The Wonder Years

Everyone was once a child, including these successful leaders.

Comedian Martin Mull once said that having children is like having a bowling alley installed in your brain. And it's no wonder -- kids can be loud, clumsy, unpredictable, and rebellious. Of course, as any doting parent will tell you, they also can be mannerly straight-A students who choose all the right friends. Does a person's childhood have that much influence on his or her adult life? Carol Orsag Madigan thinks so, but not in the way you might expect. Madigan, along with her coauthor Ann Elwood, spent the last two years researching the childhoods of famous people for their book When They Were Kids (1998, Random House). After reviewing the formative years of more than 400 public figures, including successful politicians and business executives, Madigan has come to the conclusion that hard work and ambition are the only common denominators of children who grow up to become household words. Nothing else -- grades, what their parents did for a living, or whether they fought with their siblings -- came as close to predicting their success. Still, the anecdotes collected in Madigan's book make a good read for anyone who is curious about the past lives of famous people. For instance, did you know that:

  • By age nine, Bill Gates had read the entire World Book Encyclopedia and that in high school he scored a perfect 800 on the math SAT. His response to a command to hurry up was always: "I'm thinking, I'm thinking."
  • Automaker Henry Ford's mother advised him: "Life will give you many unpleasant tasks to do. Your duty will be hard and disagreeable and painful to you at times, but you must do it. You may have pity on another, but you must not pity yourself."
  • William Randolph Hearst and Andrew Carnegie were both mamas' boys. In fact, when Hearst was young, his mother hired a phrenologist (an expert on analyzing people through the shapes of their skulls) to tell her about her child's character. Part of the final report read: "He is very strongly attached to his mother, provided she treats him lovingly." As an adult, Hearst admitted he was a "mother's boy," but declared he was "mighty glad of it."
  • Richard Nixon, a serious and introspective child, was nicknamed "Gloomy Gus." Jimmy Carter was called "Baby Dumplin" for Dagwood's son in the comic strip "Blondie." Ronald Reagan, who was a chubby little kid, was called the "fat little Dutchman." As Reagan got older, he asked his friends to call him "Dutch."
  • Lee Iacocca's father, an Italian immigrant, once admonished him: "Why walk when you can run?"
  • When Apple Computer cofounder Steve Jobs was a high-school junior he joined the Buck Fry Club, whose sole reason for existence was to stage practical jokes. The group found a way to disarm the school's locks and to get the fire-alarm system to buzz continuously. They also managed to hoist a Volkswagen onto a table on the roof of the cafeteria.
  • Elizabeth Arden once said as a child: "I want to be the richest little woman in the world." With a chemist, she created a cream to cure skin blemishes. Its success launched her career, and she went on to make a fortune in cosmetics.
  • Billionaire businessmen Warren Buffett, Gates, and Armand Hammer all showed business talent as children. When he was 11, Buffett bought three shares of Cities Service Co. stock for $38 each, making a profit of $5 when he sold them. When Gates was nine, he negotiated a formal contract with his sister for rights to use her baseball glove, paying her $5 for the privilege. When Hammer, the wealthy industrialist who died in 1990, was eight he began accompanying an older friend to the produce mart where he would help set up the displays and generate rudimentary reports comparing the competitors' prices.
  • Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis was frequently suspended from school and never did graduate. Once he was kicked out for switching on all the electric bells at school. The headmaster of the school recalled: "He was really a naughty person and a disorderly child, shocking all around him."
  • Retired Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf was an excellent student with an IQ estimated to be 170. Although he was regarded as an overachiever who cared only about grades, what Schwarzkopf wanted most was to fit in. In his autobiography, he writes: "I wanted to be accepted as a regular guy. My goal was to be good academically, good socially, good athletically, and good militarily -- but not get carried away."
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