The visionary farmboy who rose to leadership
of the country's largest bank,
helped create the Federal Reserve System,
and fought for open access
to corporate and government information
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How Frank Vanderlip Went From

Farmboy to Financier in Six Moves

Farmer and Factory Worker, Aurora, Illinois: 1864 - 1886
Although Frank Vanderlip was born in Aurora, he spent the first 16 years of his life on a farm in nearby Oswego, much like the one in this historical drawing. His father, a calm, steady man who was handy with wisdom and tools, raised cattle, pigs and turkeys. Young Frank's job was herding the cows, which he often did with a book tucked into the top of his overalls, to read while they grazed.

Frank's beloved father died of tuberculosis when Frank was 14, and his mother could not maintain the farm. The family moved into Aurora, and 16-year-old Frank went to work at a factory lathe.

Determined to better his life, Frank saved enough money for a year of college, then had to go back into the factory. He sent away for a course in shorthand, tutored other workers in algebra to earn extra income, and became the editor of the local newspaper in 1885.
Newspaper Man, Chicago: 1886 - 1897
Frank followed his first mentor, economist Joseph French Johnson, to Chicago in 1886, starting work at a financial investigative agency. His job was to look at companies selling stock, to determine which ones were bad investments. Being a young man with a positive attitude, Frank decided it was much wiser to look for ones that would be good investments, and became an expert at reading financial reports. When Johnson moved on to become financial editor of the Chicago Tribune, Frank went along, to become a reporter. He loved the job and the excitement.

After Johnson left to open a newspaper in Spokane, Washington, Frank was promoted to financial editor. The business of finance was endlessly fascinating to a man who devoured company reports for pleasure reading. Frank was proud to say that he "unearthed a great deal of the financial skullduggery of that period."

When he was offered an editorship of The Economist in 1896, Frank took it happily. During this time, he met his second mentor, Lyman J. Gage, who shortly thereafter became Secretary of the Treasury under incoming President William McKinley.
Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, Washington, D.C: 1898 - 1902
Neither Frank Vanderlip nor Lyman Gage knew what Frank's actual job would be when they went to Washington in 1897. It wasn't long before Gage named Frank to be Assistant Secretary of the Treasury. When the country insisted to going into Spanish-American War the following year, over the objections of President McKinley, Frank found himself in charge of raising funds through a bond drive aimed at the average citizen, so that, as Frank recalled, "The people would have to pay something on account for their war." The exemplary work of his team of over 600 clerks brought him to the attention of his third mentor, James Stillman, president of National City Bank of New York, the largest bank in the country.
Bank Vice-President, New York: 1902 - 1909
The first time Frank visited James Stillman's elegant brownstone home for dinner, he said later, "I think some of my juices ran out of me at my knees as I mounted the steps to the stoop and rang the bell." They soon became such good friends that they would ride out on Sundays to visit William Rockefeller in Stillman's newest toy, "one of the early automobiles, a German mechanism that would gasp and jump and then, with surprising swiftness vibrate us through the horsedrawn traffic. We regarded it as a daring expedition; sometimes we arrived."

Stillman became a father figure to Frank, and groomed the younger man to someday take his place as head of the bank. Five years later, while Stillman was in France, Wall Street was plunged into the worst banking crisis the country had ever seen. Frank worked many late nights with J. P. Morgan and other leaders of the community to save the country from a disastrous loss of business and of jobs. None of the bankers involved ever forgot their terror.

Bank President, National City Bank of New York: 1909 - 1920
National City Bank of New York (now known as Citibank) moved into their new building, "breath-takingly lovely, a palatial colonnaded structure of commerce," as Frank described it, in 1909. The proud new president was Frank A. Vanderlip. James Stillman retired from the office, and was named Chairman of the Board.

Frank wasted no time putting his stamp on his new title. A prolific writer, his name appeared as author of a number of books and pamphlets on finance. He had no problem with actively going after new banking business, something not done at the time on such a broad scale. He began the first internship program for young men studying economics in college, offering them semesters of credit with lodging nearby and classes right in the bank. Employees, too, were encouraged to take advantage of courses available to all, and to set their sights on higher positions in the bank. As soon as it was legally possible, Frank opened the first overseas branches of any U.S. bank, setting up languages classes so his men would become fluent enough to do business in other countries. Once a year, he invited over 500 employees and their families to his large home on the Hudson River, Beechwood, for an all day party.

The week that brought Frank his most lasting fame was over Thanksgiving in 1910. In what became known as the Jekyll Island Duck Hunt, Frank and a few other leading bankers secretly took a private train to a private resort off the coast of Georgia, where they hashed out the outline of what, three years later, became the Federal Reserve System. The only man present to write about the meeting, Frank was also instrumental in proposing part of the plan as it was finally adopted. He was proud of his effort, believing that bankers were, for the most part, honest and knowledgeable businessmen who could best set up such a system. Speaking of the Jekyll Island week, he said, "I lived during those days at the highest pitch of intellectual awareness that I have ever experienced."
Retirement, New York and California, 1920 - 1937
Although he retired from the Bank presidency in 1920, Frank Vanderlip was not a man to simply sit on his sloping lawn at Beechwood, admiring the view of the Hudson River. He purchased the entire town of 70 buildings in Sparta, New York, only 1/4 mile from Beechwood, and remodeled everything into the charming community it is today. He led a group of about 20 businessmen, including former President Taft's brother, on a trip to Japan aimed at creating better business and social ties with that country.

He gave constant support to the school, then named Scarborough School and now known as Clearview School, that he and his wife Narcissa built. They wanted their children could get a fine education without being sent away to private schools, as the children of many wealthy families were at the time. The six little Vanderlips spent their school days on the Beechwood property, in a modern, light-filled building, studying with other neighborhood children and the children of the household servants.

Even before retiring, Frank was interested in purchasing land that could be developed in interesting and profitable ways. As part of a consortium, he bought 15,000 acres at the mouth of the Brazos River in Texas, where they built the town of Freeport, a new port for the upriver city of Houston.

Perhaps his crowning achievement was his purchase, in 1913, of the 16,000 acres along the coast just south of downtown Los Angeles, known as Palos Verdes. Here, he built a summer home for his family and conceived an elegant, peaceful area of Mediterranean style homes that was one of the first such large-scale planned communities in the country. Today, the land is divided into four cities that still revere Frank as their founder. Describing his first thought on standing on a hilltop surveying his new property, Frank described it as, "an unspoiled sheet of paper, to be written on with loving care."

That might be a good description of Frank's life, from beginning to end. Looking back on his own life with awe and gratitude for the opportunities he might not have had in any other country, Frank said, "Of course I am proud that I was able to do that, but I have never ceased to wonder whether I was able to do it because I was Vanderlip, or because I was an American."

Frank Vanderlip died in New York in 1937, and is buried, with his wife Narcissa, in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Briarcliff Manor, New York.