When you hear the name Phelps, who comes to mind? Probably Michael Phelps, the champion swimmer, who holds the world record for most Olympic medals won, 28. Everything about Phelps seems larger than life, including the 5 times he has competed in the Olympic games (spanning 20 years!). In the Rio Olympics alone, he won 6 medals, 5 of them gold.
But today I’m writing about another man named Phelps. Although nowhere near the league of Michael Phelps, he was also an Olympic gold medalist, among other things. His name is Mason Phelps. Born in Wisconsin in 1883, he lived most of his life in Lake Forest, Illinois. His parents were Elliott and Sarah Phelps. Shortly after he was born, his father suffered heavy financial losses in an economic crash that occurred in 1885. Soon after, the father died, leaving his wife and little son to make do with what was left. Sarah was a very determined woman, however. In spite of everything, she made sure that her son had a good education, sending him to attend the Harvard Boys School, and later a college prep school and Yale University on a full scholarship. Phelps started playing golf about this time, and he soon excelled at it. At Yale, Phelps started to take his game to a new level, finishing 43rd in the U.S. Open in 1904. The same year, he made the U.S. Olympic golf team, winning the gold medal with his teammates.
After Yale, Phelps started his own business, the Pheoll Manufacturing Company. As well as being a good athlete, he was also an inventor and businessman. One of his inventions was a nut-and-bolt-making machine. It was the first of many successful inventions, and it helped launch Phelps' company, which eventually started supplying heavy-duty fasteners for the auto industry. Soon, he had to build a new plant to keep up with the rapidly increasing demand for his products. The company continued to expand until the Depression hit in 1929, bringing hard times for everyone. However, Phelps' business skills helped weather the financial storm. He refused to fire any of his workers, instead reducing hours when necessary.
At 40, Phelps married a woman named Louise Lamb. They had a son, Mason, Jr., and a daughter, Marian. His children inherited their father’s sense of adventure. When Mason, Jr. grew up, he joined the Marines, while Marian became a deep-sea diver.
Phelps had a soft heart. During the Great Depression, when he was on his way to work, he was stopped by a would-be robber who pointed a gun at him, demanding money. Instead of being scared, Phelps asked the man why he was trying to rob him. The man replied that he was destitute and needed money to support his family. Phelps promptly gave him a job, and the man eventually became the manager of his company, working for him for thirty years.
Phelps was only sixty years old when he died in 1942. By that time, sales had tapered off. But his son, though only 19, was determined to save his father’s business. He began working his way up from the lowest level of the company to the top, so that he could learn every aspect of running it. His trainer was the same man who had tried to rob his father at gunpoint years earlier. With the help of his staff, Mason, Jr. was able to turn the company around.
In 1951, he bought another company that made airplane parts. Taking advantage of another trend, as his father had with cars, Mason, Jr. soon began to design extremely strong titanium parts for the space industry. When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon for the first time, parts of their spacecraft came from Mason, Jr.’s company.
As for Marian, after a long and interesting life, today, at the age of 90, she still lives in Lake Forest, in a house her father built. In 2013, she wrote a book about her memories of her father and the rest of her family, called The Collage of My Life.