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JOHN DICKSON HARPER 1910-1985 BY ALLEN S. RUSSELL OHN DICKSON HARPER, former chairman of the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa), noted industrialist, and civic leader, ctied on July 26, 1985, in Pittsburgh's St. CIair Me- morial Hospital of a heart ailment. He was seventy-five years old. Mr. Harper was born in Louisville, Tennessee, on April 6, 1910. When he was fifteen years old and still in high school, he obtained a summer job running an electric truck for twelve clolIars a week at Alcoa's nearby operations, where he continuer! to work during school vacations until he received his high school diploma. After graduation, he became a co- operative student at the University of Tennessee and alter- natec3 his schedule between classes and his job in the Alcoa plant. He also found time to be a member of the ROTC, the Pershing Rifles, and Tau Beta Pi. In 1933, following his graduation from the university with a degree in electrical engineering, Mr. Harper went to work operating a complex powerhouse switchboard! in one of Al- coa's hyclroelectric plants. Two years later, he was assisting in the actual design and construction of a new generating sta- tion. In 1943 John became assistant power manager of Alcoa's extensive Tennessee and North Carolina generating facili- ties. During the next eight years, he organized central load 185
186 MEMORIAL TRIBUTES dispatching, standardized operating procedures, coordi- nated plant operations with the Tennessee Valley Authority, directed the development of telemetering equipment, and patented several sophisticated telemetry devices. In addition, he developed maintenance procedures for equipment and oils and administered power contracts for the facilities. After Alcoa decided in 1951 to build a hundred-million- dolIar aluminum smelter at Rockdale, Texas, Mr. Harper was given the responsibility of building and operating it. He soon found, however, that the actual building of the smelter was only one of his many construction problems. In addition to erecting a huge reduction plant in an industrially undevel- oped area of Texas, Alcoa had decided to generate its power by strip-mining and burning lignite, a subbituminous coal that abounded in the area. This decision meant that while his engineers handled site preparations (getting the land ready for foundations and scooping out an 850-acre lake to store water for the smelter), Mr. Harper had to prepare area residents for a major upheaval in their landscape and their lives. This part of the story was reported in the Saturday Evening Post 1955 article, "How to Get Along with Texans," by George Sessions Perry. According to Perry, Mr. Harper, wearing khakis and driving an inexpensive car, set out to win friends for Alcoa. He became acquainted with the area's ranchers, farmers, businessmen, and politicians; helped the small town of Rockdale expand to accommodate thousands of construc- tion workers and, later, production employees; purchased property and minerals; negotiated water rights-of-way with landowners along a tweIve-mile pipeline to the San Gabriel and Little rivers; and generally dispelled fears that Pitts- burgh Yankees were out to ruin Texas for a profit. later, reported Perry, when plant operations required the con- struction of a lake, he did not surround it with a nine-foot fence to keep the public out, but instead stocked it with bass and invited the community to enjoy it as their own. Mr. Harper pledged to Rockdale's town council that Alcoa
JOHN DICKSON HARPER 187 would pay taxes in advance so that the town could expand such essential municipal facilities as water lines and streets. New schools also had to be built for the children who would come with the anticipated employment floocl. When he learned that the weekly Rockdale Reporter had been campaign- ing for years for a municipal swimming pool, Mr. Harper arranged for Alcoa to donate the lanct and pay half the cost of a first-cIass pool installation. Scarcely a year after ground was broken, the first potline at the Rockdale Works was producing aluminum. By early 1954 the entire smelter was in operation at a capacity of 90,000 tons a year a figure that later expansion increaser! to more than 300,000 tons a year, making Rockciale Alcoa's largest smelter. On April 24, ~ 954, more than seven hundred special guests, including Governor Shivers and Alcoa executives, vis- itec! the smelter for lunch and a tour that preceded an open house. The next day John Harper learnect what it meant to invite all of Texas to a public inspection. He and his staff had expected ten thousand visitors at most. By nightfall, how- ever, more than twenty thousand central Texans tract poured through the plant, leaving an exhausted Alcoa staff. In 1955 Alcoa's management clecidecI that John Harper tract fulfilled his Rockdale mission and transferred him to Pittsburgh. He was ma(le Smelting Division general manager in 1956 anti was appointee! vice-presiclent in charge of the Alcoa Smelting and Fabricating divisions in 1960. In 1962 he became, in succession, vice-presiclent in charge of produc- tion, executive vice-presiclent, and a ctirector. He became president of Alcoa in 1963 and chairman of the board in 1970. He held the position of chief executive officer from 1965 until March I, 1975. On June 19, 1975, he retired as chairman, but continued as a director. He was chairman of the executive committee from 1965 until 1978. Ranked high among his accomplishments was the devel- opment of the Alcoa smelting process, a revolutionary, power-saving method of producing aluminum. Mr. Harper
