Saturday, January 14, 2012

Tycoon, 1930's Style

When he was about 15, Charles F. Williams got in the habit of going down to his brother’s insurance office to clean up and start the fires before the rest of the staff arrived to tackle the day’s work.
Now, 45 years later, a colonel, a general, and president of the firm to boot, Mr. Williams still may be seen—in the dawn’s early light—leading the matutinal procession through the massive portals of the Grecian business temple which houses the home office of the Western & Southern Life Insurance Company.

So eager is he to reach the scene of the day’s labors, in fact, that he pauses not to perform his complete toilet at home, but rides straightway to the office, seizes two handfuls of mail with which to while away the begrudged necessity, and surrenders to the upraised razor of his barber. By 8 a.m. he is well into his day.
As a shrewd psychologist, he also knows how to make his agents put a little more drive in their sales efforts. “What’s the matter?” he will ask one of his boys who isn’t sending in as many applications as he might. “Don’t you like your wife and children?” The nonplussed agents will, more often than not, admit that surely he does. Where-upon Mr. Williams will ask him why it is, then, that he is apparently content to take $25 to the wife and kiddies each week when it could be $40 or $50, or even more. Coming from the president, it gets them.
Having started at the bottom himself and worked up, and having kept in touch with all manner of small detail in the home office and in the field, he is not easily misled by attempts at subterfuge. Those who work for him say that he is a stickler on having things done right: that he used to reveal quick flashes of temper when his orders were confused, but that he has become more tolerant and patient in late years.
Despite his great personal wealth (he is reputed to have the second largest income in Cincinnati) he remains the town’s most unassuming millionaire. He never has outgrown the simple tastes of his youth. Plain food, for instance, with never any dessert, is his choice, and he would rather eat fish or game that he has caught, prepared and cooked himself. His clothing is quiet and unpretentious, usually inexpensive…For a man of much money he is unique in his democracy. He will have no barriers placed in the way of people who come into the Western & Southern offices to see him; they walk right in whenever he has an unoccupied moment. That goes for mail, too; he likes to open the letters addressed to him rather than let them filter through the hands of half a dozen mail clerks and secretaries. He wants to be in on everything that’s going on, and reading the mail sent to Charles F. Williams is one way of doing it.
In carrying out the complacent belief that he and his family are what might be termed just folk, Mr. Williams deceives himself with the thought that his wife and two daughters, Mary Elizabeth and Margaret Mary, are “not society.” Though personally devoid of any such ambitions, the fact remains that they are in the Blue Book and accordingly much sought after. His three young sons are away at school, Charles M. and William J. at Georgetown University in Washington, James R. at Georgetown Prep., Garrett Park, Md.
Mr. Williams himself is away from home a good part of the time, dropping in on agencies in some 200 cities. During the winter and spring, his bed is a Pullman berth on two or three nights of each week. “I like to see that everything is going all right,” he says, “and, besides, I like to be among the men.”
Preferring winter for vacation time, he goes to Florida to hunt and fish. He and R. K. LeBlond own a sea-going cruiser in which they loaf along the coast. The late James P. Orr, president of the Potter Shoe Co., used to accompany them. They also are joined occasionally by George Carrel, former mayor, whose masterly marksmanship is the one envy of Mr. Williams’ life.
In younger years he used to be an adept boxer and baseball player; golfing is about as far as he goes in physical competition now.
No dry, he likes his liquor as well as the next man, which fits in with his policy of being a good mixer. Never a great hand at giving parties, he nevertheless has devised some rather costly and elaborate dinners. It was reported that he spent $2000* on food and favors at a dinner for leaders of the 1932 Community Chest drive, at the conclusion of their successful campaign…While he has given his employees highly desirable hours, Mr. Williams wants no dallying on the way to work. Employees enter the building each morning thu [sic] a side door on Broadway; promptly at 8:30 the door is shut and locked. Thereafter late comers must go around to the front door and sign their names in a book. No explanations are demanded, no punishment meted out. But too many autographs do not enhance hopes for salary raises.
Through the staggering years of the depression Mr. Williams not only has held out against any salary cuts, but has twice raised all employees (nearly 5000 now), while other business and industrial heads were lopping off. This courageous flight into the face of adversity lent added color to what has been, for some time, an international reputation.
It also weighed heavily in his favor when President Roosevelt cast an eye toward this Midwesterner with the notion of having Cincinnatians elect an NRA general. That general, to the President’s way of thinking, was to be some human dynamo with enough surplus electrical energy to take the sputtering business battery and shoot it full of high voltage.
So, the greatest Democrat of his time got as his aide one of the most ardent Republicans of this district. Political wisenheimers viewed with ill-concealed wonderment the spectacle of a G. O. P. adherent leaping in with drawn saber to banish the bogey of the opposition’s regime. Actually, of course, and obviously, the matter transcended mere political affiliation.
Mr. Williams is no shirker from publicity, which he has been known carelessly to confuse with “notoriety”…Some say he harbors political ambitions with a federal flavor. This he laughs off. Why should he have waited so long to go after something he wants to know…Like other men of means in Cincinnati, he has found pleasure in collecting art. When he is bored of chafing under the pressure of worldly problems, he frequently turns to his picture gallery as a sedative. The exhibit, at his home, 1920 Dexter-av [sic], Walnut Hills, began with an early roundup of the work of Henry Farny and Frank Duveneck—home town boys. It now includes items by such as Van Dyke, Sargent, Gainsborough, Rubens, Merritt, Twachtman, Lancret, Blum, Meekin, Wessel, and others.
Art experts, usually someone from the Cincinnati Art Museum pass on his prospective buys before a deal is closed. Through assiduous study and examination, however, he has acquired better than a lay eye for “the fine points.” His daughter, Mary Elizabeth, studied sculpture under [Clement J.] Barnhorn, but when he looks at the thing critically he honestly doesn’t know whether she has anything or not. Mr. Williams always makes it a point to stroll around the nearest art galleries when he goes abroad, which he has done seven or eight times since May 26, 1896, when he and his bride took ship on their honeymoon. For one who has been active in so many affairs and held such a number of offices, it comes as a surprise that he is not listed in Who’s Who.
His record, however, is familiar to so many who have been local newspaper readers for any length of time that it bears but the briefest sketching in:
He was born April 23, 1873…graduated from old Woodward High School in 1891; graduated from the University of Cincinnati Law Department May 26, 1897…Between the years 1901 to 1906 he was chairman of the Hamilton-co [sic] delegation in the Ohio Legislature, interesting himself in child labor laws and improved working hours for women. He was appointed special prosecuting attorney of milk and pure food violators, May 1, 1906, and became a deputy attorney general the same year.
He became a member of Shay, Cogan & Williams Aug. 14, 1907, the year in which he was made deputy attorney general for southern Ohio, a post he held until 1911. He later was special counsel to U. S. Attorney General George W. Wickersham.
Early in 1910 he became vice president and general counsel of the Western & Southern Life Insurance Co., he and his brother, W. J. Williams, the founder, acquiring control of the entire capital stock.
Succeeding his brother, who died Nov. 24, 1930, he was elected president of the Western & Southern group in 1931. Honors have fallen upon him with increased rapidity since then.
An L.L.D. degree was conferred by Xavier University in 1932; Governor George White also appointed him Ohio director of the Century of Progress Exposition last June. In August, 1932, he was named chairman of the Ohio State Tax and Mortgage Delinquency Commission by Governor White.
In October, 1932, he became a member of the Organization Committee of the National Economy League, and of the National Citizen' Committee, Welfare and Relief Mobilization.
Honors for 1933 include his honorary colonelcy in the 455th Field Artillery; membership in the National Council of the National Economy League; election as Ohio Day Manager of the Century of Progress Exposition, and election as Hamilton-co. NRA general.
Mr. Williams is a director of numerous financial institutions. The remainder of his unoccupied time goes to the Queen City Club, the Cincinnati Club, University Club, Maketewah Country Club, Fenwick Club, Chamber of Commerce, Association of life Insurance Presidents, American Life Convention, Insurance Institute of America, and a dozen other civic and commercial organizations.
”In between,” he says, wrinkling his ruddy Irish face and squinting contentedly, “I am at home.”

