The King of the Skies: Herb Kelleher Gets His Start

Almost 40 years ago, Herb Kelleher came up with a radical idea: He wanted to start a no-frills airline that not only ensured people got to where they wanted to go and at low prices, but that they had fun doing it. Today, the small Texas airline he founded in 1971 has become the second largest airline in the world by number of passengers carried. Southwest Airlines carries over 100 million passengers to 63 cities across the U.S. each year.

Herbert David Kelleher was born on March 12, 1931, in Haddon Heights, New Jersey. He was the youngest child in a close-knit family. He attended Haddon Heights High School, where he was also class president and captain of the football team. He spent his free time working at the Campbell’s Soup factory where his father was the general manager. For six years, Kelleher rotated between the positions of soup chef, warehouse foreman, and analyst.

Over the next few years, Kelleher’s family got smaller. His brothers Harry and Richard enlisted in the Navy during World War II, with Richard later being killed in combat. Meanwhile, his sister left the family to go work in New York City, and in 1943, when Kelleher was just 12 years old, his father died.

Left alone at home with his mother, the two developed an exceptionally close bond. “She treated me as an adult, and her interests were wide ranging,” recalls Kelleher. “We would stay up till three, four, five in the morning, talking about business, politics, ethics. She was a splendid person, and she gave me a wonderful foundation.”

Ruth Kelleher was an Irishwoman who taught her son the importance of treating people with respect. “There was this very dignified gentleman in our neighborhood, the president of a local savings and loan, who used to stroll along in a very regal way up until he was indicted and convicted of embezzlement,” Kelleher recalls. “My mother said that positions and titles signify absolutely nothing. They're just adornments; they don't represent the substance of anybody.”

After graduating, Kelleher enrolled at Wesleyan University in Connecticut to study English and philosophy. Although he enjoyed his time there, Kelleher was not a model student, jokingly saying, “Just the other day, when they gave me the B boarding pass, I said, ‘You know what, I’m going to call my mother and tell her I finally got a B.’”

Although he originally planned to go into journalism, Kelleher soon decided to switch into law. He attended New York University Law School, all the while getting a taste for Greenwich Village. “I had a little apartment on Washington Square,” he recalls, “and you could just open your door and entertaining people would walk in and you’d have an instant party.”

In 1956, Kelleher graduated with his law degree and went to work as a law clerk for the New Jersey Supreme Court Justice. Three years later, he joined the firm of Lum, Biunno, and Tompkins. During that time, he also met and married a Texan by the name of Joan Negley. Attracted by the opportunities in her home state, the couple decided to relocate to San Antonio. There, Kelleher became a partner at Matthews, Nowlin, Macfarlane & Barrett. All the while, however, Kelleher was itching for a new career.

One night, Kelleher was having drinks with Rollin King, a law client of his who also happened to be a Texas businessman. Together, on a cocktail napkin, the two hatched out a plan for a new business.

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