Winter 2010

First Class

Class of 1969

By Nancy Johnson

Talk to 10 people, you’ll probably get 10 different stories of why they joined Notre Dame’s first MBA class, says Bob Dowdell, one of the 50 hardy souls who entered the fledgling program in fall 1967. There were a lot of cross-currents. Young men seeking grad school deferments from the war. A few Vietnam vets. Single students. Married students. A handful of Notre Dame alumni. The rest came from 31 colleges in 17 states and three foreign countries. Some entered with exemplary college transcripts. Others had scraped along. Students who had worked a few years as accountants or salesmen. And recent college graduates, such as Dowdell, whose work experience consisted of running the bowling alley at Notre Dame and serving pizza at Rocco’s. Some men sought corporate positions or were poised to run a family business. Many others were waiting to see what came next.

When the first MBA class arrived, the students entered modest temporary quarters in the Hurley Building: a single room with desks set on plywood risers. “We would arrive at 8:30 in the morning and we’d stay till 4 or 5 in the afternoon, and teachers would rotate in,” recalls Dowdell.

But inside that Hurley classroom, the set of disparate classmates became close and banded together as they worked on Professor Malone’s group projects, got over their nerves at public speaking and labored over Dr. Byung Cho’s statistics tests, which could take eight hours to finish.

Now, 40 years later, as they gathered for their class reunion, these pioneering alumni recalled how responsive faculty and classmates helped them become the people they are today. Their lives were shaped by their Notre Dame experience, even as their journeys have taken them down very different paths. A few class members are profiled here.

• • •

At street level

Joe Cavato

Professor Salvatore Bella posed a question to the first MBA class that decided Joe Cavato’s future. He asked, “What is the corporate sector’s responsibility to the rest of the world?”

That question inspired the St. Louis native to plunge into both the business world, through investment banking, and public service, through community development.

So much was going on in the late 60s: There were riots in big cities, neighborhoods burning and civil rights speeches. One of Cavato’s strongest memories from his MBA years was seeing Bobby Kennedy speak at the Stepan Center. “Those were very active, vocal, political times,” he recalled.

Cavato’s career wove back and forth between the public and private sectors. He joined President Johnson’s War on Poverty program, then held a series of other government jobs, interspersed with investment banking in public finance groups at AG Edwards and Banc of America. He recalls the early ’80s as the beginning of the “the glamorization of Wall Street” and the start of the securitization schemes that led to trouble.

For the last eight years, he has been with a community program development corporation, working for affordable housing
and redevelopment in St. Louis. On a daily basis, he confronts the fallout from the recent credit crisis. His office is buying back foreclosed properties to get them back on the market. They have money for maybe 200-300 homes. But St. Louis County has 4,000 foreclosed properties. “It is a drop in the ocean,” Cavato said.

“We had a teachable moment, during the financial collapse,” said a concerned Cavato. “When we deregulated and allowed investment banks and commercial banks to merge, that was a big mistake. The memory seems to have faded already. The vested interests are so powerful.”

“We need an informed public policy, taking an interest in the financial markets,” he continued. “We came to believe that the markets would regulate themselves: We found that doesn’t work.”

• • •

Housemates

Bernard Bieg

When Bernard Bieg arrived in South Bend in the fall of 1967, he didn’t know one person there.

He looked around for an apartment, and found one in a house on Hill Street. To his surprise, three other renters were enrolled in Notre Dame’s new MBA program: Vincent George, Tom Gill and John Knittel. “That was really lucky,” said Bieg.

One thing he learned at Notre Dame that stuck with him is that you can’t do a lot of things on your own; you have to network with other people: “A lot of you is reflected in the friends you keep, at work and outside work. A lot of the guys I was friends with back then, I am still friends with now.”

Bieg attained his goal of becoming a college professor, which was the reason he left his job in an accounting firm to earn an MBA. He teaches at Bucks County Community College in Newtown, Penn., and is the author of the textbook, Payroll Accounting, which is used in some 850 schools.

• • •

When You are the One With the Collar

Hugh Keefer

Most students go to business school to get ahead in their careers. Hugh Keefer, O.S.B., went because his abbot told him to.

Keefer had recently taken his final vows and entered the priesthood at Saint Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison, Kansas, when he met with his abbot, expecting to take a math refresher before teaching in the abbey’s liberal arts college. Instead, the abbot asked him to earn a business degree so he could work in the college business office.

Business school was the last thing Father Hugh expected. “I bet there is still a mark on the carpet where my stomach hit the floor,” he said.

At the time, the Kansas native with a master’s degree in math had taught in a high school and held a research position at Johns Hopkins University. But he went shopping for business schools and chose Notre Dame for its strength in accounting for nonprofits.

