Book Review: Sec. Alan Boyd’s New Autobiography

Book Review: Sec. Alan Boyd’s New Autobiography

August 24, 2016  | Jeff Davis

Book Review: A Great Honor: My Life Shaping 20th Century Transportation by Alan S. Boyd. 269 pg. Available from Amazon in both e-book and paperback and from Barnes & Noble in paperback.

In retrospect, it seems that Alan Stephenson Boyd was destined for a life in transportation. His maternal great-grandfather, John Stephenson, invented the streetcar and the street railway. His father was a highway engineer, and his stepfather was a lawyer for the local railroad.Boydbookcover

Sure enough, Boyd did grow up to have a distinguished career in transportation. He worked for a state turnpike commission. He chaired a state railroad regulatory commission and the federal aviation regulatory commission. And at various points he ran a freight railroad, a passenger railroad, and a major aerospace manufacturer.

Oh, and he also served as the very first United States Secretary of Transportation, after having shaped the bill creating the U.S. DOT and shepherded the legislation through Congress as Under Secretary of Commerce for Transportation.

Still spry at age 94, Secretary Boyd has now put his life story on paper for the first time in his new self-published autobiography A Great Honor: My Life Shaping 20th Century Transportation.

Boyd was born in the tiny hamlet of Macclenny, Florida (its population in the 1920 Census, just before Boyd was born in 1922, was only 350). Boyd’s father died when the son was just two years old, and he had an unpleasant relationship with his stepfather. This meant that he often stayed with his mother’s relatives in Massachusetts or New York and attended schools there for a year at a time – which also led him to question the strict racial segregation that existed back home in Macclenny.

After his stepfather’s death, Boyd returned to Macclenny to finish high school. Upon graduation, he took a school trip to the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, where saw and was much impressed by General Motors’ Futurama exhibit – the first real public vision of a system of superhighways criss-crossing the United States. (Earl Swift writes of the impact that the Futurama exhibit had on the public demand for highways in chapter 7 of his excellent book The Big Roads.)

In the summer between high school and college, Boyd met the new schoolteacher in the neighboring town, Flavil Townsend. According to (and fortunately for) Boyd, “At the time, she didn’t realize I was four years her junior, given my height. And I wasn’t in a hurry to tell her. To my advantage, the slim pickings of eligible men who read books in Macclenny helped me finagle time with her…” They would later be married for 64 years.

After flunking out of the University of Florida at the end of his sophomore year, Boyd worked for a construction company building a nearby Army infantry training base. This allowed him to see enough of the infantry life so that, when the Pearl Harbor attack happened, he went straight to the nearest Army Air Corps enlistment post on the morning of December 8, 1941. Boyd writes “The Army Air Corps required at least two years of college to qualify. I could honestly assert that I had attended two years of college. Passing or failing proved not as significant an issue for the army as it had been for the University of Florida.”

While waiting to report for induction, Boyd was struck by lightning, survived after being given CPR for a half-hour, and left the hospital with a resting pulse rate of 170. Boyd had to hide the incident from Army medics and hide the medicine he took to lower his heart rate in order to gain a commission in the Air Corps and learn to fly the legendary Douglas C-47 Skytrain (better known in the civilian version as the DC-3 Gooney Bird).

Boyd spends a good amount of time in the book describing his experiences as an Army aviator, including dropping paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne over Sainte-Mère-Église on D-Day, dropping British paratroopers and towing gliders for Operation Market Garden, and dropping supplies to the besieged 101st Airborne during the Battle of the Bulge.

(Just getting from the U.S. to England in a C-47 sounds terrifying – the route taken was West Palm Beach to Puerto Rico to British Guyana to Natal, Brazil to Ascension Island to Liberia to Senegal to Morocco to England.)

After the war, Mr. and Mrs. Boyd (they had married in 1943) went to Charlottesville, Virginia, where he had talked his way into the University of Virginia law school despite not possessing an undergraduate degree. Upon graduation from law school in 1948, a random coincidence put him on the path to political life.

Boyd looked for jobs at law firms in many places (and was even rejected for a job at the federal Civil Aeronautics Board), but wound up moving back to Florida to take a job with a law firm in Miami. Two years later, the name partner in the law firm, George Smathers, decided to run for U.S. Senate in the Democratic primary against two-term incumbent Claude Pepper. Boyd was naturally recruited to work on the effort in Dade County. After a legendary campaign, Smathers was victorious.

By this point, Boyd had caught the political bug, so after a temporary recall to active duty for the Korean War, he worked on a successful gubernatorial campaign in 1953. This victory led to his appointment as general counsel of the Florida State Turnpike Authority, which shortly led to an appointment to serve an unexpired term on the Florida Railroad and Public Utilities Commission.

In order to remain on the Commission, Boyd had to run for statewide re-election in 1954. He succeeded, further cementing his Democratic Party bona fides. It even gave Boyd thoughts of running for Governor of Florida himself someday. But meanwhile, George Smathers had been busy building influence in the U.S. Senate, and he used some of that influence to get Boyd appointed by President Eisenhower to a Democratic vacancy on the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), where he had been turned down for a job a decade earlier. That is how the Boyds moved to Washington D.C. in 1959.

From there, the memoir becomes, for a time, one of those remembrances of the halcyon days of Washington bipartisanship, where legislators and their spouses stayed in town for the duration of a session, socializing not only with each other but with Administration officials, journalists, diplomats and the like. Boyd tells one story where he was expected to get mercilessly berated by the CAB’s House Appropriations subcommittee chairman at a budget hearing when the full Appropriations Committee chairman, George Mahon (D-TX), made a point of walking over to Boyd before the hearing and loudly talking about how the Boyds had beaten their next-door neighbors, the Mahons, at bridge the previous weekend. (Berating: averted.)

