Ernie and Kitty Arbuckle: A Remembrance

Content appeared in Stanford Business magazine in Spring 1986.

I often say that some men and women make the world better just for being the kind of people they are. That was true of Kitty. It was true of Ernie.
— John W. Gardner, founder of Common Cause, at the memorial service on January 23, 1986, in Stanford Memorial Church

Everyone knew them as Ernie and Kitty. The Arbuckles. Their family, their many friends, the countless people they had touched in their lifetimes, reacted with shock and sadness at the tragic news. On a Friday evening, January 17, on Highway 1 near Monterey, Ernest C. Arbuckle, dean emeritus of Stanford GSB, and his wife, Katherine, were killed in an automobile accident. He was 73, she was 65. En route from their Portola Valley home to their residence in Carmel, the Arbuckles’ car drifted out of the right hand lane at an underpass, hitting a bridge abutment. And an era ended.

The official term of the Arbuckle years at Stanford Graduate School of Business was 1958 to 1968, but the Arbuckle era never ended. Neither of them ever lost touch with us. Their contributions to our lives has continued in a very real way. Every organization of which they were a part has its Arbuckle years and has had the same experience.”
— Robert K. Jaedicke, dean of Stanford GSB, at the memorial service

The modern Stanford Graduate School of Business, the institution we know today, began with Ernie Arbuckle in 1958. During his 10 years as dean, Arbuckle directed the school’s greatest period of expansion, change, and improvement. He is widely credited with being the key figure in the school’s surge to international prominence.

During the decade of Arbuckle’s leadership, the size of the faculty doubled, and the number and quality of applicants for the MBA and PhD programs rose sharply as the school greatly enlarged its base of teaching and research. “He regarded research as a core function of the modern-day business school,” said Dean Jaedicke. “His vision was that the business school should lead and not just describe business practice. He left a permanent mark in this regard.”

During his tenure, summer executive programs were expanded. The operating and capital budgets increased sevenfold, faculty salaries were dramatically upgraded, and endowed professorships jumped sixfold. The school constructed its present building at a cost of $5.5 million.

Dean Arbuckle worked to increase the school’s relationships with the community through the establishment of the Stanford Business School Advisory Council, a group of top executives and government leaders. He also created the Affiliate Program, which strengthened ties to businesses and increased corporate financial support of the school.

As Ernie Arbuckle’s list of accomplishments grew over the years, his very name became synonymous with excellence at Stanford, including the school’s highest honor for alumni — the Arbuckle Award. The Arbuckle era saw the establishment of the International Center for the Advancement of Management Education, which educated promising young students from developing countries for leadership roles in academia, business, and government. The school presided over the creation of South America’s first business school operating solely at the graduate level — ESAN — in Lima, Peru. At Stanford, the number of international students in the MBA Program reached 15 percent of the total enrollment. An ethics seminar was inaugurated for second-year MBA students. And a joint law-business program, in which students earned an MBA and JD degree over four years, was begun with the Stanford Law School. In 1961, a faculty member said of the entrepreneurial Arbuckle: “Around here you don’t dare to offer a new idea unless you’re prepared to give it the time for a full follow-through. Ernie blots up new ideas like a sponge.”

“He was one of the most naturally gifted leaders I have ever met. His achievement in setting the business school on the path to greatness still stands as a model of leadership at its best.”
— John Gardner
“His great contribution to the business school was much more than recruiting an outstanding faculty, raising money for the school, administering the affairs of the school with great skill. He and Kitty created an environment of warmth and understanding.”
— David Packard, cofounder, Hewlett-Packard
“Ernie of course established the model of the businessman dean. It has been adopted by other schools. Ernie said he took the job because he didn’t know whether he could do it. That comment is typical Ernie. But he must have been the only one in the world who felt that way.”
— Dean Robert Jaedicke

Ernie Arbuckle’s career was guided by his notion of “repotting.” He told a reporter in 1968: “Repotting, that’s how you get new bloom … you should have a plan of accomplishment and when that is achieved you should be willing to start off again.”

Ernie Arbuckle’s repotting followed roughly a 10-year cycle throughout his life. Following his own graduation from Stanford GSB in 1936 and a year spent traveling around the world, he went to work for the Standard Oil Company of California as a personnel specialist. World War II interrupted his career; he saw Navy combat duty as a PT boat squadron commander (for which he received a Silver Star and Purple Heart) and served on Gen. Lucius D. Clay’s staff in occupied Germany. Later he worked for Golden State Co., a statewide dairy concern, where he became assistant to the president. In 1950 he joined W.R. Grace & Co., where he was an executive vice president. The Stanford deanship followed in 1958, paying him $25,000 a year to start, half of what he made at Grace.

The decision to hire a businessman to head a business school was then a novel and untested idea. The late J. E. Wallace Sterling, Stanford president at the time, was willing to take the chance, especially because it was Ernie Arbuckle. In reporting on the events, Business Week wrote: “While he never put it in words, [Sterling’s] willingness to break with tradition and install a profit-oriented businessman as dean was pretty clearly a challenge to the business community, which has often been critical of the colleges.”

