Little Visits with Great Americans

by Orison Swett Marden

Lyman Gage, From Errand Boy to Secretary of the U.S. Treasury

"In my own career, I have learned that varied I experience in early youth is often of great value in after life. My schooldays ended when I was fourteen years old, and I began work as a mail agent on the Rome, Watertown and Ogdensburg Railroad. I do not mean to say that, when I stopped school, my education ceased, for it was after 1850 that my character received its greatest development. I was but poorly satisfied with my work as mail agent, although it taught me much that I didn't know before, and I kept my eyes open for something better. In a short time, the death of the president of the United States resulted in the loss of my first position. The village postmaster was removed from office, and, of course, my dismissal followed. This was discouraging, but I re-entered the village academy to pursue, for a time, my studies. There was in our town a small bank, and this institution had always possessed a fascination for my youthful mind. I used to watch the merchants going in with bags of gold and bundles of greenbacks, and coming out again with only account books in their hands. I knew that the bank had some connection with the government, and, being greatly impressed with its dignified appearance and the actions of its officers, I was seized with a desire to work within its walls. When I applied for a position, I learned that there was no likelihood of a vacancy occurring in the near future; so, when I was offered a place in a local stationery shop at a salary of a hundred dollars a year, I accepted with alacrity. The wages were small, indeed, but in this shop I was privileged to become acquainted with general literature, and spent many hours with the great authors. So the months with the stationer were not without profit.

"After a time there was a rival bank established in the town, and I was offered the position of 'messenger and general assistant,' at the same old salary of a hundred dollars a year. I didn't hesitate, but left the store to enter the bank, and so began my career in the financial world. My duties as 'general assistant' were many and varied. I was janitor, first of all, and attended to the heating of the building. I made many trips every day to the cellar for coal, and I used to think the officials most extravagant when they insisted on a fire when the days were comparatively warm. I was obliged to keep the front sidewalk clear of dirt in the summer and of snow in the winter, and had to sweep the floor of the banking room daily, and dust the desks and furniture frequently.


"As the 'messenger' of the bank, I was sent around town with notices of notes which had fallen due, and with drafts which had been sent to the bank for collection from other cities. All these duties kept me fairly busy, but I still had time to learn something of banking as a business, and of the transactions which took place behind the counters. As the business of the bank increased, the teller and the bookkeeper welcomed my assistance in their departments; and, when summer came, and there were no fires to make and no snow to shovel, I had opportunity to learn most of the details of the business. After a while I was entrusted with the work of the teller or of the bookkeeper when either was kept at home by illness, and at the end of my first year I felt that I was indeed 'cut out for a banker.'

"I had so good an opinion of my accomplishments that I demanded of my employers an increase of salary for my second year. They replied that I was receiving all they could afford to pay, and I immediately resigned. At this time, nearly every boy in Central New York had the 'Western Fever,' and, after I left the bank, I developed a very bad case. I determined to start for Chicago to make my fortune, and arrived there one day in 1855, with few dollars and no friends. I had my mind made up to be a banker, and supposed that it would be easier to find an opening in the western city than it had been in my native village. But when I made the rounds, I found that no embryo banker was needed. I could not afford to be idle, so I determined to accept the first position which should offer, whether or not it was to my liking. It does not pay for a young man starting in life in a strange city to be too particular about what he does for a living. I soon found a place as bookkeeper for a lumber company. The panic of 1857 effected even bookkeepers, however; and, when the firm found it necessary to reduce expenses, I gladly accepted appointment as night watchman.

"I had been in Chicago three years before good fortune seemed to come my way. I had visited every banking house several times in search of a position, for I was convinced that banking ought to be my career, and I was a familiar applicant to all the officials. On the third of August, 1858, a date I shall always remember, I was summoned to the office of the Merchants' Loan and Trust Company, where my name was on file as a candidate for any position, however humble.

'Can you keep a set of books ?' asked Mr. Holt, the cashier.

'I can try,' was my answer.

'That isn't what we want,' said Mr. Holt; 'can you do it?'

'I can, if it can be done in twenty-three hours out of twenty-four,' I replied, and I was thereupon engaged at an annual salary of five hundred dollars. After working for so long at uncongenial employment with low wages, this opening made me very happy. I felt that my future was assured, for I had obtained, at length, the longdesired standing-room in a Chicago bank.


"The story of my further progress can be of little interest to those who are beginning life in the financial world. My early preparation in the New York village was most useful, and, since I had also benefited from my experience with the world, my position was secure. If a young man has some preparation for his work, if he secures a proper opening, and if he behaves himself, there can be no question of his future. In two years after I entered the service of the Merchants' Loan and Trust Company, I was given the position of cashier, at an annual salary of two thousand dollars, and naturally I was encouraged to find that my efforts were appreciated. I enjoyed my work, and was more convinced than ever before that banking was the career for which I was best fitted by nature.

"Every successful man started in a different way from that adopted by any other, and there is no rule which can be laid down as certain to win in the end. Some have received the benefit of a college training, and others have been self-educated. Some began life in other business and drifted into banking, and some were employed in financial houses from the very beginning. It often happens that those who make the most earnest efforts to succeed accomplish less than others who have had less preparation for the work. The prizes of life do not always come to the most deserving. Many things must co-operate to bring great results. Innate ability, which schools cannot furnish, must find conjunction with conditions, circumstances, and opportunities which lie outside of individual control. If you find a man great, distinguished, a business Saul among his brethren, do not worship him overmuch. Perhaps among the humble and unrecognized are a score or a hundred as worthy as he, to whom circumstances were unfavorable or opportunity did not come.

"The public appreciates more and more the importance of investing money in men, not in buildings. When I hear of large gifts to erect magnificent halls at our colleges, I think what greater good would be accomplished if that money were used to help a number of deserving young men and women through their college courses. When these young people have finished their work in the world, they may each and all be able to erect fifty-thousand-dollar buildings for their alma maters. A certain generous-minded man once said to me, 'I have given money quite freely to help the distressed, to soften the bitterness of helpless age, and to alleviate the condition of the unfortunate; but there was little or no inspiration in it. When, on the other hand, I have helped a bright boy to secure for himself a good education, my imagination has become effected. I have seen my dollars—won by hard application, in sordid ways —transmitted into intellectual agencies powerful to effect the thoughts and feelings of generations which will live when I am dead.' This sentiment is becoming prevalent among the thoughtful men of America."

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