One of my personal heroes died last week.
He co-founded Southwest Airlines and he taught several generations, including mine, what being an entrepreneur was all about.
You could learn an awful lot about starting and running a business—big or small—just by watching Herb Kelleher. I sure did.
I watched him grow Southwest Airlines into the nation’s largest airline while it took me to all the places I traveled so I could build my own company.
Back in the late 60’s—while I was in high school trying out the media as a career—he, fresh out of law school at NYU, and a friend decided to start a short haul, low cost airline in Texas which had three stops, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. The other airlines and the Federal Government descended on him and his partner like the herd of locusts they often become, even today. They spent four years before that first flight fighting just for the right to go into business.
What he wanted to do, was to create a low cost airline which, essentially, democratized the skies. Back in those days, flying was for rich people and high level executives. Little guys and small businessmen need not line up.
I defy you to fly Southwest today and tell me that he did not succeed.
The most important thing that Southwest delivers, which no other airline can, is a group of fellow passengers who are real people, unconcerned about optics but completely concerned about getting there and back, which is, after all, what airlines are there to do. In short, Southwest was conceived as an airline which real people fly.
Despite the fact that you can watch TV on your wifi device, it is the very rare trip I have taken where the fellow passengers would not rather spend the trip talking to their fellow passengers.
My father had a unique quality which he passed on.
He could start a conversation with anyone anywhere. In the checkout line, car to car at a stop light, hospital bed to hospital bed, anyone, anywhere about anything.
He never flew Southwest because he lived most of his adult life in Peoria, Illinois, but he would have been in heaven on one of Herb Kelleher’s flights.
I know that I have learned more from my fellow Southwest passengers in the last 35 or so years than I ever learned in a classroom.
The biggest thing I ever learned is that Richard Nixon was right.
There is a huge silent majority in this nation composed of your friends and neighbors who are patriots. They may not agree with everything a particular person in public life stands for but they all agree that this is the greatest nation on the face of the Earth and that every citizen’s first duty is to keep it that way.
Herb Kelleher made it possible for that silent majority to get from Tulsa to Dallas and similar city pairings, do their business, build their companies and get home for dinner. All at a price which virtually everyone could afford. In short, he made it possible for people like you and I to create our own businesses just like he did.
And he did it with class. He gathered a group of employees who I never get tired of flying with. I have watched them perform (and sometimes that is the exact word for it) under all sorts of circumstances. Happy, sad, urgent, relaxed. I can honestly tell you that in nearly 40 years of flying on Southwest I have never come across an employee who did not honor his or her employer in everything they did.
Of all the honors Mr. Kelleher has received in his career, I’m willing to bet that one of those honors at the top is the fact that the City of Dallas named the road leading from Mockingbird Lane to the terminal at Love Field, Herb Kelleher Way. He apparently wasn’t too enthusiastic at first, but as Southwest progressed towards its 40th anniversary he came around. It is a most fitting honor.
Now, whenever you get ready to start an adventure—most likely on Southwest which is Love’s dominant carrier—he gets the honor, posthumously, of having his name on the last road you travel before you board a 737 and fly.
Herb Kelleher was an American who easily fits my definition of American Exceptionalism.
And, Herb Kelleher was also my definition of an exceptional American.
His influence has been seen and will be felt in hundreds, maybe thousands of business startups in the coming generations.
He was a giant among Texans and that’s saying something.