But Ernie Arbuckle wasn’t sure he really wanted the job; he couldn’t honestly commit himself to the academic world for the rest of his career, a pledge that Stanford was then demanding from all candidates for the job. Over lunch in San Francisco one day, close friend Edmund Littlefield, MBA ’38, first convinced Arbuckle that he would be successful as dean, and within 10 years would have a wide choice of business opportunities to choose from. Littlefield then persuaded Stanford officials to accept the fact that Arbuckle would take the job only if he could leave after a decade. “The rest is history,” recalled Littlefield in 1967. “Ernie took the job and was successful beyond our wildest expectations. He did it more rapidly than any of us would have dreamed was possible.”

After his self-imposed 10 years at Stanford, Arbuckle was asked to become chairman of the San Francisco-based Wells Fargo Bank. In an interview in 1968, Dean Arbuckle told how Richard Cooley, then president of Wells Fargo, casually asked him in a conversation: “Have you ever thought about being a bank chairman?” The dean recalled, “I almost fell out of my chair and replied, ‘Why would you want someone like me? I’m not a banker.’ ” Nonetheless, a banker he became, remaining at Wells for a decade.

His career had a momentum that was hard to stop. The 65-year-old Arbuckle was persuaded to abandon ideas of retirement after his Wells Fargo job and instead coordinate a new management team at the Saga Corp., the large Menlo Park contract food service and restaurant firm. He was named chairman, serving from 1978 to 1981. He continued to serve as chairman of the Saga board’s executive committee.

Beyond his career, Ernie Arbuckle was a man of many commitments. He served as a Stanford trustee from 1954 to 1958 and again from 1968 to 1976. He was board chairman and CEO of the Stanford Research Institute from 1966 to 1970, a trustee of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and a trustee of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Foundation.

Over the years he also served as a director of nearly a dozen major corporations, including Hewlett-Packard, Varian, A. Johnson & Co., Pillsbury, Owens-Illinois, Utah International, and Wells Fargo.

He also served the federal government in a variety of volunteer capacities, including membership on the President’s Commission on White House Fellows from 1964 to 1968, the Industry Advisory Council of the Department of Defense from 1969 to 1972, and the President’s Commission on International Trade and Investment Policy in 1970-71. President Reagan had recently appointed him to the blue-ribbon commission on defense management.

“I’ve always loved to be challenged by problems and new situations,” Ernie Arbuckle told a reporter a few years ago. “Change is self-renewing.”

“He was the model leader who could lead effectively in any type of organization. I’ve always been impressed that Ernie’s repotting always planted him in a very different garden, and each garden was greener when he moved on.”
— Dean Robert Jaedicke
“What can you say about a man who cared so deeply, who drove himself so relentlessly, who brought an enlivening and contagious spirit and spark to everything that he did.”
— John Gardner

Born in Lee, New Hampshire, Ernie Arbuckle showed early signs of leadership, accomplishment, and athletic prowess. He entered Stanford as an undergraduate in 1929 after graduation from Santa Monica High School, where he was student body president. He received his AB in 1933, winning election as student council president and lettering as a javelin thrower. He attended law school for a year, and then earned his MBA from the Business School in 1936. In the early 1930s, while working as a summer laborer for the Sierra Railroad in California’s Tuolumne County, he was the star pitcher for the O.K. Candy baseball team.

In a newspaper interview three years ago, Ernie Arbuckle recalled how those early years shaped him. The Great Depression saw the collapse of his family’s Southern California real estate business, meaning he alone had to pay for his education. He pumped gas at the old Shell station on the campus, delivered laundry, sold tickets to Stanford games, and read seven days a week to a blind man living in Woodside. “My first year at Stanford was probably the most influential thing that ever happened to me,” Ernie Arbuckle told the interviewer. “I had to make all my own decisions, and pay all my expenses. It made me absolutely independent.”

Ernie Arbuckle looked the role of the traditional CEO, complete with a healthy, ruddy complexion and a shock of white hair. Articulate, affable, witty, and charming, he carried 155 pounds on his 5-foot-8-inch frame, the same weight as when he graduated from Stanford GSB. Into his 70s, he swam 20 to 25 lengths in his backyard pool every morning, rain or shine. “I do it because it makes me feel so much better starting the day,” he said.

As Ernie Arbuckle’s list of accomplishments grew over the years, his name became synonymous with excellence at Stanford. In 1968 the Business School’s Alumni Association created the Arbuckle Award to honor alumni who have achieved managerial excellence in their careers and through their public service work. The first award, the highest honor the school can bestow, went to Ernie Arbuckle himself. There is also an Arbuckle Award for MBA students. It is presented at graduation to the student judged by his or her classmates to have contributed the most to the school.

Finally, an endowed professorship was created in his name in 1982 with major gifts from David Packard, William R. Hewlett, Edmund Littlefield, Belton Kleberg Johnson, the Grace Foundation, Hewlett-Packard Foundation, IBM, and Wells Fargo Foundation. The Ernest C. Arbuckle Professorship of Marketing and Management Science currently is held by Venkataraman “Seenu” Srinivasan.