When he arrived on campus, the going wasn’t so easy.

It was the late 60s, shortly after Vatican II. Many Catholics were troubled by changes in Church traditions and practices. Father Hugh felt like the outsider among his classmates. “All I had to wear to classes was my clericals,” he recalled.

But with patience, Keefer and his classmates worked through the discomfort. At his abbot’s suggestion, he wore street clothes the second year. He socialized with his classmates and their wives and eventually played an important part in their religious lives:  He received one classmate and the wife of another into the Church, and baptized little ones, including Richard and Barbara Lyman’s baby, Dawn. “Over two years, we became one class, celebrated Mass together, partied together,” he said.

After Father Hugh graduated, he went back to Saint Benedict’s, where he applied his accounting skills to his work as controller and business officer for what is now called Benedictine College. Today, at age 82, he is assistant business manager for the abbey and chaplain for the men’s college basketball team.

The most rewarding thing he took away from business school came from his classmates, he said. “I learned how to live as a priest. We could get over the Roman collar and title ‘Father’ and function as a group,” he said.

• • •

Technology’s wild ride

Peter Smith

From punch cards to texting, Peter Smith has had a front-row seat to the digital revolution. The former vice president of European operations for Digital Equipment Corp. remembers the early days of computers at Notre Dame. In particular, he recalls the university’s enormous UNIVAC computer, housed in its own room behind glass doors and tended by lab-coated assistants. “You could easily do 100-fold of the UNIVAC’s computing on your desktop computer today,” he said.

 Smith, an electrical engineer, worked at Digital for a short time before enrolling in the MBA program. At Notre Dame, he had an assistantship at the university computing center, helping analyze the university’s needs in preparation for buying a new system. “Ironically, the system selected was an IBM computer, Digital’s big competitor,” Smith said.

During his years at Digital, he saw plenty of advances. “We had internal-only e-mail in the mid-1970s,” he recalled. About 15 years later, he remembers a special moment, when he was living in Switzerland. It took about half an hour to do, but using a long string of numbers and codes, he was able to send an e-mail to his son, a student at Dartmouth. “It would be trivial today, but I remember thinking, ‘This is amazing.’”

Smith, now chairman and former CEO of ANSYS Inc. in Canonsburg, Penn., laughs when he thinks about how much people use messaging today. He bought one of the first BlackBerry devices, and like many other businesspeople, checks his messages frequently. He muses: “You are constantly in touch, but is there enough ‘think time’ today?”

• • •

In flight

Ken Samara

A few years after graduation, Ken Samara was proud of his new job and the business card that went with it. The Texas International Airlines card listed Samara as “Director- Reservations Planning & Proceedures.”

He was passing it around to his friends after a football game when classmate Dennis McCarthy noticed that “procedures” was misspelled. Much teasing ensued.

Samara laughs about it today, remembering, “I never bothered to check it.”

That travel industry business card was the first of many for Samara, who has spent his entire career in the field. He has worked in sales positions for several companies that provide food service to the airlines.

Then, in 1997, he started his own Dallas-based food service brokerage, A La Carte Marketing Services, specializing in sales to airlines and cruise lines. “I thought it would be good to work for me rather than someone else,” he said.

A La Carte was successful until the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Samara had to downsize his staff of five salespeople and office workers to two. The events of 9/11 affected the airline industry like no other, he recalled. “People were afraid to fly for a year. We are still fighting that today.”

Soon A La Carte had the opportunity to merge with a friendly competitor, The AMI Group. Today, Samara is vice president-key accounts for AMI, still retaining ownership of A La Carte.

Over 40 years, Samara has watched price pressures transform the industry. Once there were complimentary hot meals and caviar; now airliners are built without ovens, and Pringles are the biggest seller in coach.

He has also observed how today’s corporate rules against socializing—due to some people abusing the system— have made it an uphill battle for sales people. They used to get to know their customers and anticipate their needs through meals and social events, but today, when you are meeting a customer, “you are sitting with someone in an open cubicle.”

An awareness of ethics is one thing that stuck with Samara since business school. “I have seen an awful lot of unethical behavior. Notre Dame has helped me not even consider participating.”

Samara is president of the International Flight Services Association and credits his many years of volunteering there with helping him prepare for his next step: consulting and public speaking. And though it has had its ups and downs, he’s sticking with the airline industry. “It gets in your blood,” he said.

• • •

When you’re the vet

Jerry Claeys

Adjusting to campus life was difficult for Jerry Claeys. A recent Vietnam vet, he was proud of serving his country as his father had in World War II, but he was surprised at what he found on campus in the fall of 1967. “There was all this anti-war sentiment and demonstrations and a tremendous amount of anger toward the military,” he said, recalling flag burnings, marches and seeing someone jump up and down on a military uniform.

