The Curious Life & Career of R.G. LeTourneau

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R.G. LeTourneau held more than 300 patents, simultaneously owned and operated manufacturing plants on four different continents, and founded LeTourneau University. Yet strangely, was himself a sixth grade dropout.

Though the title of Most Interesting Man in the World is up for debate, LeTourneau is certainly in the running.

Dropout & Journeyman

R.G. was just fourteen when he got his first job in an iron foundry. He quickly developed a reputation for being talented with machines. He studied mechanics. Sort of. He was given a syllabus and some other work from an International Correspondence School course on the subject, and he pored over it. He never paid for the credits or completed any of the assignments. But something evidently stuck because he found work across the west coast as a wood cutter, brick layer, miner, and eventually a welder at the Yerba Buena Power Plant.

When he turned twenty-one — in 1909 — LeTourneau decided to build on his self-directed scholarship and took another correspondence course about mechanics. After a few weeks of study, he designed a “final exam” for himself — disassembling and rebuilding a motorcycle he’d just purchased. When he completed this job in a single day, he declared himself a “Bachelor of Motorcycles,” a title which he jokingly used throughout his life.

Heavy Equipment Operator

LeTourneau continued to bounce from job to job, virtually all of them mechanically oriented, until he found his professional calling at Holt Manufacturing where he was hired to level forty acres using a tractor. R.G. loved the work so much that he purchased a Holt tractor of his own and founded R.G. LeTourneau, Inc, an earthmoving company, in 1929.

With the benefit of hindsight, probably none of us would have chosen that year to start a new business. But it was perfect for R.G. He never had trouble finding work. Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation opened the door for several high-profile earth moving projects that LeTourneau was able to work on including the Boulder Highway, Hoover Dam, Marysville Levees, Orange County Dam, and Newhall Cut-off.

Inventor & Manufacturer

In 1933, LeTourneau decided to stop driving big trucks and start making them. He invented and then manufactured earthmoving equipment with revolutionary features. Low-pressure tires, tournapul (sometimes called a two-wheeled tractor), and even offshore drilling platforms are credited to R.G.’s inventive mind.

His four factories manufactured seventy percent of the earthmoving equipment used by Allied forces during the second world war.

In 1965, a full fifty years after he pored over an ICS syllabus about mechanics, the institution awarded LeTourneau an honorary degree in engineering. He was seventy-six at the time, and when the decorative certificate arrived in the mail, LeTourneau joked to his assistant, “So now I’ve got a diploma. Now I’m educated.”

Educator

LeTourneau built the last of his four factories in the Texas town of Longview in 1945. A year later, he purchased an unused military hospital and the land around it. There he founded a LeTourneau Technical Institute. A person of strong and public faith, R.G.’s vision was to provide both mechanical training and traditional college education for aspiring missionaries.

The school boomed. It’s founding values of work, education, and Christian testimony had a much broader appeal than LeTourneau originally expected. It became a college in 1961 and a university in 1989.

Today the school offers a variety of degree programs, mostly focused around technical disciplines. It’s probably best known for its Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems degree program and its business classes offered at campus extensions across Texas.

If you want to hear the whole story of the self-trained earthmoving magnate, check out his autobiography, Mover of Men and Mountains.

And if you’re looking for a technical education that embodies the plucky, can-do spirit of R.G. LeTourneau, you probably won’t do much better than the YellowJackets.

Part of the Legends of College History Series

Learn more about the lesser-known heroes and legends
behind many of our most-loved educational institutions!

Campus Characters: Legends of College History

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