The Message Man From Mississippi: Fred Smith is Born

“I think the American Dream is freedom,” says Fred Smith. “It's the ability to do what you want to do. It's the freedom to succeed; it's the freedom to fail. And the freedom to live your lifestyle the way you want to live it…Very few people in the history of the world have ever had that enormous opportunity.”

Frederick W. Smith is one of those very few people. Born on August 11, 1944, in Marks, Mississippi, this future founder of Federal Express was forced to grow up at an early age. His father passed away when he was just four years old, leaving Smith with few male role models in his life. “My childhood was autonomous, in the main,” he recalls. “I had a lovely mother, but not having a father influence, I learned a lot of things on my own. I think that would be the best characterization of it.”

Smith attended high school at Memphis University School, where he excelled both academically and as an athlete. “I was a good student,” says Smith. “I liked to read enormously. I loved history. It was not difficult for me to make good grades.” Smith also proved to be an excellent football player and soon developed strong relationships with his coaches, to whom he attributes much of his success and “in setting me straight on a few things.” Of one coach in particular, Smith says, “He absolutely proved to me that persistence was a very big part of making it in life. I never forgot that lesson.”

Smith was popular with both fellow students and his teachers. It was one of his English teachers who opened Smith’s eyes, in his own words, “to the fact that there’d been a lot of people on this planet before my time who might have a thing or two to say that were of use.”

After graduating from high school, Smith enrolled in Yale University to study economics. It was here that his life would take a dramatic turn. “It was pretty clear then,” says Smith, “with IBM installing the big computers around that the world was going to change.” In response, Smith wrote an essay for school about the computerized society that was on the horizon. “The paper was about how this was going to change a lot of things, and in particular it was going to change the way things had to be distributed and moved to support those automated devices.”

Smith received a poor grade on his paper and forgot about the idea. He graduated with his bachelor’s degree in 1966 and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, where he would serve for the next four and a half years as a platoon leader and pilot. “In the military there's a tremendous amount of waste,” says Smith. “The supplies were sort of pushed forward, like you push food onto a table. And invariably, all of the supplies were in the wrong place for where they were needed…That's when I sort of crystallized the idea for FedEx on the supply side, how to solve the problem that had been identified in that paper.”

After being honourably discharged from the Marine Corps, Smith set out trying to find a way to turn the ideas from his paper into reality.

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