Happy Birthday B!

Molly Ivins thanks you. She was the heart and soul of the Observer. She was the best of the best and within her was true greatness. In her last few days, she asked me to continue doing everything I could to insure its continuance. For me that is why this event is so important.”

Bernard Rapoport recalled Molly, who died on January 31, before a gathering of 300 friends—senators, representatives, colleagues, and family—who turned out to honor him on July 17 in Washington, D.C., on his 90th birthday. B needs no more accolades, and few Observer readers will be surprised that he used the occasion as a fundraiser for the Observer. It was an evening to honor an extraordinary man who’s had the good fortune to live an extraordinary life.

Bernard and Audre Rapoport

B grew up in a Jewish immigrant family in San Antonio. He inherited from his parents the fire of a Russian revolutionary and the love of learning that has defined Judaism from its beginnings. Though B came from modest circumstances, his father instilled in him discipline, aspiration, and a strong work ethic. B worked his way through the University of Texas during the Great Depression. He met the love of his life—and his match—when he stopped in Waco for a blind date with Audre Newman. They married within a month. That was 65 years ago. Audre and B have been partners in work, politics, and the pursuit of social justice ever since.

B and Audre have invested much of their personal wealth in the common good, funding health care, education, and exposure to the arts and culture for children who otherwise wouldn’t have it. Audre, who believes women should determine their own destinies, is a quiet but fierce defender of women’s reproductive rights. The Planned Parenthood clinic in Waco is named in her honor—and in recognition of her generosity.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton

The Bernard and Audre Rapoport Foundation, headquartered in Waco, supports peace and justice and education initiatives, funding hundreds of health care and educational projects in Waco, in Texas, throughout the United States, and around the world.

If scientists discover a gene for social justice, they will find it first in the Rapoport family. Carrying on B’s and Audre’s legacy is their son Ron, his wife Patricia, and their daughters, Abby and Emily.

B’s close relationship with the Observer began 45 years ago. Always chronically strapped for money, the Observer had lost longtime benefactor Frankie Randolph. Texas labor unionist Fred Schmidt suggested to editor Ronnie Dugger that the Observer approach Fred’s close friend Bernard Rapoport, an insurance executive in Waco.

In B’s memoir, Being Rapoport: Capitalist with a Conscience, he describes their meeting. Ronnie drove to Waco. B asked him if he wanted to buy any insurance. Ronnie declined and told B he wanted to solicit B’s financial support. He added a caveat: “After much thought, I’ve concluded that the whole process of insuring people’s lives should be socialized.” So began an enduring friendship between B and Dugger. Public service ads from American Income Life Insurance Co. provided the Observer a consistent revenue stream for almost 40 years. B used those ads to deliver a message, sometimes his own, sometimes from other people, but always a variation on a theme—that a country built on principles of broad distribution of wealth made for a better society.

Rep. Chet Edwards

The Observer fit naturally into B’s system of beliefs and values. When it was founded, it was the state’s only journalistic advocate for civil rights, civil liberties, social and economic justice, and the rights of working people. B’s connection with the Observer has been steady, if not always harmonious. As B wrote in Being Rapoport, “Anyone who thinks that giving the Observer a large amount of money over the years has bought me influence over editorial policies has not been paying attention.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi

On more than a few occasions, the Observer took a position or wrote a story that B thought was wrongheaded or flat-out wrong. One of those occasions brought B and Molly Ivins, already friends, closer. “In the spring of 1997 I told a writer for Texas Monthly magazine that I had terminated my support of the Observer … In the blink of an eye, my careless remark to Texas Monthly brought the formidable Ms. Molly Ivins to my office in Waco. Molly really did a number on me. Talk about feeling guilty for forsaking a cause. … Molly walked out of my office with a pledge of a $20,000 matching gift.” To the Observer‘s good fortune, B frequently refers to John Dewey’s quote that “every government needs a minister of irritance,” and that’s how B sees The Texas Observer. He used the Birthday Bash to remind guests of the necessity of the Observer, and to thank them for their support.

Sen. Ted Kennedy

B’s speech to the crowd gathered at the home of Sen. Jay and Sharon Rockefeller capped an evening of deeply emotional and touching tributes—from Rockefeller, Sen. Ted Kennedy, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, former University of Texas Chancellor Bill Cunningham, and the congressman representing both B Rapoport and George W. Bush, Chet Edwards. Who says irony is dead? B’s close friends Ben Barnes, Ambassador Lyndon Olson, and former Sen. Tom Daschle co-chaired the Birthday Bash, with Barnes acting as emcee. The evening included an affectionate Happy Birthday video wish from former President Bill Clinton, and a particularly poignant video produced by Paul Stekler that included tributes from Luci Baines Johnson, Garry Mauro, Barnes, and Molly. Then came B’s granddaughters Abby and Emily. Their hilarious anecdotes captured his exuberant, irrepressible spirit. When Abby turned five, her grandfather called to say he was sending her a package of books. Abby waited in anticipation, imagining Alice in Wonderland or Anne of Green Gables. When it arrived, she opened it to find Richard Wright’s Native Son and Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

Lyndon L. Olsen, Ben Barnes, B Rapoport and Tom Daschle

With that introduction, admittedly a tough act to follow, B moved to the podium and humbled us with his words. “Since this is my 90th birthday, it’s time for me to remember what I owe and to whom and mostly to remind myself never to forget the many who have helped make possible this which I have achieved.” Praising family, friends, and colleagues, B paid special tribute to those who worked with him at American Income Life Insurance, the company that made his and Audre’s generous philanthropy possible. B’s remarks embodied the generosity of spirit, the passion for social justice, for which he is loved, admired, and emulated. He closed, “When we work together, we can achieve the requisites for a better society.”

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Published at 12:00 am CST