There Are Two Lasting Bequests We Can Give Our Children: Roots and Wings

Henry Ward Beecher? Jonas Salk? Hodding Carter? Wise Woman? Ronald Reagan? Jean W. Rindlaub? Anonymous?

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Dear Quote Investigator: The goals of child rearing have sometimes been explicated using two vivid metaphors: roots and wings. This contrasting figurative language presents a powerful though oddly incongruous combination:

Parents should provide their children with roots and wings.

There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots, the other wings.

Good parents give their children roots and wings: roots to know where home is, and wings to fly off and practice what has been taught them.

Expressions of this type have been linked to the clergyman Henry Ward Beecher, the scientist Jonas Salk, and the journalist Hodding Carter. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence of a strong match located by QI was published in 1953 in the book “Where Main Street Meets the River” by Hodding Carter who was a prominent newspaper editor. The expression was credited to an anonymous “wise woman”. Bold face has been added to excerpts: 1

A wise woman once said to me that there are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these she said is roots, the other, wings. And they can only be grown, these roots and these wings, in the home. We want our sons’ roots to go deep into the soil beneath them and into the past, not in arrogance but in confidence.

QI has found no substantive evidence that the well-known nineteenth-century minister Henry Ward Beecher used this expression. There is some evidence that the famous research scientist Jonas Salk employed a version of the saying, but citations occurred many years after Carter’s instance was already in circulation.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1920 a book reviewer in “The Smith Alumnae Quarterly” titled an article “Roots and Wings” and used the two terms metaphorically while discussing the development of the young main character in a novel. The following passage does not really fit into the set of expressions under investigation, but it can be considered a thematic precursor: 2

Isabel, Mrs. Lee’s heroine, had wings, too, and felt them unfolding; when she became aware of her roots and discovered that the soil was not the kind best for her development, she transplanted herself without betraying any cramping regard for parental disapproval.

In 1953 the editor Hodding Carter employed the expression and attributed the words to an unidentified woman as noted previously:

A wise woman once said to me that there are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these she said is roots, the other, wings.

In May 1953 the saying was further disseminated in the mass-circulation periodical “The Reader’s Digest”. The passage from Carter was slightly simplified by the deletion of “she said” and quotation marks were added: 3

A wise woman once said to me: “There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots; the other, wings.” Hodding Carter, Where Main Street Meets the River (Rinehart)

In December 1953 a newspaper in San Marino, California discussed an essay contest sponsored by an area bank and the prize-winning work written by a student. The essay included an instance of the saying ascribed to a “wise woman”: 4

The youth of our country has the opportunity to go forward in many fields, which will be a trying challenge. A wise woman once said, “There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots, the other wings.”

In 1958 a newspaper in Janesville, Wisconsin reported on a welcoming speech delivered by a pastor to a group of new teachers which included the distinctive phrase “roots and wings”: 5

In the schools, teachers provided children with “roots and wings,” the Rev. Mr. Strosahl said, roots representing the American heritage. Teachers help those roots grow strong, he said, but through wisdom and independence, “children take wings … and develop into wondrous people.”

In 1959 the “Altoona Mirror” newspaper of Pennsylvania published a regular feature with the title “Mirrorgrams” that presented miscellaneous adages. A concise instance of the statement without attribution was printed in one column: 6

Two lasting bequests possible for parents to give their children are roots and wings.

Also in 1959 a book titled “Marriage and Family life: A Jewish View” included a streamlined version of the saying with an acknowledgement to Carter: 7

What is the finest and most lasting bequest that we can leave to our children? Hodding Carter in his book, When Main Street Meets the River, quotes a very wise woman who once said to him, “There are only two lasting bequests that we can hope to give our children—roots and wings.”
And they can be grown—these roots and wings—only in the home.

In 1962 the “Lifetime Speaker’s Encyclopedia” by Jacob M. Braude included the adage without ascription: 8

There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots; the other, wings

In 1963 a religious periodical called “The Lighted Pathway” elaborated on the meaning of the saying: 9

Jean Wade Rindlaub, speaker at an American Mothers’ Committee Meeting had this to say: “There are only two bequests we can leave our children. Roots and wings. Roots in such things as the true deep faith which has stood our ancestors in such good stead through the generations. Roots which will guide our children in choosing between the true and the false, the just and the unjust. And wings that will teach a child how to soar into wider and still wider worlds of understanding.”

On September 9, 1982 President Ronald Reagan released a message for Grandparents Day that included an instance of the expression credited to Henry Ward Beecher: 10

Henry Ward Beecher once wrote, “There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots…the other, wings.”

