Careers: 18 people Americans Most Widely Admired in 20th Century

January 19, 2015 by Margaret Townsend

They are your heroes – they had amazing and fulfilling careers. Find out what they really did and some of their best quotes

Martin Luther King championed Civil Rights for all races and fought for it but not through physical battle, through non-violent means.  He is one of Americans’ most widely admired people from the 20th century.

What other attributes bring about admiration from American people?  Check out Gallup’s List of people that Americans Most Widely Admire from the 20th century.

Find out What They Did and What They Said – in order to fully understand what makes us, and them, tick.  You’ll be surprised to realize you didn’t really know them at all!

18 people that Americans Most Widely Admired in the 20th Century: 

  1. Mother Teresa

What She Did: A Roman Catholic religious sister and missionary in India, who has been widely admired by many for her charitable works and was the recipient of numerous honors including the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize.

Mother Teresa

 What She Said: “I want you to be concerned about your next door neighbor.  Do you know your next door neighbor?” 

  1. Martin Luther King, Jnr.

 What He Did: An American pastor, activist, humanitarian, and leader in the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King is best known for his role in the advancement of civil rights using nonviolent civil disobedience based on his Christian beliefs.

 King was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was established as a holiday in numerous cities and states beginning in 1971, and as a U.S. federal holiday in 1986.

Martin Luther King Jnr

 What He Said: “Freedom is one thing. You have it all or you are not free.” 

On how he wanted to be remembered after his death:  “I just want to leave a committed life behind.” 

  1. John F. Kennedy

 What He Did: Commonly known as Jack Kennedy or by his initials JFK, he was an American politician who served as the 35th President of the United States from January 1961 until his assassination in November 1963.  All four of his grandparents were the children of immigrants from Ireland. 

He asked the nations of the world to join together to fight what he called the “common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself”.


What He Said: “World peace, like community peace, does not require that each man love his neighbor—it requires only that they live together in mutual tolerance.” Not much to ask! 

  1. Albert Einstein

 What He Did: A German-born theoretical physicist and philosopher of science, Einstein developed the general theory of relativity, one of the two pillars of modern physics.  He is best known in popular culture for his mass–energy equivalence formula E = mc2.

He received the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics “for his services to theoretical physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect.  The latter was pivotal in establishing quantum theory.

He was visiting the United States when Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933 and, being Jewish, did not go back to Germany, where he had been a professor at the Berlin Academy of Sciences. He settled in the U.S., becoming an American citizen in 1940.

 Einstein published more than 300 scientific papers along with over 150 non-scientific works.  On 5 December 2014, universities and archives announced the release of Einstein’s papers, comprising more than 30,000 unique documents.  His intellectual achievements and originality have made the word “Einstein” synonymous with genius so that in a sense he may be regarded as the greatest genius who ever lived.

 He considered racism America’s “worst disease,” seeing it as “handed down from one generation to the next.”

Albert Einstein

 What He Said: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used to create them.” 

  1. Helen Keller

 What She Did: An American author, political activist, and lecturer, Helen Keller was the first deafblind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree.

 A prolific author, Keller was well-traveled and outspoken in her convictions. A member of the Socialist Party of America and the Industrial Workers of the World, she campaigned for women’s suffrage, labor rights, socialism, and other similar causes. She was inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame in 1971.

Helen Keller

 What She Said: “Never bend your head, always hold it high.  Look the world straight in the eye.” 

  1. Franklin D. Roosevelt

What He Did: Franklin Roosevelt was an American statesman and political leader who served as the 32nd President of the United States.  He was a central figure in world events during the mid-20th century, leading the United States during a time of worldwide economic depression and total war.

 Roosevelt was stricken with polio in 1921, which cost him the use of his legs and put his political career on hold for several years at that time.  However he won a record four elections and served from March 1933 to his death in April 1945.

