Saturday, July 16, 2011

NKHS' "Most Valuable" Alum?

Reviewing the last post, I was going to enter a comment about Sidney Swensrud and the value-added he has delivered to our Alma Mater and its graduates over time. And when thinking about that value I realized he is far more deserving than a brief comment appended to another posting, given the life work described in the New York Times obituary if you happened to read it, so I'm adding this "post" instead.

Sitting on stage during the portion of the Commencement set aside for awards and recognition, I was thinking about who would win the Lee Reyerson Award, presented annually to the outstanding athlete in the graduating class. Even though I knew I wouldn't be on the short list to be receiving that, it was the award I thought most valuable - until Principal Robert Scheibe addressed the issue of the Swensrud Scholarship. He advised all of us in the room that the '62 winners would each receive $600 per year for a period of four years, covering much of an undergraduate degree in those days.

That got my attention. I had no idea that an award of that size was even available. Presumably today's winners are fully aware of the value long before they even begin the senior year, and well they should, given the size of the fund today. And what an impact the scholarship must be having on so many lives, the count for which I don't know.

While the dollars given out to students has been amazing, the legacy of Sidney Swensrud may be even more amazing. The aforementioned obituary reports Mr Swensrud started school in a one-room schoolhouse, no surprise for rural America in the early 1900's, and goes on to describe his graduation from the University of Minnesota in 1923, and Harvard Business School in 1927.

Northwood, U of M, and Harvard must have prepared him well because he started at Standard Oil of Ohio very close to the top - as an assistant to the president. Yet his success came to him because of the same attitude of Sam Walton, who in in his autobiography "Made in America", told of making his stores better by personally visiting the competition to see how they operated, often getting down on his hands and knees to find out what was under the counter or in the drawers. The Times reports Swensrud used a similar strategy:

He made his mark by riding on the tank trucks of the company as they delivered gasoline, asking questions about why everything was done the way it was and then writing the answers in a notebook.

Thus, he had first-hand knowledge of how things worked, giving him an advantage over the executives who relied on reports of subordinates.

Swensrud went on to become chairman of Gulf, an international operation ultimately acquired by Chevron some years after his retirement. The "hometown boy" did good, by all standards, though in our brief interaction at the celebration held in his honor in 1971 you would never know you were standing next to a man who had held such a position and wielded such significant power in the business world. He was amiable and friendly, and whatever ego he may have had was suppressed in the meeting but then it wasn't like he hadn't been in such a position before, was it?

He has been responsible for the good fortune of many NKHS grads - and deserving of the "Most Valuable" recognition.

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