John Edwardson on Hard Work, Giving Back and ‘The Right Thing to Do’

In December 2020, John A. Edwardson, former CEO of United Airlines and CDW, delivered a commencement speech at his alma mater, Purdue University. Susan B. Noyes, Better’s founder, was so struck by Edwardson’s speech that she recently hosted a fireside chat with him to learn more about his journey as a businessman, father, and philanthropist.

In this fireside, Edwardson chronicled his lifelong passion for giving back and shared his philanthropic initiatives, work that landed him a spot on Better’s list of 2021 Top Chicago-area Philanthropists. 

We are doing this because I saw the commencement speech that you gave to Purdue University. I think it was the best commencement speech I’ve seen. Could you talk about your family and your path through life?

I grew up in Southern Illinois and as I look back, I needed to finish the degree that my dad never did. He dropped out of Purdue and always regretted that. I can remember one report card where I had one B+ and he sat me down and said, “Johnny, how much harder would you have had to have worked to make that  B+ an A?”

My mother was entirely different. She was always positive. So the juxtaposition of the two had a lot to do with my success.

Can you summarize the lessons you learned from both?

From my dad it was hard work. In terms of philanthropy, I learned more from my grandparents. When I was 8 or 9 years old, my mother’s father had a small grocery store. One day, a woman came in and put two quarters on the counter, but didn’t buy any groceries. So I asked him, “Why is she giving you money if she didn’t take any groceries?”

He said to me, “During the depression and the war she was one of the families that we gave credit to. They had no money, so we carried her receivables and even if she pays 50 cents a week for the rest of her life, she’ll never pay it off. But it’s important to her that she continues to come in and give me 50 cents a week.” That was one of the first lessons I learned about charity.

Can you talk about how you’ve fostered those lessons in employees as you were growing in your career?

For many years at United Airlines, we would volunteer at the Greater Chicago Food Depository. After Katrina hit New Orleans, we had 330 people rebuild homes and small businesses. People who did that were proud to work for our company and it just felt like the right thing to do.

After you retired, you took on more philanthropic opportunities, which is why you’re on ‘The Most Powerful Philanthropists’ list for Better. We are asking people who earned that opportunity how they responded to COVID and to social justice issues. Can you talk about those things?

During COVID, I called the CEO of Habitat for Humanity and I asked “What are you doing to get your share of money from the federal government?” He said that they didn’t really know how to make people aware. So I underwrote a campaign for them to spread the word to Habitat chapters across the nation about how we could help homeowners find that money.

Any other advice that you would like to share?

Do what you love. Most of the days that I went to work over the 48 years, it never seemed like work to me. I traveled hard and I put a lot of hours in, but I enjoyed what I did. 

Watch the full Fireside Chat below:

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Melissa Perry is a senior journalism and international studies major from Northwestern University. Raised in Mt. Sterling, Illinois, Melissa is a proud Midwest girl through and through with a lifelong love for dance and the arts!

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