Heroes of the Past

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When I graduated from Yale in 1952, I began getting the alumni magazine. Our class was the latest in a long list of class notes, the new kids on the block. Most impressive were those at the beginning of the chronological listing. I was amazed by that long list of predecessors, graduates in the 1890s and early 1900s, and born in the 1870s and 1880s. Many had lived in the legendary Dink Stover era, when the males (that’s all there were then) smoked pipes, dressed as collegiate dandies, and wandered about the campus arm-in-arm singing “to the tables down at Mory’s…” and the civil war song “Aura Lee.”

At the front of the chronological list now are “the greatest generation,” rapidly dying. Invariably, mention is made of their service in World War II. Hardly any did not serve. I first met that generation, by then veterans, as a freshman in 1948. A few were in my classes, but most were juniors and seniors, 4-5 years older than I was—and a generation light years ahead in terms of life and experience. One of them was William F. Buckley, the big man on campus those days. Another, an heir to the New York Herald Tribune family, Ogden Reid, came to class in an immaculately tailored blue suit with a subdued rep tie. I was awed.

They were part of what turned out to be a memorable generation. My son David Callahan published a book in 2002, Kindred Spirits, about the Harvard Business School class of 1949. Why them? They were a remarkable group, including Bill Ruane, founder of the Sequioa Fund which consistently outperformed the S & P 500 fund for 29 years, James Burke, who turned Johnson and Johnson into a multi-billion pharmaceutical company, Peter McCullough, the eventual CEO of Xerox, and Thomas Murphy, developer of a multi-billion dollar media company that included ABC.

What drew David to that class was not its fame and wealth but its values, soon to pass. They did not go into business just to make money but also to be good citizens. Most of the 49s, as David called the class, expected to make a good living, but “by the standards of today, few of the 49ers made serious money, when the compensation of CEOs was within the bounds of reason…few if any of them assembled fortunes in the hundreds of millions.” Moreover, in the “twilight of their lives” [they] were appalled by the corruption within the executive suites of corporate America.” “Greed,” James Burke said,” is a very serious problem in American business.”

While the bottom line was surely important for the 49ers, what came after them was a great shift. Business now believes it owes nothing to anyone but its shareholders. The idea of social obligations is barely breathing these days. I saw this up close while running the Hastings Center in the mid-1980s. We put on a concerted push to gain corporate contributions and it went exceedingly well for a decade or so. Then the bottom fell out. As if by some signal, corporations stopped making general no-strings-attached gifts to worthy causes, making clear that they would help only those organizations that helped their business. Our corporate gifts went from over 25 to 5 in the space of two years or so. Since then CEO compensations have steadily risen well beyond the rate of inflation, but usually not that of their employees.

Some recent reports on college students today found a shift among them. Twenty-thirty years ago, over half said they what wanted to become educated to help society. Under half say that now: the point of education is to make money. That does not make me feel good about my grand children’s generation and their future.

It is an interesting question whether their military service helped the 49ers shape their views about business. It surely made them grow up fast and to take heavy responsibilities well beyond anything they had been prepared for. I was one of a number of my classmates at Yale who went into the military in 1952 during the Korean war, then in its last months. (The CIA was another alternative.) I did not try to avoid the draft, common then. I thought it would be educational and interesting, and it was. I was able to compare the character of my near illiterate but genial black tent mate to two stuffy, rigid white graduates of the University of Texas business programs. I could live with him, not them. (A note to Texas readers, “some of my best friends are…”)

When will we have another great generation?

Daniel Callahan, 83, is cofounder and President Emeritus of The Hastings Center and an editor of Over 65.

 

2 Responses to “Heroes of the Past”

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