitely, because we need to stop the death of the small businessman, because if the small businessman dies out, then by comparison the organization which you consider big is small in comparison with another business of the same type. And eventually, you’ll have only giants, and we’re all going to be working for those few giants. Then you have a question of monopoly. How do you curb the monopolistic practices when there are just a few left and they have the whole industry in their control? So we need small businesses.
DC: It’s also a question of opportunity too, it occurs to me. I noticed when I was doing my research and I admired in you very much the fact that you had just made it. You had come here with nothing and then you had built yourself up. Do you think it’s any longer possible for a man to do that?
AL: 50:18 It is if he’s willing to make sacrifices. Just like the saying is, “You get what you pay for,” you get out of a thing as much as you put into it. I had three youngsters to feed, and I was very ambitious for them. I wanted to give them a good education. And so both my wife and I worked. We’d open up the store at 7:00 in the morning, I was open till 9:00 at night, and between 9:00 and 11:00 I did my buying and rearranging. And that went on six days a week. On the seventh day I took it easy. I opened up at 9:00 and closed at 1:00.
AL: But at that time I was willing to pay the price. Today young people are not willing to make that kind of a sacrifice and pay the price for success. Now, maybe they’re smarter. Maybe they can do the job in less time. I didn’t consider myself a genius or smart, so I thought I’d make up for it by hard work, by plugging.
DC: It probably has something to do with the fact that they grew up in a relatively more affluent environment. They had things easier.
AL: Today the second generation is not willing to pay the price. They started in the middle—most of them—while we started at the very beginning.
DC: But now, your own son is back in business and Lack’s is back.
AL: My own son is in business, but he also started in the middle. He’s taken over what Papa turned over to him. And while he’s possibly smarter than I am, he doesn’t have the appreciation for holding down expenses or hasn’t learned the value of a dollar because he never went through a depression. And people that went through the Depression of 1932 are still plain scared.
DC: Hmm. That’s interesting.
AL: 52:57 They still have that fear of real poverty, of adversity. That’s why old-timers are possibly more conservative than the younger generation.
DC: Perhaps you ought to sign up for SCORE if you haven’t already. I can see that you would be a very good advisor.
AL: I’d like to. The only reason I haven’t is I want to devote the rest of my time to travel. I love to travel. I like to see different ways of life, different countries. I want to see what makes other countries tick or other people. When I come back I always sing “God Bless America.”
DC: Just out of curiosity, where are you going?
AL: I’ve been around the world three times, once by plane where I could get into the interior and see more how people live, twice by ship. I went to see a safari, a picture safari, in North Africa. I went to Europe, possibly a dozen times. When I travel I don’t have to travel in a lush style because if I want comfort and conveniences, you get it at home much better than you do in foreign countries. I go to see people, to see the countries, to see what the people have created and what their fathers created. Like France, for example. I’m more interested in what their forefathers created in France. The present generation hasn’t created Paris or London.
DC: And each time you come back to this country from these travels, you are convinced that our way of life is the best.
AL: Oh, absolutely, without doubt. The thing that I cherish most is the freedom of opportunity, the freedom to do what you want to—within the law. Notice the news of Spain this morning. You can’t have a meeting unless the government sanctions it. Now, suppose this happened here. Why, we’d rise up in arms. “What do you mean I can’t have a meeting? I can’t talk to a group of friends without you giving me an okay?” It’s unthinkable in America. And we don’t appreciate what we’ve got until we’ll lose it.
DC: That’s probably true of anything. Let me ask you a question and kind of a paradox that has occurred to me, and that is, the growth of this city is in some measure founded on that economic freedom, and yet as you get more and larger corporations, don’t they in some sense threaten that freedom if they completely dominate the market and preclude the small businessman? Isn’t that a kind of danger to that economic freedom?
AL: You still have the freedom to question how successful will you be when there are gates in front of you and you’re not able to manipulate the gates. Suppose you want to engage in manufacturing a certain product. Unless it’s a specialized product where you’re an expert at it, if you manufacture a valve for the oil industry, it’s a question of whether you can manufacture the valve as cheaply as a large corporation. Now, there is an economic council of underprivileged businesspeople in Houston. I noticed a display in trade shows here where a black has started a small business, possibly with the aid of the Small Business Administration, and he’s a manufacturer of valves. He started with possibly $500, and today he’s got a million dollars worth of valves. Well, he possibly put in more time, more effort, he may have had a particular knowledge of that valve, and there are enough oil companies or businesspeople in Houston who will give him the break on equal basis instead of someone else, instead of a big company. I don’t say that the opportunities for the small entrepreneur are gone, but they are getting more difficult. It requires more capital, it requires more equipment, more machinery. And if it becomes more difficult, you’ve got to put more effort in it. It requires more effort.
DC: 59:21 It seems a little difficult to me to put in more effort than you did in your early days. It doesn’t seem to be possible even.
AL: The average man today is used to his 8 hours, 40 hours a week. But if you’re ambitious and you want to succeed, you’ve got to put 90 to 100 hours a week for a while until you get a strong foothold.
DC: Actually, it occurs to me that working like that might be more than work. It might be a kind of philosophy of life. Did you find yourself content when you were working that hard?
AL: I found happiness in achievement. I found a pride in doing something constructively. Up to 1942, of course, I kept my nose to the grindstone for 10 years. But in 1942 I think Bill Blanton of the Chamber of Commerce talked me into joining the Air Corps and accepting a commission. He said, “If the businessman doesn’t lend his knowledge and his effort, Hitler may run this country.” And so I had 17 stores at that time, and I turned them over to my crew and I accepted a commission in the Air Corps. I found that I was as necessary as a second spare because had I bargained for a commission and gotten a good commission where I had a command of some kind and I could use my prerogatives or my knowledge, I could have done more good than just being a plain captain because captains were a dime a dozen. When I got out of the Air Corps, I couldn’t acclimate myself to business again. Somehow my sense of values had changed. Money was not the important thing, and so I spent a great deal of time in civic work. I had my share of work and glory until we raised the younger generation who took over the work. For example, in ’47 when the DP camps were full of refugees in Germany, I felt there was a great need of saving the remnants and finding a place for them, so I was very active in the American Joint Distribution Committee and the local Jewish Community Council in fundraising, and I helped build Temple Emanu El. But then after a while, when the younger generation starts taking over, why, you just relinquish the reins and let them handle it. They’re doing a good job. And the little time that’s left to me I enjoy reading, I enjoy music, I enjoy art, I enjoy plays, and I enjoy travel.
DC: 1:03:30 You certainly deserve your time to enjoy those things. Mr. Lack, I have exhausted my prepared questions, but at this point in the interview I usually just open it up to the person and ask is there anything else that you’d like to say, anything I’ve skipped that you think is important?
AL: Not particularly pertaining to business, but I am a little bit worried about the United States and where it’s drifting. I am not going to make a political speech, but I feel that every individual must take more interest in his government and the people he elects to Congress and not take the attitude, “Well, there’s nothing I can do.” I think there’s a great deal all of us can do. We’ve got too many politicians and not enough statesmen. I think that covers everything.
DC: Well, on behalf of the Houston Metropolitan Archives and Research Center, I’d like to thank you for a most informative interview. It’s been a real pleasure.
AL: Thank you for your time.
[tape ends] 1:05:13