John Saunders was born in 1927 in Washington, D.C. He was one of five children. His father was a reporter and was said to have the largest working vocabulary of any newspaperman in the area; he also had a weak heart and possibly a drinking problem. He died when John was not yet five years old.
Husbandless and with five children to raise, John’s mother found work as a secretary at the U.S. Mint. It was the Great Depression; had the family lived anywhere but Washington, D.C., where the federal government was hiring, circumstances might have been quite dire. To earn extra money, John’s mother taught ballet to neighborhood children. John developed an abiding love of classical music cranking the Victrola as a little boy for the class.
John was not a straight-A student. In fact, he was the polar opposite: in a high-school class of 330 students, John is proud to claim he graduated 332—two kids with better GPAs flunked out senior spring. But John was ambitious in his own way. When he was ten, he and his best friend Jack (who in the 1980s achieved a net worth of over $25 million but died broke when interest rates went the wrong way) started a venture buying broken-down model-T Fords for a few dollars, loaning the wrecks to the local high school’s shop class for the students to fix up for free, and then selling the now-working automobiles at a tidy profit. John and Jack also started a fireworks stand (Fight for Your Right to Light Dynamite, was their slogan). They would hitchhike south, load up on fireworks from a wholesaler, and then hitchhike back north to sell their inventory at a markup. John’s first official job was as a paperboy for the “Washington Star.” He sold more subscriptions than any other boy in D.C., Virginia, or Maryland. The grateful “Star” sent him on a weekend trip to New York City and put his picture in the paper.
During the Second World War, when the adult male working force was otherwise occupied, a shortage of labor hit the markets at home. Though barely a teenager, John joined the U.S. Postal Service. He was taught how to drive a truck and given a route for after school. Occasionally his classmates would ride in the back of the truck, bouncing on the beds of canvas bags full of letters.
John’s “American Dream” wasn’t something he had consciously fixed in his head. But it was there, just as the pull of the magnetic north can unseen draw a compass needle. John was a salesman; John was a deep believer in markets and in personal tenacity; John was an optimist. Where others saw problems, John saw opportunities for creative solutions. “Find a need and fill it,” became the motto he lived his life by.
It was also a unique time in American history, when the economy and the country seemed poised for breakout success. The landscape wasn’t yet dominated by national chains and homogeneity. An individual, through ambition, skill, and luck, could launch a business and succeed on a grand scale. We hadn’t yet recognized the naivety of our optimism. Despite the impossibility of success, we succeeded.
John was drafted into the military after the end of the Second World War. He served out his time uneventfully in Panama, then attended the University of Miami on the G.I. Bill.
College (he was a mediocre student) helped formalize the many instincts for sales that his life had forged in him to date. After graduating, he returned to Washington, D.C., and became a salesman. No surprise he was a great success. He lived a comically clichéd bachelor lifestyle. The first time the woman who would become his wife visited his apartment, she described “stalactites of spent cigarettes, standing on end, balanced on their butts with the ash straight up. There were no ashtrays in his entire apartment.”
Jacqueline Meyer met John when she was 28 and he 36. They married a year later. Jacqueline’s background could not have differed more from her husband’s: she was the daughter of wealthy, strict executive (one Christmas, she received coal in her stocking because she had misbehaved earlier in the week). She grew up in Greenwich, CT, where she had a chauffeur, a maid, a mansion. She graduated from an exclusive prep school. She came to D.C. for graduate school and earned a Master’s in Fine Arts with highest honors from Catholic University. She spoke French and knew Latin and said the Rosary every day. Her mother had gone to Barnard, her father had gone to Cornell.
When Jacqueline met John, he bragged that he could work “two or three days” at the beginning of every month, sell a few houses and earn commissions that would fund his (frugal) lifestyle through the end of the month. Jacqueline changed all that. The first of their six children was born in 1965. As the number of dependents grew, so did the need for income. John started his own real estate concern, White House Realty. To save money, he bought his office furniture secondhand. He quite literally never spent a dollar he didn’t have to. Jacqueline designed the company’s sign and logo.
Within a few years, John had taken on dozens of residential real estate agents under the White House banner. He took his wife’s small dowry and invested it in stocks that his old friend Jack researched; realizing it was too risky, after a few years John exited the stock market and bought his first real estate investment property. He paid the entire value up front. He bought a number of rental properties over the next few years and today owns close to thirty. He has never had a mortgage—perhaps it’s an outdated, Great Depression-era attitude to see debt as a thing to be avoided. He supported his mother in her final years and became something of a pillar in his suburban Virginia community. But there is nothing showy in his success. He has a singular ease with people, irreverence, and self-effacing sense of humor.
The family lived frugally, and John’s children didn’t know they were well-off. They drove an outdated station wagon, they had two telephones in a house for eight people. Before the older kids started graduating from high school and heading off to college, the three younger kids shared a single bedroom. Only at Halloween did John display any significant disposable wealth: He would buy hundreds of dollars of candy to distribute to trick-or-treaters who couldn’t quite believe their luck. More than once on a Halloween night, a neighborhood kid, passing a Saunders kid unrecognizable in costume, would share this advice: “You gotta go to the Saunders house—Mr. Saunders is giving out entire bags of candy!” It was John’s one nod to his success. Growing up, he and his family had been too poor for a luxury like candy, and it gave him immense pleasure to share with the local kids.
John retired in 1980. His kids grew up and had families of their own. Today John is 85 and in excellent health. Jacqueline is an award-winning artist whose watercolors and pen-and-inks are exhibited in a number of galleries. She paints every day in a studio in Alexandria. Often her subjects are flowers and figures. Sometimes she paints her husband. Over the years, John’s face as rendered by Jacqueline’s brush has changed: his hair has grown sparser and his skin has started to sag and fold. But a certain quality in his eyes remains constant. It is the optimistic, cheerful gleam of a man who has led a full life, a man who had the opportunity to achieve the American Dream and succeeded.