“I believe Ernie will be most remembered for his personal style — his emphasis on the individual. He never lost sight of his belief that people are more important than organizations. He was a friend, mentor, and counselor to all who knew him. It was not possible for Ernie and Kitty to have a casual friend. They only knew how to make every one of us feel that we were the most important person in their lives.”
— Dean Robert Jaedicke
“I think we would all agree he had a genius for friendship.”
— John Gardner

Ernie Arbuckle was a thinker as well as a doer. He frequently wrote and spoke on the roles of the business firm, the business executive, and the business school. On one occasion, he said, “If the private enterprise system as we know it is to survive, we must instill in our students attitudes that accept integrity, rooted in the bedrock of principle, as more important than operational competence.”

He spoke eloquently about the advantages of a business career: “There is no career that can match business in diversity of intellectual interest, in the urge to achieve, which results from the stimulus of competition, in the opportunity to cause change and the necessity of adapting to it, and in the responsibility for providing the decision-making kind of leadership that is indispensable to a vigorous, free society.”

Although he was convinced that business schools played a vital role in educating managers who could cope with modern business complexities, he also warned: “But God help us if America ever gets to the point where a man has to have [a business degree] to succeed in management.”

He believed fervently in the free market economy, but urged businesses to look beyond profit as their only bottom line consideration. “Performance can be measured by broad social criteria in addition to, not as a substitute for, profits, without, I think, devitalizing the free enterprise system,” he said in 1963. “In the future, corporations may well be judged, in addition to profit performance, on their influence on general economic growth, on their advances in productivity, the usefulness of their products, stability of employment, and impact upon community.”

“First and most important, Kitty and Ernie were a couple. Whatever they did, they did together. Ernie’s contributions to Stanford Graduate School are legion, but so are Kitty’s.”
— Dean Robert Jaedicke
“Kitty’s real passion in her life was her passion for Ernie and her family … Ernie was proud of Kitty Arbuckle … Ernie saw her as a shining light in his life, and he often said to others how lucky he was to have found her. He saw her strength and accomplishments, and he saw her as an intellectual companion.”
— Carol Marchick, associate dean for external relations, Stanford GSB
“I have been able to see what an important role Kitty played in Ernie’s accomplishments. Without her encouragement, he probably wouldn’t have left a successful career in business to become dean of Stanford Graduate School of Business.”
— David Packard

They say it was love at first sight for Ernie Arbuckle and the former Katherine Norris Hall. And that love expressed itself in a marriage that lasted 43 years, and included four children and five grandchildren. Kitty grew up in Dallas and graduated from the University of Texas at Austin. She was interested in the theater and attended the symphony regularly. While her husband was dean, she audited courses at Stanford GSB.

Kitty Arbuckle loved her home and loved entertaining. “The alumni who graduated when Ernie was dean cite graduation at the Arbuckle home as one of their fondest memories,” said Carol Marchick. “Kitty also had smaller student groups over, and she really made the Arbuckle home a focal point for [Stanford] GSB activity. Kitty was part of the team that built the Stanford feeling.” When her husband stepped down from his business school post, Wallace Sterling, president of Stanford, paid special tribute to her: “Kitty [made] her time, her energy, and her home so available to Stanford’s best interests that the University can never adequately thank her.”

But Kitty and Ernie never lost their interest in the school. Years after their “retirement,” they still hosted an annual potluck on Memorial Day at their home for the Stanford GSB faculty and staff. Ernie Arbuckle continued to play a prominent role in every commencement ceremony, at which he would personally present the Arbuckle Award to a graduating MBA student. He would also personally present the alumni version of the Arbuckle Award every year.

Ernie Arbuckle continued to serve as an adviser to the deans who succeeded him. Dean Jaedicke noted how the former dean had been an integral part of the planning for the school’s planned second building, which will be under construction later this spring.

“To the children of Ernest and Katherine Arbuckle: Nancy and I were deeply saddened to learn of the death of your parents this past weekend. We know that words seem small at times like this, but we do want you to know that we share your loss …. His enthusiasm and desire to serve will be a continuing inspiration to all who knew and worked with him throughout his distinguished career.”
— Ronald Reagan (from a letter read during the memorial service)
“Kitty and Ernie Arbuckle enriched the lives of many, many people during the nearly seven decades they were with us.”
— David Packard

More than a thousand people attended the memorial service held to pay tribute to the Arbuckles in Stanford Memorial Church on Jan. 24. It was a somber, emotional service, with scriptural readings given by Edmund Littlefield, Ben Eastman, and Alf Brandin, and remembrances offered by John Gardner, David Packard, Carol Marchick, and Robert Jaedicke. Officiating was the Rev. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, dean of the chapel.

The Arbuckles are survived by a son, Ernest Jr., of Etna, California; three daughters: Susan, of Los Altos, who works for the university’s office of development; Joan Marie Buenrostro, of San Antonio; and Katherine Pribble, of Klamath Falls, Ore.; and five grandchildren.

“In a time of shaky values and wobbly standards, they left us the memory of two wonderful human beings who lived by faith and honor, who loved their family, and gave life the best that they had.”
— John Gardner