How the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic Changed the Life of R.G. LeTourneau and History

March 15th, 2020

Thirteen years after surviving the Great San Francisco Earthquake R. G. LeTourneau barely survived the Spanish Flu Pandemic which killed 20-50 million. Read the story below and follow LeTourneau from calamity to calamity that led him to determine to do business for God's glory and declare God his business Partner. The following is an excerpt from the new LeTourneau biography, Working For God.

In August 1917, five months after the U.S. entered World War I, Bob and Evelyn married. The newlyweds agreed that Bob should serve in the country’s war effort, but lingering effects from his broken neck disqualified him from military service. Undeterred, Bob arranged with his business partner to run the garage while he offered his services as a mechanic and welder at Mare Island Navy Yard, north of San Francisco. On weekends, Bob commuted back to the farmhouse Evelyn had secured for them near Stockton. In spring 1918, they learned she was expecting their first child.
In September 1918, the Spanish Influenza Pandemic hit Mare Island, and Bob fell victim. The deadly flu infected an estimated 500 million people worldwide, killing between 20 to 50 million. Bob was burning up with fever when he collapsed on a cot at the Mare Island hospital and heard a doctor say, “Come quick, this fellow’s about gone.”  A hospital worker gave Bob an injection, and his fever broke. The following week he was back on the job. It is likely that Bob was one of 40 deathly ill men who received injections formulated by Dr. John Neilson, the Navy surgeon credited with conquering the flu epidemic at Mare Island.

Bob was still at Mare Island on October 30, 1918, when Evelyn gave birth to their first son. Less than two weeks later, the Allies and Germany signed an armistice agreement, marking the end of World War I. Bob returned home the following week—overjoyed to see Evelyn and meet their 3-week-old son, whom they named Caleb after Bob’s father.

Bob’s first week back at home was a time of celebration over their new son and the war’s end. But his first day back at Superior Garage, Bob’s joy turned to despair. He learned that during his time working at Mare Island, his business partner had spent scads of money, wining and dining potential customers (and himself), and had driven the garage and auto business to the brink of bankruptcy.
His partner had not bothered to keep track of expenses or any revenue that had come in, so the financial records were in chaos. It took Bob weeks to find all the bills and assess the damage. He wrote,

Every day brought more discouragement, and by the end of January, after the longest hours and hardest work I had ever done in my life, I thought I was about as low as a man can get.
Although Bob thought things couldn’t get any worse, he returned home late one night and found Evelyn pacing the floor, waiting for the doctor to arrive. The flu epidemic was ravaging Stockton, and 3-month-old Caleb became infected. He died February 11, 1919.Brokenhearted and numb with grief, Bob cried out to God for the courage to keep going.

Bob was able to dissolve the garage partnership by assuming $5,000 of the company’s debt to creditors. To begin paying down the debt, he took a job repairing a man’s rundown Holt tractor.  In a week’s time, Bob had the tractor humming. But something else important happened that week: Bob recognized that a clunky old machine had captured his imagination, and the task of getting it to run smoothly gave him a sense of joy and satisfaction.

Though the tractor seemed good as new, the owner was suspicious and proposed a deal. He wanted Bob to use the tractor and a scraper to level a 40-acre section of his property. If the tractor was still running after a week, he would pay the repair bill, plus $1 dollar for every hour Bob worked. Bob accepted the offer and fulfilled his part of the agreement. The owner paid up and then asked Bob to overhaul all kinds of equipment—which was like letting a kid loose in a candy store. As he worked on the machines, Bob’s mind whirred about how to improve them.

But at the end of each day, reality set in. He was receiving minimal pay for his work, and he had barely dented his looming debt. Plus, Evelyn was pregnant with their second child. Worries about money and concern for how he would support his family consumed the mind of 31-year-old Bob.

When his sister Sarah, a missionary to China, visited Stockton she pointed out to Bob that his mind was on everything except serving Christ. Sarah’s words stung but rang true and prompted him to attend church revival meetings every night for a week.

One night, Bob knelt at the altar and committed his life wholly to Christ. He experienced a fresh sense of God’s presence, but he also felt uneasy and uncertain about what it meant to go all out for God.  

The commonly held assumption that serving God with one’s whole heart meant becoming a preacher, an evangelist or a missionary produced no small amount of angst in a man who loved machines and dreamed of developing better ways to move dirt.

Bob felt confused and conflicted over what God wanted him to do, so he asked his pastor for advice.

I know a layman can’t serve God like a preacher can. But tell me, does He want me to be a missionary?
After they prayed together, the pastor told Bob that God needs businessmen, as well as preachers and missionaries. Surprised by his words, Bob responded,

All right, if that is what God wants me to be, I’ll try to be His businessman

For more information about the new R. G. LeTourneau biography click here.