Trillium News

Let's Hear It for Bill Scandling-You Won't Read About Him in the New York Times(A)

William F. Scandling, a good friend of mine, died in August – and after I helped to write his obituary, I spent more than a month trying to extract from the New York Times the reasons why it chose not to run any notice of his death. It seemed inexplicable to me. I’m an obsessive reader of Times obits, and I see there obituaries of people who had far less impact on American life than Scandling had. (During this stretch the Times carried an obituary of Jack Nicklaus’ caddy.)

Scandling was one of three World War II veterans who met on the campus of Hobart College in upstate New York. Before they graduated, they were running the student cafeteria, and they used this contract as a springboard for a catering company specializing in feeding college students. Their company, Saga Corporation, rose to become one of the leading food service organizations in the country, feeding students on more than 400 campuses as well as employees at corporations and hospitals; in addition, they operated restaurant chains (Velvet Turtle, Straw Hat Pizza, Black Angus). At its peak, Saga employed more than 50,000 people. Scandling was CEO of the company.

Aside from its commercial success, Saga was known for enlightened policies and practices with regard to employees. It was one of the companies featured in my 1984 book, “The 100 Best Companies to Work for in America.” But in 1986 Saga disappeared from sight after being acquired, over Scandling’s bitter objections, by Marriott Corp. In his post-Saga years Scandling became a philanthropist, making multimillion-dollar bequests to the University of Rochester and his alma mater, Hobart, where he chaired the board of trustees for a dozen years. I met him in the early 1990s, editing and then publishing his memoir, “The Saga of Saga” (Vista Linda Press, 1994). This was not your usual fawning company history. Scandling told the story in a straight-forward fashion, owning up to mistakes, the biggest one being the decision to turn the company over to so called “professional managers,” who presided over its downfall.

An impressive resume, right? But it was deemed not worthy of a New York Times obituary. The last explanation I had from the Times was that every obituary is “the result of an editorial decision.” Thanks a lot. After thinking about it, I concluded that the decision probably resulted from a bias against business. Sure, if you were CEO of ExxonMobil or General Motors, you will get an obituary. However, it’s easier for an actor or writer or composer or baseball player to make the Times obituary page than it is for business leaders.

My view of these matters was confirmed when I looked at the November issue of the Smithsonian, monthly magazine of the Smithsonian Institute. The cover article was on 35 people anointed as “innovators of our time,” people “who made a difference.” They are a distinguished bunch — Gordon Parks, Edward O. Wilson, Richard Leaky, Wynton Marsalis, for example – but only one, Bill Gates, came from the business world, and Jimmy Carter’s profile of him concentrated entirely on his philanthropy, not his business accomplishments. Maya Angelou, Yo-Yo Ma, Julie Taymor, Sally Ride and Andy Goldsworthy all made the list, but not Jack Welch, Warren Buffet, Gordon Moore, Fred Smith, Robert O. Anderson or David Rockefeller. The presumption is that the latter bunch did not “make a difference.”

There is, of course, nothing new about this verdict. If you are familiar with the way business leaders are portrayed in novels, movies, plays and television sitcoms, you know they are invariably evil-doers. The bad actors – Dennis Kozlowski, Bernie Ebbers and Kenneth Lay – leave the lasting impressions – and they will get obituaries. Not Bill Scandling.

In the end, I comforted myself with the remark Scandling once made about the New York Times: “Any newspaper that doesn’t carry comic strips takes itself far too seriously.”