Herb Kelleher may have been the Tom Sawyer of the sky-ways. Like Tom, Herb with a twinkle in his eye transformed the days of the mundane regional airline world into a love fest. Instead of dreading the waits on the tarmacs and the peanuts handouts, he made life in the friendly skies even friendlier. While Braniff’s Harding Lawrence had been dressing flight attendants in designer garb, Herb with an ever-present cig in hand was making hot pants hotter-than-ever and laughing at the naysayers.
Perhaps Herb had some P.T. Barnum DNA, and that’s why he was renowned for putting some fun in love at the aging Love Field. The infamous Wright Amendament ruling didn’t bother this lawyer one bit. When DFW Airport sprung into life with its offering of far-off places, Herb made it a heck of a lot fun to pop over to Houston, Midland and other nearby spots. Even his competitors admired his brass and charm. As Leeham.com put it, “He was an absolutely ruthless competitor, but his clownish approach to life like the “Malice in Dallas” overshadowed it. He could be deadly serious and totally irreverent.”
When he and smoking pal American Airlines CEO Robert Crandall were to be honored by a high muckety-muck function at the non-smoking Sheraton hotel, the smoking ban was lifted that one night with Herb and Bob laughing like fraternity brothers.
There will those who recall his days of schmoozing with the media and headline makers at Joe Miller’s; there will be others who cannot envision Herb without his trusty confidante Colleen Barrett at his side. But there will be still others who will demand that his presence in boardrooms and decision-making situations was the mark of a true genius.
Tonight, as the Southwest Airlines family mourns the death of their Executive Chairman (March 1978 to May 2008) and president/CEO (September 1981 through June 2001), they salute his many accomplishments:
“Fortune magazine, which consistently recognizes Southwest among the world¹s top 10 most admired companies, called Kelleher perhaps the Best CEO in America.
“Kelleher himself received numerous awards and honors, including the U. S. Chamber Business Leadership Hall of Fame; CEO of the Year and one of history’s top three CEOs, Chief Executive magazine; CEO of the Century, Texas Monthly magazine; National Sales and Marketing Hall of Fame; CEO of the Decade-Airline Industry; Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy; Bower Award for Business Leadership, Franklin Institute; Tony Jannus Award; Wings Club Distinguished Achievement Award; San Diego Aerospace Hall of Fame; L. Welch Pogue Award for Lifetime Achievement in Aviation, Aviation Week; Airline Business Award, Airline Business magazine; History Making Texan Award; the Business Halls of Fame of the State of Texas, the University of Texas, Texas A&M, and the City of Dallas; the Herbert D. Kelleher Servant Leader Scholarship, named in Herb¹s honor by the Austin Business Travel Association; induction into the Texas Labor Management Hall of Fame; Transportation Research Forum President¹s Award; induction into the National Aviation Hall of Fame; induction into the Paul E. Garber First Flight Shrine, Wright Brothers National Memorial; recipient of the Department of Homeland Security Distinguished Public Service Medal; an honorary lifetime member of the Transport Workers Union; recipient of full page USA Today “Thank You Herb!” ad from Southwest’s Pilots union; inducted into the AAF Tenth District Southwest Advertising Hall of Fame; the Joseph T. Nall Safety Award, NTSB Bar Association; the Murphy Award for Lifetime Achievement, University of North Texas; Ronald McDonald House Charities Award of Excellence; inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame, and inducted into the American Advertising Federation Hall of Fame and the Entrepreneurs For North Texas’ Ring of Entrepreneurs.
“Herb was a Freedom Fighter. He revolutionized the skies. He blazed a trail of low fares and exemplary Customer Service in an industry ruled by just the opposite. Herb was a Pioneer. A Maverick. An Innovator. He celebrated and exemplified the esprit de corps of the Southwest People with such vigor that the spirit has grown exponentially. Herb knew all along that ‘The business of business is People’—yesterday, today, and forever. Herb decided long ago that our internal Customers, our Employees, would come first.”
The pity is for those who never experienced Herb, who took love to the skies way beyond its home base of Love Field. He wouldn’t want them to shed a tear, though. Rather he would tell them a joke and then turn back to negotiating with an archangel about wearing hot pants … and, hey, what about having a hub in heaven for Southwest?
Thanks for the love, Herbie.
* Graphic courtesy of Southwest Airlines