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A Chat With Dick Spangler ('56)

21st Jan. 4pm. Prash Agarwal and Jim Mutugi make their way through the cold, to the doors of the Dean’s House and ring the bell. The door is opened by a distinguished looking gentleman. “Hi! Dick Spangler. Come on in” booms the friendly voice. As we sit in the living room he appears and says “Mutugi and Agarwal.” And waves our classcards. He has done his homework.

We move to the library and begin to chat with Dick Spangler. HBS 56. Former chairman of the Bank of North Carolina. Former chairman of the State Board of Education. And retired president of the University of North Carolina, a job he held for more than 11 years.

Dick is affable and has the knack of putting people completely at ease. He smiles and begins.

On HBS
Dick applied in to HBS in his third year at UNC undergrad, since he had accumulated the credits needed to graduate. HBS turned him down, asking him to at least complete his undergraduate degree, and did accept him into the class of 1956 the following year. “I figured that since I had worked every summer since 7th grade in the family business I had the work experience. I guess I must have put that across,” he says.

However he claims to have been terrified of the atmosphere when at the age of 22 he found himself surrounded by older, significantly experienced professionals. “We had seat assignments even back then. Aldrich had opened a year earlier, and the technology in the place was amazing. I had never seen anything like it. They had those picture cards for the professors to point out each person’s seat. It was pretty hi-tech I guess.” He found the professors brilliant, and the student community very helpful. “Not at all like the competitive people one hears about,” he says.

He lived in Chase Hall, and his room mate and close friend Dick Benioff kept telling him that he was only accepted because he was the only one from the South who had applied. Spangler also had a unique situation: his father did a 13 week AMP from HBS during his second year here! “It was interesting having him here as a student on his 50th birthday,” he reminisces.

“We all wore sports jackets, ties, shirts. The only people who at times did not wear ties were the ones in the skydeck!”

He hopes that the line “Copyright President and Fellows of Harvard College” printed at the bottom of each case will one day stand for the growth of business thought and education itself. That the tools of business thought and education will become the franchise of HBS.

On Spangler Hall
“It is unusual,” he offers. He is clearly awed. We are impressed by his humility. His reaction is not the whoop of joy one would have expected. He adds that considering most halls are named after people long after they have departed this world, in recognition of their contribution decades ago, he is honored to have the hall dedicated to him at this point in his life.

“The Hall is fantastic. It combines the functionality with an architecture that makes it blend into the landscape. Dean Clark has spent a lot of energy in making the hall exactly way it had been conceived.” Dick is also forthcoming about the story behind the William’s Room, a dedication requested by him in memory of Finance professor Charlie Williams, who had had a profound impact on his life during his years at HBS.

His family too is excited. One of his daughters and her husband are also HBS alums. Their 4 year old daughter Meredith was the only one who voiced her views on the hall – pointing to the Meredith Room (named after Dick’s wife) she wanted to know why her name was on the wall!

On his favorite HBS anecdote
“One day, towards the beginning of the term, Prof Tom Raymond called on classmate Mazer to give his decision on a case. Mazer stated that he had read the case but wanted more information before he reached a decision. Raymond turned to other people. At the end of the class he came up to Mazer, looked him in the eye and bellowed – face red with fury – ‘Mr.Mazer. Don’t you EVER come into my class without having reached a decision. As a businessman you will be required to take decisions with whatever information is available.” This lesson got etched in Dick’s memory, and he has internalized it.
“We later discovered the Tom was waiting for someone to fall into this trap, so he could make this point so emphatically to all of us,” he recalls.

On University of North Carolina
In a state like that the university is something all residents are fiercely proud off. It is the oldest public university, at least two hundred years old. To be its president was a privilege,” he tells us. Most of the undergrads – 80% – were from within the state. Contrasted with that, most of its graduate students are from out of the state.
“They made me president hoping I would run it efficiently like a business. But I did everything but that. Universities are run differently. For instance I had to be careful of what I said in public. I had to also change my vocabulary – ‘foreign students’ was replaced by ‘international students’. Similarly I never used the word ‘bottomline’ while referring to its finances!” he chuckles.

On advice to the students here
“When you get a cold call from society answer it, and give it your best.” He says it in all earnestness. He hopes that all students here will ensure they get involved with the community and do their part. Well.

February 5, 2001
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