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Harvard MBAs of '79

What will they become?

Everyone who sits through a college graduation ceremony wonders what the future holds for those young people and how will they shape it. There are few more interesting places to ponder those questions than the Harvard Business School, which officially sends off 889 graduates today.

Surely people asked the same questions 25 years ago, when another crop of Harvard MBAs graduated in the tougher economic times of 1979. They couldn't know what was ahead: two decades of enormous prosperity, tech revolutions, and a changing corporate world.

The Harvard Business School class of '79 produced a bumper crop of famous and occasionally infamous executives. Many are reaching career peaks now. All of those I spoke with recalled their B-school days as a formative experience in their professional lives. ''I'd count them among the best two years of my life," says US Labor Secretary Elaine Chao. ''It opened up a whole new world to me."

Computer technology produced the first famous member of the class well before graduation. Dan Bricklin developed Visicalc, the first electronic spreadsheet for personal computers, in 1978 while working on a case study.

Years later, classmate and current Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen became a leading academic voice on managing the stress companies faced from developing technologies. Today, '79 alum and billionaire Meg Whitman runs the world's most successful Internet company as chief executive of eBay Inc. Classmate George McMillan runs CMGI Inc. in Charlestown.

The names of class members can also be found in news stories about today's corporate scandals and the job of cleaning up the mess. Jeff Skilling, the former Enron Corp. president who may be remembered as the era's most notorious executive, counts himself as a member of the class. So does John Thain, who gave up his job as president of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. to become chief executive of the New York Stock Exchange following the Richard Grasso pay controversy.

The class of '79 has lived through a business world that changed dramatically for women. Just a few years out of Harvard, rising star Mary Cunningham found herself in the middle of scandal thanks to rumors of an affair with her boss, Bendix Corp. chief William Agee. They both divorced their spouses and married each other later, but Cunningham resigned and fell off the fast track for good.

Today, Whitman is probably the most successful self-made woman in American business history. Chao jumped off the corporate track years ago to run the Peace Corps and, later, the United Way of America.

Wealth and privilege were well represented in the class from the start, but many other alums tell different stories. Ron Sargent, the chief executive of Staples Inc., came from a blue-collar Kentucky family and went to work as a manager for Kroger Co., the supermarket firm that had paid him to bag groceries as a teenager.

Though there are plenty of famous members of the class of '79, the vast majority of graduates work out of the spotlight and often in entrepreneurial pursuits. People like Jim Bender, the former chief executive of Aware Inc. of Bedford; Charlie Cuneo, the head of a small New Hampshire manufacturing company; and Lisa Churchville, the general manager of WJAR-TV in Providence, are more typical.

In interviews with many of them, the recurring theme of their school years was a relentless sense of optimism. Bricklin recalled one professor telling his class the story about a child happy to be mired in manure because, with all of the evidence around him, there had to be a pony somewhere nearby. Students embraced the glass-half-full message so completely that one rode a pony into the second-floor classroom on the final day of the course. The class of '79 grew to be people who reshaped their world mostly for the better. All of them started with some talent and the horse they rode in on.

Steven Syre is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at

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