One hundred years ago today, Donald Trump’s grandfather Frederick died suddenly at the age of 49 — an early victim of what would later be known as the Spanish Flu. The morning before his death he woke up ready to continue his building of the American dream of happiness, family, and financial success. As Gwenda Blair, biographer of the Trumps, records the events, Frederick took 12-year-old Fred — his oldest son and the boy who would become the father of our current president — with him on a walk around Queens, checking in on properties he owned and partnerships he had formed.

Fred, young as he was, knew that he wanted to do the same kind of real estate and from-scratch business development that his dad had been doing since coming to America. Frederick and Elizabeth had settled permanently in New York in 1905, arriving from Germany just prior to Fred’s birth. They had big dreams for their future lives in the land of the free, where prosperity was neither guaranteed as a birthright nor restricted by government regulation.

And then, in less than a day, Frederick fell ill and died, leaving behind a young widow (she was 38) and three children. He bequeathed to them stocks, savings, and real estate, but would it be enough for them to survive or thrive?

What happened next is that young Fred Trump stood tall and lived out the Protestant work ethic of his German-Lutheran heritage. Though not legally old enough to even sign contracts and mortgages, he joined together with his strong and steely mother and formed E. Trump & Son — the original seed of what later became The Trump Organization.

Fred continued his education and graduated from high school, but he also took night classes to learn the technical skills related to building and construction. He labored hard, often like a work animal — literally — as stories are told of how he hauled lumber up muddy roads when the workhorses were unable to make the climb. And he taught himself how to build—first just simple garages, and later, the construction of houses and apartment buildings.

By the time he married Mary Anne MacLeod and started a family in the 1930s, Fred was already a successful real estate developer. He financed his younger brother John’s education all the way through a Ph.D. from MIT. John would go on to become one of the greatest inventors and physicists of the twentieth century and was given honors by King George VI, Harry Truman, and Ronald Reagan.

When Donald Trump was born in 1946, Fred was considered one of the greatest residential property developers in New York. When he died in 1999, his New York Times obituary called him the “Postwar Master Builder of Housing for Middle Class” for having built and managed over 20,000 residences throughout the city.

But here’s the remarkable thing. Fred would have been an ambitious, hardworking man even without the personal tragedy of losing his father. But would he have started so early? Would he have been as driven and efficient in learning new skills if his dad had still been alive to provide for the family? And two decades later, would he have found himself in the same social circles that led him to meet and wed Mary Anne?

I don’t think so. I believe it was the tragic death of Frederick that occurred one hundred years ago today that thrust Fred Trump down a different path than he otherwise would have known. And it was the economic freedom available in our great nation that offered him the chance to make something of himself. Eventually, when the current polarized politics cools down, historians will “discover” and write about these two great Americans.

I have a very similar family story, although the colorful background details differ. My family has lived in Virginia since the 1600s, and in 1834 they purchased a large farm on the northeastern slopes of what is now Liberty University.

Most of my famous father’s childhood experiences were full of joy and adventure. But 70 years ago this fall, my grandfather Carey died at the relatively young age of 55 when my dad was just 15 years old. And though my dad was not left impoverished (my grandfather had been a successful entrepreneur: bus lines, gas stations, hotels, and an upscale nightclub), when you lose a parent in adolescence, your carefree life comes to a crashing halt.

But 17 years before his own death, my grandfather experienced tragic sorrow twice in the same year. First, his 10-year-old daughter died when her appendix burst. It probably didn’t have to end that way, but the doctor had misdiagnosed her illness until it was too late.

Then, six months later, my grandfather Carey shot and killed in self-defense his younger brother who came at him in a drunken rage over a misunderstanding. Grandfather never got over the events of that night, and as a result, he turned heavily to the alcohol that led to his early death.

As he was dying, 70 years ago this summer, a friend of my grandfather visited him and told him once again the Gospel of Jesus Christ. After a lifetime of unbelief and running from religion, he found a loving God in the end and called on Christ in faith and repentance.

But here’s the remarkable thing from my family’s story. In response to the sorrow of losing their daughter, my grandfather Carey and my grandmother Virginia decided to bring another child into the world — though they were now almost 40. She miscarried, bringing more sorrow. But then she conceived twins and brought my dad and uncle into the world.

So in a very real and literal sense, my father would not have been born had his parents not experienced deep pain. And, of course, that means that I would not have been born, nor would the institution that I now lead have come into existence.

As I reminded our twenty thousand graduates at Liberty University’s recent Commencement service, the Bible tells us: “Weeping may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”

Donald Trump and I share this in common: Our fathers and grandfathers were amazing entrepreneurs who created buildings, businesses, and institutions (and their wives were women of noble character and strength). And both of our fathers learned firsthand two important lessons about life. First, it’s in the personal trials and tragedies of one’s life where character, virtue, and fortitude are most formed. Second, a nation with political and economic freedom offers the greatest opportunity for prosperity.

Because these principles are true in every generation, it is up to each one of us to apply them in our own life and community. As Jesus said, “To whom much has been given, much will be expected.”


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