But he adjusted. After noticing sideways glances from undergraduates, he quit wearing his comfortable fatigue jacket to class.

Claeys hadn’t expected to go to Vietnam. After earning an undergraduate business degree from Georgetown University, where he was in Army ROTC, he reported to Fort Eustis, Va., for officer training, expecting to be sent to Germany. He learned his group would be the first trained in counter-guerilla tactics and soon found out why: He had orders for Vietnam. His job was to run truck convoys and be responsible for a lot of people and equipment. “It was one of those experiences—I don’t want my children to have it, but it allowed me to really grow up,” he said.

After serving in Vietnam, Claeys wanted to enroll in a business school but didn’t want to wait a year. His dad’s friend, Father Ned Joyce, told Claeys to consider Notre Dame’s MBA program, which was just opening that fall. “I was excited. I wanted to get going,” he said.

Claeys credits his military experience and organizational training with helping him decipher what he learned in class. He enjoyed the case studies and especially the group projects. His MBA classmates came from other walks of life and some had work experience in finance or management, so they would look at a problem differently than he did.

When he went looking for work, something about Jerry Claeys’ graduate school diploma caught the eye of potential bosses on Wall Street. It was an MBA from the University of Notre Dame, the first from the school.

He said the distinction made him unique to the investment bankers, accustomed to hiring business school graduates from Harvard and Wharton. Several firms competed to hire Claeys, who launched a successful career, starting in the corporate finance department of investment bank White, Weld & Co. and moving on to commercial real estate development. Today, he is chairman and former CEO of the multinational real estate investment management firm Heitman LLC, based in Chicago.

• • •

Giving the Wives Their Due

John Knittel

Back in 1967, Notre Dame was still an all-male school; women weren’t admitted until 1972. Still, women played an important role for the first MBA class. Many of the students married in the summer before their second year. John Knittel was one of those who came back with a bride.

MBA wives organized social events so that everyone, married or single, could get to know one other. Those parties had a tight budget: The students weren’t working, and nobody had any money. It was typical for the wives to find a job in South Bend or go back home and find work there, said Knittel, who after a career at DuPont and other companies now owns a home inspection company in Raleigh, N.C.

Before long, many couples had started families. Knittel recalls that when Robert McNamara, then president of the World Bank, was a guest speaker at Notre Dame, he talked about the consequences of overpopulation. “There in the back row were the wives of the MBA students, many of them six, seven months pregnant. We thought, `This is a Catholic university you are speaking at. Wake up, Bob!’”

Knittel recalls with gratitude that Dean John Malone held a dinner and ceremony to recognize the wives’ contributions, presenting Rita Knittel and others with “Honorary MBA” certificates.“I came out with an MBA and my wife has an honorary
MBA.” Knittel recalled.“We treasure them.”

• • •

Family man

Dennis McCarthy

At the Blarney Castle headquarters—where the entry door handles are made from real gas nozzles—Dennis McCarthy has a wealth of photos from his days growing up in a family that emphasized responsibility.

When he was a boy, he worked in one of the family-owned gas stations, but if he took a candy bar, his dad made him put the full price—a nickel—in the cash register. After he earned his MBA, he had a couple of months before he went off to work at Shell Oil in Detroit. So, of course, he reported to a Blarney Castle station and proceeded to pump gas.

McCarthy is now president of the family business, Blarney Castle Oil Co., a wholesale and retail petroleum company headquartered in Bear Lake, Mich. His two sons (Dennis and Brian) work at the company founded by his dad (another Dennis), who at age 91, works every day and is never without a coat and tie, even attending a football game.

“I’m in the middle,” he said, shaking his head. “My father is conservative; very tight with money. My sons have a new idea every day of how to spend money to grow this business. I just tell them, ‘Come back with a report showing return on capital.’”

McCarthy’s classmates recall him as a leading creator—and recipient—of pranks. One day, McCarthy pulled up to his South Bend apartment only to see classmate Jerry Claeys’ convertible speeding away. He soon found out why: Every bit of his clothing was gone from his room. McCarthy retaliated by enlisting Claeys’ brother to help empty his classmate’s closet. Claeys recalled that their friends “had to arrange a meeting, at a street corner, to exchange the clothes.”

• • •

Class of 1969
Members of the MBA Class of 1969. Left to right: Robert Dowdell, Jerry Claeys, Gus Holderer,Joe Cavato, Bernard Bieg, Peter Smith, Dennis McCarthy, John Knittel, Ken Samara, Rich Yarborough

—Nancy Johnson is a South Bend-based writer.

• • •

Read more about the MBA Class of 1969

 


 
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