Roosevelt dominated the American political scene during the twelve years of his presidency, and his policies and ideas continued to have significant influence for decades afterward. He orchestrated the realignment of voters that created the Fifth Party System. Roosevelt’s New Deal Coalition united labor unions, big city machines, white ethnics, African Americans, and rural white Southerners. His work also influenced the later creation of the United Nations and Bretton Woods.

Franklin Roosevelt

 What He Said: “Happiness lies in the joy of achievement and the thrill of creative effort.” 

  1. Billy Graham

What He Did: An American evangelical Christian evangelist, ordained as a Southern Baptist minister, Graham rose to celebrity status in 1949 reaching a core constituency of middle-class, moderately conservative Protestants. He held large indoor and outdoor rallies; sermons were broadcast on radio and television, some still being re-broadcast today.

 Graham was a spiritual adviser to several Presidents; he was particularly close to Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. He insisted on integration for his revivals and crusades in 1953 and invited Martin Luther King, Jr. to preach jointly at a revival in New York City in 1957. Graham bailed King out of jail in the 1960s when King was arrested in demonstrations.

On September 22, 1991 Graham held his largest event in North America on the Great Lawn of New York’s Central Park. City officials estimated more than 250,000 in attendance. In 1998, Graham spoke at TED (conference) to a crowd of scientists and philosophers.

 On September 14, 2001, in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, Graham was invited to lead a service at Washington National Cathedral, which was attended by President George W. Bush and past and present leaders.

Billy Graham

 What He Said: “Once you’ve lost your privacy, you realize you’ve lost an extremely valuable thing.” 

  1. Pope John Paul II

What He Did: Pope John Paul II was Pope of the Catholic Church from 16 October 1978 until his death on 2 April 2005. In Catholicism, since his canonization, he is referred to as Pope Saint John Paul II or Saint John Paul the Great.  He was the second longest-serving pope in modern history after Pope Pius IX.

 John Paul II is recognized as helping to end Communist rule in his native Poland and eventually all of Europe.  He was one of the most travelled world leaders in history, visiting 129 countries during his pontificate. He consistently attracted large crowds, some among the largest ever assembled in human history. As part of his special emphasis on the universal call to holiness, he beatified 1,340 people and canonized 483 saints, more than the combined tally of his predecessors during the preceding five centuries.

His wish was “to place his Church at the heart of a new religious alliance that would bring together Jews, Muslims and Christians in a great religious armada”.

In June 1979, Pope John Paul II travelled to Poland where ecstatic crowds constantly surrounded him. This first papal trip to Poland uplifted the nation’s spirit and sparked the formation of the Solidarity movement in 1980, which later brought freedom and human rights to his troubled homeland.

Pope John Paul II

 What He Said: “Social justice cannot be attained by violence. Violence kills what it intends to create.” 

  1. Eleanor Roosevelt

What She Did: Eleanor Roosevelt was an American politician, diplomat, and activist.  She was the longest-serving First Lady of the United States, holding the post from March 1933 to April 1945 during her husband President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four terms in office. President Harry S. Truman later called her the “First Lady of the World” in tribute to her human rights achievements.

 She persuaded Franklin to stay in politics following his partial paralysis from polio, and began to give speeches and campaign in his place. After Franklin’s election as Governor of New York, Eleanor regularly made public appearances on his behalf. She also shaped the role of First Lady during her tenure and beyond.

Though widely respected in her later years, Roosevelt was a controversial First Lady for her outspokenness, particularly her stance on racial issues. She was the first presidential spouse to hold press conferences, write a syndicated newspaper column, and speak at a national convention.  She advocated for expanded roles for women in the workplace, the civil rights of African Americans and Asian Americans, and the rights of World War II refugees. 

Following her husband’s death, Eleanor remained active in politics for the rest of her life. She pressed the US to join and support the United Nations and became one of its first delegates. She served as the first chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights, and oversaw the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Later she chaired the John F. Kennedy administration’s Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. By the time of her death, she was regarded as “one of the most esteemed women in the world” and “the object of almost universal respect”.


