A Half Century Of Wisdom: Harvard’s Class of 1963 On Life & Happiness

by John A. Byrne on

The yearbook for Harvard Business School's Class of 1963

The yearbook for Harvard Business School’s Class of 1963

A half century ago, when Harvard Business School’s more than 600 MBAs were turned out into the world, it was a vastly different place.

The average price of a new home was $12,650. A gallon of gas sold for just 22 cents. The minimum wage in the U.S. was $1, and the average salary of a Harvard MBA was $9,500. There was no personal computer and no Internet. Climate change was unheard of. And the corporate elite was almost universally composed of old, white men.

Yet as Arthur Buerke, the lifetime secretary for Harvard Business School’s Class of 1963, so eloquently points out, “the truly essential questions of life simply haven’t changed that much in the past 50 years. Or the past 500.”

WISDOM DISPENSED IN CHAPTERS ENTITLED “WEALTH,” “TURNING POINTS,” “HAPPINESS & SUCCESS”

As his class’ 50th anniversary approached this year, Buerke decided to gather the life lessons of the class and distribute them in both a book and a companion website, If I Knew Then. The book and website is divided into chapters under such headings as “Life’s Lessons,” “Turning Points,” “Happiness & Success,” and “Wealth.” What follows are candid and poignant words of wisdom from more than 100 alumni who graduated in 1963, the first HBS class to admit women to the full-time program.

“They entered the business world when commerce was mostly confined to national borders, and they ushered in the notion of the global village,” writes Buerke. “They went to work in the age of secretarial pools and long-hand ledger sheets, and led the charge into a digital, wireless landscape. They landed their first executive jobs during a time when women and people of color were strangers to the boardroom, and delivered us to an era when the leader of our greatest organization is the son of a Kenyan.”

MORE THAN ONE IN THREE CLASS MEMBERS HAS A NET WORTH OF MORE THAN $10 MILLION

The class launched a long list of distinguished careers, including several CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, a U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, and a two-term governor of Washington. Two-thirds of the class had founded or co-founded at least one company, and more than one in three reports a net worth of more than $10 million. One of its more famous members is Bill Agree, a hard-charging, brilliant executive who became CEO of two major companies, Bendix Corp. and Morrison Knudsen Corp. and was at the center of a highly publicized, corporate soap opera involving an alleged office romance with a much younger Harvard MBA, Mary Cunningham.

Here are snippets of some of the advice the Class of 1963 dispenses:

SCOTT SPANGLER

One of the biggest mistakes is to think you know it all — or even have to know it all. Learning to surround yourself with people who know more than you do and learning to accept their advice is a big step — especially for people with Harvard Business School-graduate egos.

To succeed in business, show people that you appreciate their contributions with public and private praise and financial reward. If your company does well financially, be sure to share that with your key people.

RICHARD L. PETERSON

It’s a mistake to credit success in business too much to one’s own skill. My experience is that good timing and luck contribute as much or more to success as does skill. The same is often true of failure. My advice is to stay humble, patient, and persistent. Over time, timing and luck tend to even out.

Debt sucks.

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  • Denise Silber

    Hello! More than 1/3 have a net worth of $10 million. But a study of the HBS class of ’73 (I believe that’s the year) demonstrated the direct correlation between net worth at graduation and net worth 20 some odd years later. Let’s add that data into the analysis.

  • mark crowther

    It’s interesting that the intro stats are all on economics, but the overriding advice – quite rightly – is to balance life with career.

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