CAB chairman Alan Boyd, rear, and FAA Administrator Najeeb Halaby, front, in what appears to be a Wright Brothers flyer replica.
CAB chairman Alan Boyd, rear, and FAA Administrator Najeeb Halaby, front, in what appears to be a Wright Brothers flyer replica.

Pivotally, Boyd got to know Vice President Lyndon Johnson extremely well, under tragic circumstances. Johnson’s private plane crashed in February 1961 on its way to pick Johnson up at his Texas ranch, killing the two pilots. As a CAB member, it was Boyd’s turn to head the accident investigation, and daily phone calls between Johnson and Boyd on the progress of the investigation became routine.

Once Boyd had tired of the CAB in spring 1965, Johnson surprised him by nominating him to be Under Secretary of Commerce for Transportation. The book gives behind-the-scenes insights into Boyd’s struggles in that role with maritime unions, the passage of the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, and overruling Henry Ford II to implement seat belt standards.

The story then moves to a backstage account of Boyd’s co-chairing the Johnson Administration task force to draft the proposal to create a Department of Transportation and the hurdles that had to be overcome to get the proposal through Congress. (Many of those original documents can be found on Eno’s Documentary History of the Creation of the U.S. Department of Transportation webpage.)

During the consideration of the DOT bill by Congress, it was obvious that Boyd himself might be a candidate to be the first Secretary of Transportation. (Boyd cites this factor and the bad blood he had generated over the maritime subsidy issue as the reason that maritime interests fought so hard – and successfully – against the inclusion of the Maritime Administration in the new Department.) In the book, Boyd shares his remembrance of this epic conversation with President Johnson about whether or not Johnson would appoint him to the new position and a few weeks later, how LBJ flew the Boyds down to the ranch in Texas to let them know that he was indeed the first choice for the job.

Boyd’s two years as SecDOT were primarily about getting the new department staffed, organized and functioning efficiently. With regards to policy, while Boyd does discuss the supersonic transport (SST) issue at length, he also discusses how the Vietnam War eventually swallowed up the rest of the Administration’s agenda as 1967 turned into 1968. Boyd recounts this exchange in a Cabinet meeting:

Once, out of frustration, the president blurted, “Tell me what to do about Vietnam! Just tell me what to do!”

Everyone—or nearly everyone—in the room knew that he really didn’t want anyone telling him anything. He just didn’t know what to do about the war. After the meeting, one cabinet member, Bill Wertz, I believe, who was secretary of labor, followed the president into the Oval Office.

“Mr. President, you’ve just got to get us out of Vietnam,” Wertz supposedly told President Johnson. To my knowledge, the president never spoke to him again.

Boyd writes that at the end of the Johnson Administration, he was recruited to run for what would become an open U.S. Senate seat from Florida in 1970, but declined and instead moved to Chicago to be president of the Illinois Central (IC) Railroad. Boyd was an early advocate of containerization, and complains in the book about both labor unions and the IC’s fellow members of the Association of American Railroads being slow to embrace the idea.

Boyd’s attempts at industry reform went nowhere, and he was fired as IC president in 1976. After taking some time off, he then served as President Carter’s representative to negotiate the “Bermuda II” U.S.-U.K. air rights agreement.

In 1978, Boyd was recruited by Transportation Secretary Brock Adams to become president of Amtrak, where his biggest battles were with the budget officials of the Reagan Administration starting in spring 1981. (He does relate a story about how the attempt to switch to a new computerized reservation system in 1981 resulted in the erasure of every single reservation in the entire system.)

Boyd also tells a fascinating and now-overlooked story about trying to work with the Japanese National Railway and then-governor Jerry Brown (D-CA) to create a 160-mph high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Diego, which fell apart because of problems with the underwriting investment bank, as well as an effort to build a high-speed rail link between Washington D.C. and Dulles Airport, which died due to resistance from local transit planners.

Boyd’s final job in transportation was as the CEO of Airbus Industrie of North America from 1982-1992. The book tells stories of fierce competition with Boeing and the five-year struggle to negotiate a multilateral treaty between the U.S. and the European Union to regulate the subsidies that each government could provide each major airframe manufacturer.

After almost 25 years of retirement, Secretary Boyd’s son Mark convinced his father to write a memoir for his family, which then evolved into this self-published autobiography. The word “write” is used loosely – although Boyd’s memory is still quite sharp (as evidenced in this three-part interview (pt1 pt2 pt3) with ETW earlier this year), his vision is now such that he cannot read, so he dictated the entire thing into a voice recorder, whereupon his son transcribed and assembled it into a narrative.

The book is a valuable contribution to the history of federal transportation policies for Boyd’s ten years of federal service from 1959-1969, particularly where aviation issues are concerned. And there was so much going on during the Great Society years that other key Johnson Administration staffers (Joe Califano, Lee White) who wrote memoirs barely touched on the creation of the Department of Transportation, so Boyd’s book contributes greatly to the historical record there as well.

Boyd’s private sector experiences at the IC, Amtrak, and Airbus also provide a good insight into the national (and, in the case of the Airbus-Boeing rivalry, global) transportation issues at play during the 1970s and 1980s.

But the book is foremost a personal memoir of a long, varied, and extremely interesting life. (This reviewer’s favorite anecdote from the book – aside from the obvious struck-by-lightning-and-being-briefly-dead part – has nothing to do with transportation but instead involves Boyd being thrown out of an Andrews Sisters concert for drunkenly singing along too loudly.) It is a compelling and well-told story.


Disclosure: the author of this review did a round of proofreading and fact-checking of an earlier draft of this book, without remuneration.

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