Plain Vanilla, but Very Good

When he was growing up in the 1930s in Jefferson City, Mo., then home to 23,000 people, his schoolmates called him Johnny. Slightly large hands and feet gave him a strong backstroke on the high school swimming team, recalls Boeing Chairman T.A. Wilson, a freestyler on the same squad. Johnny's father "Gump" ran a local hardware store. Years later, when the boy began making it big in business, a reporter for the local newspaper went out to see Gump and asked whether he was surprised by his son's success.

"No," said Gump, "I always...

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