One day last week, General Electric's big, genial President Charles E. Wilson returned to his office to find 50 red roses in a basket beside his desk. "My favorite flower," he murmured, thumbing through them for a card. When he found one, from a Chicago bank, he was obviously touched. "Why," said Wilson, "they aren't even customers of ours."

The roses and dozens of other bouquets around the room were a tribute to Wilson's first half-century in what G.E. calls its "family." Fifty years ago, at the age of twelve, young Charlie Wilson had come out of the slums of...

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