--Harry M. Forwood, The Cincinnati Post, February 1, 1934

Note-William’s paid for an employee cafeteria on the top floor of his 4th & Broadway temple where employees ate breakfast and lunch without charge every day, a free dinner was served for employees working overtime. The cafeteria sat atop a staircase that originated in the building’s lobby. From eyewitness employee accounts the stairs were laid with locally manufactured color and art tiles. Williams also commissioned local Rookwood artist and Art Academy teacher William E. Hentschel to create a huge canvas ‘mural’ to run the length of the stair.
Additionally, Williams’ secretarial and cafeteria staff were recruited exclusively from LaSalette Academy (Sisters of Charity of Nazareth) and Notre Dame Academy (Sisters of Notre Dame), both Catholic girl’s boarding schools, located across the Ohio River in Covington and Park Hills in Kenton County, Kentucky.

*$2,000 in 1932 equals $31,615.07 in 2010 dollars.

Image: Cincinnati Public Library Newspaper Archive, Flickr


  1. I had the extreme privilege to work at the home of his son, Charles M. Williams' estate for 4 yrs. during school. I veritably idolized Mr. Williams as husband/father/and a down to earth person in general - friendly & funny. He, Mrs. Williams and their 3 children all made an incredible family. I was blessed to have known them all.

    1. Would that have been Charlie Williams who lived on Drake Road in Indian Hill? We lived down the hill from him, and I met him a few times. We were both ham radio operators. Nice guy.

  2. Thanks for the comment. Did anything in the various Williams' materials strike a note? Perhaps artwork in the home, as Charles F. was quite the collector?
    Did you ever take photos of any sort in the original W&S 'temple' lobby?
    People around the world, interested in these topics, will find your information valuable.