When George Jedenoff enrolled at Stanford GSB more than 80 years ago, the school occupied a few classrooms on the central northeast corner of the university’s Main Quad. “My entering class consisted of some 90 students with only one woman and just a handful of foreign students,” he recalls. “Our training tools were simple and consisted of adding machines, calculators, slide rules, pencils, tons of paper, and the ever-trusted Underwood typewriter.”
Today, Jedenoff is the oldest living graduate of Stanford GSB. Yet he’s anything but a relic. At 104, he still exercises daily, drives, skis, Zooms, and wields an iPhone like a digital native.
Adaptability has been a hallmark of Jedenoff’s life. Born in Petrozavodsk, Russia, in 1917, he spent the first few years of his childhood moving with his family as they stayed one step ahead of the revolution and the civil war that followed. They eventually sought refuge in Harbin, China, before immigrating to the United States in 1923. Life for the newcomers was tough and got even tougher after the stock market crashed in 1929. Jedenoff landed a spot at Stanford, but scrambled to cover the $345 yearly tuition (about $6,600 in current dollars).
There he would meet his wife Barbara, start a career in the steel industry, and develop a lifelong devotion to Stanford and its business school. He remains proud of the MBA Class of ’42 Fellowship he helped establish in 1982, which has supported hundreds of students who, like him, might not have realized their ambitions without financial assistance. “I get these thank-you letters from the GSB students who are being helped by our fellowship,” he says. “The letters are so impressive, and the students selected are so outstanding.” As his year’s first and only alumni secretary, he penned his final class note in the spring 2021 issue of Stanford Business after the death of his friend and last remaining classmate.
Throughout it all, Jedenoff has remained engaged with a changing world, a feat he chalks up to an attribute that’s only fitting for a former steel man: There is strength in flexibility.
You came to the U.S. from Russia at a really young age. What was it like growing up as an immigrant?
The revolution in Russia was really horrible. A lot of my relatives who stayed were treated very badly. My grandfather died in prison. He was a retired admiral, and they just let him rot in jail. So we escaped all that and went through the experience of living in Harbin, China, which was pretty much a wild city at that point — lots of graft, lots of crime. But then from there, we immigrated to Seattle first, and then I went to high school in San Francisco.
We went through more trauma than most people who were just recovering from the Depression, because of language difficulties and also my parents separating. We got hard hit by the Depression. We were about one inch away from being homeless.
After you graduated from high school in 1935, you came to Stanford as an undergrad.
Fortunately, I had very good grades and I was lucky to get to Stanford. They did help me get jobs and then I was fortunate enough to get a George Gamble Scholarship. Because of that scholarship and various jobs I had at Stanford, I was able to go through all six years.
When you started at Stanford GSB in 1940, did you have a sense of what you wanted to do with your career?
Well, not at first. I thought I would like a technical assignment because I was pretty good in math and mechanics and such. The turning point was a summer job that I had working with Columbia Steel Company, a subsidiary of U.S. Steel. I liked that work better than anything that I had done before, because it enabled me to work with people and still retain a need for my technical knowledge. That was the basis of my accepting a permanent job with U.S. Steel after I graduated.
Of the things you learned at Stanford GSB, was there one thing that really set you on your path?
The GSB really taught me about management, a discipline with which I had had no experience. It gave me a broader picture of what it took to run a corporation. And being the optimist that I am, I decided I wanted to work for a big corporation so that when I got to the top, I’d have a big organization. At the time, U.S. Steel was one of the biggest corporations in the country, and that gave me plenty of room.
If a current Stanford GSB student were to go back and see the school in the early 1940s, what do you think they would be most surprised by?
The narrow scope of interests and curriculum provided by the school in preparing students for their future careers. The emphasis was more on acquiring personal skills in managing corporations, without much consideration of the social consequence or needs of society in general. I think what the business school is doing now in enlarging its scope and its objective to make the world better, rather than just for more personal improvement in one’s performance, is providing real leadership. It seems to me that applying knowledge just for self-gratification and to accumulate personal wealth is a shallow objective compared to using our skills to help improve the various institutions on which our livelihood depends and solving problems with which our society is confronted. Issues such as poverty, hunger, lack of opportunity, crime, social unrest, racial violence, climate control, and war desperately need attention.
You worked in the steel industry for more than 30 years. What’s the biggest change in how business was done then and now?
The biggest change was that at that time we were struggling to bring America’s competitive influence up and to strengthen our various industrial organizations. There was no real big concern about the world per se; it was about America and about our own future within this country. As time went by, I began to realize that we are living in one world, not just America, and that there are problems all over. And if these problems are not solved, then Americans and everyone else would suffer as we are doing now. So I began to get a broader viewpoint of how we incorporate all Americans, and all the world’s people, into improving their standard of living, rather than just a few at the expense of others.
How do you stay active and engaged these days?
I believe firmly in the principle that education is a lifelong activity, not just something that you go to college and then forget about. I enjoy learning things. I use Google quite a bit to answer my questions, like, “What was the score of the Stanford game yesterday?”
Stanford, the GSB, and the Hoover Institution have several programs I follow — they put out regular reports on special developments and current problems which are very informative and I can “attend” on Zoom. Condoleezza Rice is one of my favorite speakers. Among many other accomplishments, she can speak Russian well. My Russian now is about 95 years old, so I’ve forgotten a lot of it, but when I see her once in a while, I’ll talk to her a little bit in Russian. I get a kick out of that.
I don’t read books much because my eyesight’s gotten kind of bad and it takes me longer. Everything I do takes twice as long as it used to. But I am thankful that I can still do them. At the end of this month, I have to get my driver’s license renewed, and I’m a little worried about my eye test. [Editor’s note: His license was renewed.]
Do you still ski?
I’ve been able to ski consistently for 61 years, including a few runs this year at Sugar Bowl, but I can no longer ski at my favorite resorts in Utah because I can’t handle the altitude. I still do my 45 minutes of exercise every morning to keep limber, and that helps my mind, too.
You’ve adapted to so many changes in technology, politics, and society over your lifetime. How do you manage to change and remain true to yourself?
Well, I became adaptable when I didn’t have a choice. Fortunately, my mother was very positive and optimistic and really gave me a great deal of confidence and reassurance, even when we didn’t have anything. That philosophy stayed with me. Adaptability is a habit, and you’ve got to discipline yourself, and I feel I’m very, very disciplined. If I don’t like something, I find out why, and then try to adjust to it and then try to listen to the other viewpoint. And you may not change your mind, but at least I try to find out a reason for why a person is doing what they’re doing or why it affects me. And a lot of it is because of your ego, and you’ve got to consider that.
That’s who I am, and that’s why I’m still here at 104, worrying about these things — because I’ve been adaptable and optimistic. That’s what makes life fun for me. And hopefully, for as long as I live, I can still be a contributor, and that’s what I’m trying to be.