 What She Said: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” 

  1. Winston Churchill

What He Did: British politician who was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1940 to 1945 and again from 1951 to 1955. Widely regarded as one of the greatest wartime leaders of the 20th century, Churchill was also an officer in the British Army, a historian, a writer (as Winston S. Churchill), and an artist. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and was the first person to be made an honorary citizen of the United States.

Sir Winston Churchill

 What He Said: “You have enemies? Good.  That means you’ve stood up for something sometime in your life.” 

  1. Dwight D. Eisenhower

What He Did: The 34th President of the United States from 1953 until 1961, Eisenhower was a five-star general in the United States Army during World War II and served as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe; he had responsibility for planning and supervising the invasion of North Africa in Operation Torch in 1942–43 and the successful invasion of France and Germany in 1944–45 from the Western Front. In 1951, he became the first supreme commander of NATO.

After the Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial satellite in 1957, Eisenhower authorized the establishment of NASA which led to a “space race”.

Among his enduring innovations, he launched the Interstate Highway System; the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which led to the internet, among many invaluable outputs; the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), driving peaceful discovery in space; the establishment of strong science education via the National Defense Education Act; and encouraging peaceful use of nuclear power via amendments to the Atomic Energy Act.

In social policy, he sent federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, for the first time since Reconstruction to enforce federal court orders to desegregate public schools. He also signed civil rights legislation in 1957 and 1960 to protect the right to vote. He implemented desegregation of the armed forces in two years and made five appointments to the Supreme Court.

Dwight Eisenhower

What He Said: “When you are in any contest, you should work as if there were – to the very last minute – a chance to lose it.  This is battle, this is politics, this is anything.” 

  1. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

What She Did: She was the wife of the 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, and First Lady of the United States during his presidency from 1961 until his assassination in 1963. Five years later she married Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis; they remained married until his death in 1975.

In 1951, she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in French literature at George Washington University and went on to work for the Washington Times-Herald as an Inquiring Photographer.  As First Lady, she aided her husband’s administration with her presence in social events and her highly publicized restoration of the White House.

For the final two decades of her life, Jackie Kennedy had a career as a book editor. She is remembered for her contributions to the arts and preservation of historic architecture, her style, elegance, and grace. She was a fashion icon; her famous ensemble of pink Chanel suit and matching pillbox hat has become symbolic of her husband’s assassination and one of the lasting images of the 1960s.

Jackie Kennedy

 What She Said: “What is sad for women of my generation is that they weren’t supposed to work if they had families.  What were they going to do when the children are grown – watch the raindrops coming down the window pane?” 

  1. Mohandas Gandhi

 What He Did: Gandhi was the preeminent leader of Indian independence movement in British-ruled India. Employing nonviolent civil disobedience, Mahatma Gandhi led India to independence and inspired movements for civil rights and freedom across the world.

He spent 21 years in South Africa, where he developed his political views, ethics and political leadership skills.

Assuming leadership of the Indian National Congress in 1921, Gandhi led nationwide campaigns for easing poverty, expanding women’s rights, building religious and ethnic amity, ending untouchability, but above all for achieving Swaraj or self-rule.

Gandhi was a prolific writer. For decades he edited several newspapers.  Gandhi also wrote several books including his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, of which he bought the entire first edition to make sure it was reprinted.

Mahatma Gandhi

 What He Said: “Honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress.” 

  1. Nelson Mandela

 What He Did: Mandela was a South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, politician and philanthropist who served as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999. He was South Africa’s first black chief executive, and the first elected in a fully representative democratic election.

His government focused on dismantling the legacy of apartheid through tackling institutionalized racism, poverty and inequality, and fostering racial reconciliation. Politically an African nationalist and democratic socialist, he served as President of the African National Congress (ANC) from 1991 to 1997.

