By FRED LANGAN
Special to The Globe and Mail
Friday, September 13, 2019
John McArthur was headed for life in the forests of British Columbia when the woman in his life hinted she wasn't up for living "in the north woods."
Instead, Dr. McArthur, who died on Aug. 20 at the age of 85, became the dean of the Harvard Business School. It wasn't a straight line.
John Hector McArthur was born in Vancouver in March 31, 1934, and grew up in suburban Burnaby, B.C.
His father, Hector, was a government grain inspector, his mother, Elizabeth, a stay-at-home mother.
John went to Burnaby South high school, where he was a football star. And he was tough, according to one of his classmates, Ritchie Eustis, who later became a Hollywood screenwriter.
"He was the terror of the 12th grade," Mr. Eustis told the newspaper USA Today. "He was a real tough, volatile guy, a good linebacker, and he was said to have been the smartest kid ever to graduate from our high school."
From the mid-eighties to early nineties, Mr. Eustis wrote and produced a sitcom for ABC called Head of the Class, set in a Manhattan classroom. John was the inspiration for the character Eric Mardian, a rebel genius in a leather jacket, played by Brian Robbins.
During the summers and after school, John worked in a local sawmill owned by the Koerner family, Jewish immigrants from Czechoslovakia. He was just sweeping floors, but they spotted his promise and offered to back him if he went to university.
He took them up on it and studied forestry at the University of British Columbia. He also played football on a semi-pro team, the Vancouver Blue Bombers, and had offers to play professional football. There was no future in that, and no money in it back then. His girlfriend from high school, Natty Ewasiuk, was the one who talked him into dropping out of forestry and switching to commerce.
"I was a little concerned because I could see that most people who took forestry ended up in the north woods," Dr. McArthur said in a 1985 interview. "My friend [his future wife, Natty] wasn't interested in going into the north woods."
Dr. McArthur was married by the time he graduated from UBC in 1957. He applied to three top business schools in the United States: Harvard, Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He and his wife rejected Stanford because California was too much like B.C. and they picked Harvard because it had a prettier campus than MIT.
The tough kid from Burnaby experienced major culture shock when he arrived at the hallowed Ivy League institution.
"He arrived in class the first day wearing a bright pink shirt, only to discover the dress code was sports coat and tie," wrote Jeffrey Cruikshank in a 2008 profile. "The first time he dared to speak in class, he used the Canadian pronunciation of the word 'schedule' and was none too gently mocked by his professor and classmates."
Another classmate with a foreign accent was James Wolfensohn, an Australian, with whom Dr. McArthur became close friends. Mr. Wolfensohn went on to become president of the World Bank and enlisted Dr.
McArthur as a trusted adviser.
Dr. McArthur completed his MBA in 1959, then earned his doctorate; he started teaching at the university in 1962.
Harvard Business School is one of the top schools of its kind in the world. It invented the "Case Study" system, in which students are presented with a realworld business problem and then set out to solve it.
Dr. McArthur was named dean of the Harvard Business School on New Year's Day, 1980, and held the post for 15 years. Although he worked in one of the most elite American institutions, he never stopped being a proud Canadian.
"It was an extraordinary thing: You could go down to Harvard, and you could have a group of academics around the table and, in every conversation, he would get in his Canadian roots and the fact that he was a Canadian and the values that he was so proud of," says Kevin Lynch, former Clerk of the Privy Council, and now vice-chairman of BMO Financial Group.
Although he lived in Boston, Dr. McArthur travelled back to Canada several times a year to see family members and work on various corporate and not-forprofit boards, including the Asia Pacific Foundation, where he served as chair.
Jack Austin, a retired senator and former Liberal cabinet minister, said Dr. McArthur went out of his way to recruit Canadians for the Ivy League school.
"John went out to various universities in Canada looking for top students to come to the Harvard Business School," Mr. Austin said.
During his tenure, Dr. McArthur was credited with creating a more diverse student body at the business school - more women, more international students.
"He was a great recruiter and talent scout," says Carol Lee, a successful businesswoman from Vancouver who graduated from the Harvard Business School. "I met John at an event at UBC, where he was getting an award, and he encouraged me to apply to HBS. I know he did this with others as well. Once I arrived on campus, he always looked out for me. He really supported the students from Canada and later set up the Canadian Initiative for HBS."
There is a John H. McArthur Canadian Fellowship that provides financial assistance to Canadians to allow them to attend Harvard Business School. A prestigious professorship and student residence also bear his name.
His style as dean and on the boards he sat on was that of the teacher: question rather than dictate.
"He always asked two things: 'What is the purpose of what we are doing' and the second question was, 'Are we making an impact?' Those are two pretty good questions to ask, and I always thought that John led as much by his questions; it was never by directive, it was by questions that forced you to confront the reality, good or bad," Mr. Lynch said.
John McArthur's position at the Harvard Business School meant that he was a superstar in corporate America and supremely well-connected. He had a string of corporate directorships: He sat on the boards of Bell Canada, Telesat Canada, Chase Manhattan Corp., Teradyne Inc. and others. He also was a founding board member of the Canada Development Investment Corp., set up in the Pierre Trudeau era.
Although Dr. McArthur was a free-market capitalist, he understood government involvement in industry.
His doctoral thesis at Harvard was how the government of France directed and invested in that country's economy.
After he retired from Harvard in 1995, he stayed on many boards and started working with his Australian friend from his early days at Harvard. By this time, James Wolfensohn was president of the World Bank, one of the most important financial institutions in the world, the backbone of the world order following the Second World War.
Dr. McArthur had honorary doctorates from seven universities in Canada, the United States and Spain, and was an officer of the Order of Canada.
He leaves his wife, Natty; daughters, Susan Radovsky and Jocelyn Swisher; and four grandchildren; as well as his brother, Kenneth.
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John McArthur delivers opening remarks at an event for the 2019 John H. McArthur Distinguished Fellowship at the University of Toronto in January.
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Saturday, September 14, 2019