In 1993 the blockbuster inspirational collection “Chicken Soup for the Soul” was published, and it included an essay by the educator and author Bettie B. Youngs. She stated that she heard a version of the saying from Jonas Salk, the scientist famous for pioneering the development of the polio vaccine: 11 12

“Good parents,” Jonas Salk once told me, “give their children roots and wings. Roots to know where home is, wings to fly away and exercise what’s been taught them.”

Also in 1993 a memoir by the Texas politician John Connally was published, and it included an instance of the saying attributed to Beecher: 13

I am partial to a quotation from Henry Ward Beecher: “There are only two lasting bequests we can give our children. One of these is roots . . . the other, wings.” My parents had truly given me the former; now they were making the most difficult gift a mother or father can provide, the gift of wings.

In 1999 “Ancestry” magazine printed an “Editor’s Note” with a shortened instance of the statement ascribed to Carter: 14

“Two of the greatest gifts we can give our children are roots and wings,” wrote newspaper editor and reporter, Hodding Carter.

In conclusion, this item of sagacity was popularized by Hodding Carter in 1953; yet, Carter did not take credit for its original promulgation. He ascribed the words to an unnamed wise woman. In the 1990s Bettie B. Youngs attributed an instance to Jonas Salk who died in 1995. If Salk spoke a version of the saying then QI suspects he was relaying an expression that he had heard in the past.

Image Notes: Tree roots image from cocoparisienne at Pixabay. Seagull flying image from LiZardboy at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to William Rapaport whose query led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Rapaport helpfully noted that the saying had been attributed to Beecher, Salk, and Carter.)

Update History: On March 1, 2015 the 1993 John Connally citation was added.

Notes:

  1. 1953, Where Main Street Meets the River by Hodding Carter, Chapter 27: It’s How We like It, Quote Page 337, Published by Rinehart & Company, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1920 February, The Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Volume 11, Number 2, Let Us Talk of Many Things: Roots and Wings, Start Page 129, Quote Page 129, Published by the Alumnae Association of Smith College, Concord, New Hampshire. (HathiTrust Full View) link link
  3. 1953 May, Reader’s Digest, Volume 62, (Freestanding quotation), Quote Page 52, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on paper)
  4. 1953 December 31, San Marino Tribune, A Teenager Looks At The Future: Winning Essay, (Essay by Mary Gorrell), Quote Page 5, Column 4 and 5, San Marino, California. (NewspaperArchive)
  5. 1958 September 23, Janesville Daily Gazette, Welcome New Fort Teachers, Quote Page 8, Column 7, Janesville, Wisconsin. (NewspaperArchive)
  6. 1959 July 28, Altoona Mirror, Mirrorgrams, Quote Page 8, Column 2, Altoona, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive)
  7. 1959, Marriage and Family life: A Jewish View, Edited by Abraham B. Shoulson, Chapter: Ten Commandments for Parents by Julius Mark, Quote Page 299, Twayne Publishers, New York. (Verified with scans)
  8. 1962, Lifetime Speaker’s Encyclopedia by Jacob M. Braude, Volume 1, Section: Child Care, Quote Page 107, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  9. 1963 May, The Lighted Pathway, Volume 34, Number 5, The Crowning Joy by Mrs. F. W. Goff, Quote Page 6, Column 2, Published by the Church of God Publishing House, Cleveland, Tennessee. (Verified with scans; Internet Archive)
  10. 1982, Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, Ronald Reagan Administration, Week Ending September 13, 1982, Pages 1089 to 1111, Volume 18, Number 36, Message of the President: Grandparents Day, September 9, 1982, Quote Page 1106, Column 2, Published by Office of the Federal Register, National Archives and Records Administration, General Services Administration, Washington, D.C. (HanthiTrust Full View) link link
  11. 1993, Chicken Soup for the Soul: 101 Stories to Open the Heart & Rekindle the Spirit, Compiled by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, Essay: Why I Chose My Father To Be My Dad by Bettie B. Youngs, Start Page 87, Quote Page 94, Published by Health Communications, Inc., Deerfield Beach, Florida. (Verified on paper)
  12. 2012 (First published in 1993), Chicken Soup for the Soul: Stories to Open the Heart and Rekindle the Spirit, Compiled by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, Essay: Why I Chose My Father To Be My Dad by Bettie B. Youngs, Unnumbered Page, Open Road Integrated Media, New York. (Google Books Preview)
  13. 1993, In History’s Shadow: An American Odyssey by John Connally with Mickey Herskowitz, Quote Page 40, Published by Hyperion, New York. (Verified on paper)
  14. 1999 November-December, Ancestry, Volume 17, Number 5, Editor’s Note by Loretto Dennis Szucs, Quote Page 7, Published by Ancestry.com Orem, Utah. (Google Books Full View)