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Obituary of Sanford N. McDonnell: Led McDonnell Douglas and pioneered character education

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 21, 2012 - When Sandy McDonnell chose to major in economics at Princeton University, it appeared he was more inclined to become a banker, like his father, than to go into his uncle’s aerospace business. He didn’t immediately do either; the U.S. had stepped firmly into World War II, and he joined the Army. It was a career-changer.

“I worked in a metallurgy laboratory as a four-stripe sergeant,” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1988, as he was about to make another career change. “We worked on vacuum casting with uranium 238.  I found the engineering fascinating.”

It was typical understatement by Mr. McDonnell.

The Army had assigned him to work as a technician on the then-top-secret Manhattan Project, which developed the world’s first atomic bomb in Los Alamos, N.M. 

Mr. McDonnell, whose volunteer work with the Boy Scouts and ethics programs would become as important to him as his four decades as part of an aerospace dynasty, died of pancreatic cancer Monday at his home in Clayton. He was 89.

A memorial service is planned for 4 p.m., Wed.,, March 28, at Ladue Chapel Presbyterian Church.

Following  ‘Mr. Mac’

McDonnell Aircraft was founded in 1939 by Mr. McDonnell’s uncle, James S. McDonnell, as a small aircraft parts factory. By 1943, the company was building the Navy’s first generation of fighters with jet engines; the McDonnell Phantom made its debut in 1945.

As the company grew in the post-war era, Mr. McDonnell was completing his education. He earned an economics degree from Princeton University in 1945. In 1948, he earned another bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Colorado. Later in life, he would earn a master’s degree in applied mechanics from Washington University.

When Mr. McDonnell joined the company in 1948, the Phantom was being replaced by the Banshee and McDonnell was en route to becoming a major player in military aircraft.

Mr. McDonnell started at the bottom of the burgeoning company, with no promises that he would ever lead it.

He worked as a stress engineer, an aerodynamicist and an aircraft designer, before entering management, where he played a pivotal role in developing the F-101 Voodoo and the F-4 Phantom II jet fighters.

In 1962, he was named vice president-general manager of all combat aircraft and became president in 1971; CEO was added to his title in 1972, the same year that the F-15 Eagle made its first flight.  A year later, McDonnell Douglas built its first orbiting space station, Skylab, with a three-man crew aboard.

In 1980, James McDonnell, known as “Mr. Mac,” died, and Mr. McDonnell became chair and CEO of McDonnell Douglas, a position he held until his retirement in 1988.

McDonnell entered the airliner business with the company’s 1967 merger with Douglas Aircraft Co. in Long Beach, Calif. 

The merger was considered a coup for Mr. Mac; Mr. McDonnell had a coup of his own: In 1982, he elected to lease rather than sell part of the MD-80 fleet to commercial airlines, beginning with American.

"I was convinced of the quality and performance of the MD-80," McDonnell told the Post-Dispatch. "I felt that if we could get into one major airline in the U.S., there would be a snowball effect.”

The strategy worked and the MD-80 became the workhorse of the carrier industry.

Mr. McDonnell further expanded McDonnell Douglas in 1984, with the purchase of Hughes Helicopters, a division of the reclusive Howard Hughes’ aircraft businesses.

During Mr. McDonnell’s tenure, McDonnell Douglas’ sales more than doubled, from $6 billion to more than $13 billion.

He was succeeded by his cousin, John F. McDonnell, who served until the merger with Boeing in 1997. 

A world-changer

When people called Sandy McDonnell a “Boy Scout,” they often meant it figuratively and literally.  He was an Eagle Scout, the Boy Scouts’ highest rank, and he served both as president of the local council and the national Boy Scouts of America. 

“He was a leader in every sense of the word and stood for everything that the Boy Scouts represent,” said Ronald S. Green, Scout executive and CEO of the Greater St. Louis Area Council.  “When he visited the White House, he talked about his business and what the Boy Scouts did to prepare youth to be future leaders of our country.”

Connie Richards, Mr. McDonnell’s assistant for more than 30 years, said that over the last 15 years, he wrote more than 25,000 congratulatory letters to new Eagle Scouts across the country.

“That’s just since we began counting,” Richards laughed.

“He lived his life by the Scout oath and law,” Green said. “And he took the character part seriously. Character permeated every phase of his life.”

It was difficult to tell when Mr. McDonnell entered the retirement as he seamlessly moved from businessman to character education advocate, deeming it “important for the survival of the nation.”

He implemented a corporate ethics program at McDonnell Douglas in the mid-‘80s that would later help him build programs to assist local school districts in setting up character education programs. Immediately upon retiring, Mr. McDonnell created PREP, the Personal Responsibility Education Process (now known as CHARACTERplus). 

“He dedicated himself to character education, just as he had his career,” said Marvin Berkowitz, Sanford N. McDonnell professor of character education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He called it his ‘retirement career.’“

“Sandy was a world-changer – in his aerospace career and his post-retirement career,” Berkowitz added. “People come from all around the world to see this model. He went to the office daily to work on character education and funded much of it himself.”

The results of his efforts gave St. Louis area schools the leading edge in character education.  Nationwide for the past four years, 78 schools have received the National Schools of Character Award; 27 of those schools are in the St. Louis area and southern Illinois.

“We are No. 1 because of Sandy McDonnell,” said Liz Gibbons, director of CHARACTERplus, a project of St. Louis Cooperating School Districts. “He gave us so many ideas, thoughts and connections in leadership.”

Gibbons credits Mr. McDonnell for the recent receipt of a five-year, $415,000 grant from HTC Foundation in Taiwan. The money will be used to open a character education office in Kansas City.

Fight for humility

Sanford Noyes McDonnell was born Oct. 12, 1922, in Little Rock, Ark., the eldest child and only son of Carolyn C. and William A. McDonnell.

Tall, with an abundance of white hair that few could recall ever being dark, he had a quiet demeanor and an engaging smile. He was known for his humble nature. He often quoted Benjamin Franklin: “For, even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome (pride), I should probably be proud of my humility.”

But he had much of which to be proud.

He was named St. Louis Man of the Year in 1984; he received the 2004 Distinguished Eagle Scout Award, and last year, he received the Missouri Pioneer in Education Award from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

As 1988 general campaign chair, he led the local United Way in raising more than $43 million.  The following year, he co-chaired United Way’s highest giving initiative, the Alexis de Tocqueville Society.

Mr. McDonnell was a fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and past chairman of the board of governors of the Aerospace Industries Association.

In a statement Tuesday, Jim McNerney, chairman, president and CEO of Boeing, said: “Sandy’s commitment to his colleagues and customers, his country, and his community during his 40-year career and throughout his lifetime was extraordinary.”

Mr. McDonnell was preceded in death by his parents. 

He is survived by his wife, Priscilla “Pris” Robb McDonnell, whom he married in 1946; his son and daughter, William Randall “Randy” (Veronica) McDonnell of St. Louis and Robbin McDonnell (Paul) MacVittie of Newbury, N.H.; his younger sister, Cherry McDonnell Lawrence of Bronxville, N.Y., and one grandson, William “Mac” MacVittie.

A memorial service will be at 4 p.m., Wed., March 28, at Ladue Chapel Presbyterian Church, where Mr. McDonnell had served as an elder. The chapel is at 9450 Clayton Road in Ladue.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.

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