 Internationally, Mandela was Secretary General of the Non-Aligned Movement from 1998 to 1999.  Mandela was a controversial figure for much of his life. He nevertheless gained international acclaim for his activism, having received more than 250 honors, including the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize, the US Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Soviet Order of Lenin. He is held in deep respect within South Africa, where he is often referred to by his Xhosa clan name, Madiba, or as Tata (“Father”).

Nelson Mandela

 What He Said: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” 

  1. Ronald Reagan

What He Did: Reagan was an American actor and politician. He was the 40th President of the United States (1981–89), and served as the 33rd Governor of California (1967–75) before his presidency. 

As president, Reagan implemented sweeping new political and economic initiatives. His supply-side economic policies, dubbed “Reaganomics”, advocated reducing tax rates to spur economic growth, controlling the money supply to reduce inflation, deregulation of the economy, and reducing government spending.

Ronald Reagan

 What He Said: “Recession is when your neighbor loses his job. Depression is when you lose yours.” 

  1. Henry Ford

 What He Did: Henry Ford was an American industrialist, the founder of the Ford Motor Company and sponsor of the development of the assembly line technique of mass production.

 Although Ford did not invent the automobile or the assembly line, he developed and manufactured the first automobile that many middle class Americans could afford. In doing so, Ford converted the automobile from an expensive curiosity into a practical conveyance that would profoundly impact the landscape of the twentieth century.

Ford had a global vision, with consumerism as the key to peace. His intense commitment to systematically lowering costs resulted in many technical and business innovations, including a franchise system that put dealerships throughout most of North America and in major cities on six continents.

Ford was a pioneer of “welfare capitalism”, designed to improve the lot of his workers and especially to reduce the heavy turnover that had many departments hiring 300 men per year to fill 100 slots. Efficiency meant hiring and keeping the best workers.

Ford’s philosophy was one of economic independence for the United States. His River Rouge Plant became the world’s largest industrial complex, pursuing vertical integration to such an extent that it could produce its own steel. Ford’s goal was to produce a vehicle from scratch without reliance on foreign trade.

He believed in the global expansion of his company. He believed that international trade and cooperation led to international peace, and he used the assembly line process and production of the Model T to demonstrate it.

Henry Ford

 What He Said: “Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal.” 

  1. Bill Clinton

What He Did: An American politician who served from 1993 to 2001 as the 42nd President of the United States, Clinton was inaugurated at age 46 and was the third-youngest president. He took office at the end of the Cold War, and was the first president from the baby boomer generation.

Clinton presided over the longest period of peacetime economic expansion in American history.  He left office with the highest end-of-office approval rating of any U.S. president since World War II. Since then, he has been involved in public speaking and humanitarian work.

Bill Clinton

 What He Said: “We must do what America does best: offer more opportunity to all and demand responsibility from all.” 

  1. Margaret Thatcher

 What She Did: Baroness Thatcher was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990 and the Leader of the Conservative Party from 1975 to 1990. She was the longest-serving British Prime Minister of the 20th century and is the only woman to have held the office. A Soviet journalist called her the “Iron Lady”, a nickname that became associated with her uncompromising politics and leadership style. As Prime Minister, she implemented policies that have come to be known as Thatcherism.

 Originally a research chemist before becoming a barrister, Thatcher was later elected Member of Parliament (MP).

Margaret Thatcher

 What She Said: “You may have to fight a battle more than once to win it.” 

I think that sums it up.  All of our heroes were fighting in some way for our benefit, staying the pace and persisting for the cause of helping us all to flourish.  Moving humanity forward in different ways so we can thrive today.

Thank you, Martin Luther King Jnr, and all.

About the Author

Margaret Townsend
An experienced recruiter and job seeker, now co-founder of a private job search website. Blogs are full of practical tips and advice on career development, work-life balance, the job search and the job interview. Also writes in-depth unique articles about workplace issues such as gender diversity, HR practices, culture fit, employee engagement and gainful employment.


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