188 MEMORIAL TRIBUTES supported this project from its long, expensive development stage through its full-scale piloting at Palestine, Texas. Ap- plication of the smelting process was eventually postponed by excess capacity in the aluminum industry. During his busy years with Alcoa, John Harper rose at 6:30 or earlier every morning, including Sundays and holidays; his tremendous drive kept him going until late at night. It was commonplace for him to work several hours in his Pitts- burgh office, fly to New York in a company plane for a busi- ness luncheon or another engagement, and return to Pitts- burgh by late afternoon. Typically, by dawn the next day, he could be off to Washington, an Alcoa installation on either coast, or an overseas business conference. John Harper's leadership style in Alcoa was modeled on a practical plane. He delegated authority; expected, and got, results. He might ask advice from a dozen associates on ma- jor problems, but when it was time to act, he made the deci- sion. Following his retirement from Alcoa, Mr. Harper accepted the position of director and chairman of the Communica- tions Satellite Corporation (COMSAT) and director of ALA Investors, Inc., Crutcher Resources Corporation, and Banque Paribas. The year before he passed away, he became chairman of AEA Investors, Inc. Of all his convictions, none was more positive than his be- lief that no business could survive without adequate profits regardless of how prosperous it or its country might appear to be. He expressed his feelings on this point to the Dallas Management Association: Whatever the reasons may be, it is evident that increasing numbers of Americans seem to want the benefits of the free enterprise eco- nomic system without first putting forth the effort to earn the profits that make possible an even higher standard of living. If we are to have a public policy of prosperity without profits, this means that we must embrace a new economic and political philoso- phy one in which state control and dictatorial power replace our free choice in the marketplace and I firmly believe that this is not what Americans, including those in labor and management, really want.
JOHN DICKSON HARPER 189 The dangerous illusion of profitless prosperity feeds on ignorance, indifference, and procrastination.... He callect business to a broader fulfillment of its social re- sponsibility and to creeper involvement with the society at large. To the Congress of American Inclustry sponsored by the National Association of Manufacturers, he said: A viable society in which business can prosper and grow, the kind of society all of us want, demands the intelligent exercise of public re- sponsibility by the business community itself.... It makes sense to participate with corporate money, talent, and energy in a community project to improve conditions in the slums. In the long run, such participation will prove to be beneficial to your own business. Because, if you reduce delinquency, crime, and illiteracy, you reduce your own corporate tax load, and you convert welfare cases into productive workers. In delivering the three 1976 Fairiess Lectures, "A View of the Corporate Role in Society," at Carnegie Mellon Univer- sity, he saint: "l have offered as my central thesis the convic- tion that it is the responsibility of the corporation to deserve and keep society's trust, and that it does so by being a positive agent of change." He also said in these lectures, "l have trier! to practice the principles of management responsibility which ~ preach. ~ have (devoted myself to bringing others together to work to- gether for the common good." John Harper was a founder ant! the first chairman of the Business Rouncitable, chairman of the National Alliance of Businessmen, vice-chairman of the Committee for Economic Development, honorary member of the Business Council, and a senior member of the Conference Board. He was a founder and chairman of the International Primary Alumi- num Institute and president of the Aluminum Association. In addition, he was a director of the Mellon National Cor- poration, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, the Goodyear Tire ant] Rubber Company, and the Procter & Gamble Company. He was vice-chairman of the Committee
190 MEMORIAL TRIBUTES for Constructive Consumerism, vice-chairman and a life trustee of Carnegie Mellon University, and a member of both the national executive committee of the Boy Scouts of Amer- ica and the Business Committee for Arts, Inc. Among numerous honors bestowed on Mr. Harper cluring his career was the Knight's Cross, Orcler of St. Olav, for dis- tinguished contributions to Norwegian industry. He also held the Silver Beaver Award of the Boy Scouts of America, the American Business Press Silver Quill Award, and the Pennsylvania Society's GoIct Medal for Distinguished Service. He received the 1977 Gantt Memorial Medal of the Ameri- can Society of Mechanical Engineers and the first Bryce Har- low Foundation Award in ~ 982. John Harper was a fellow of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, a fellow of the American Society of Me- chanical Engineers, and a life member of both the Institute . . of Electrical and Electronics Engineers anct the American So- ciety for Metals. He hell] a number of honorary degrees: doctor of engineering degrees from Lehigh University, Maryville College, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; cloc- tor of law degrees from both Carnegie Mellon University anct the University of Evansville; a doctor of science degree from CIarkson College of Technology; and a doctor of commercial science from Widener College. He was electecl to the Na- tional Academy of Engineering in 1971. Mr. Harper is survived by his wife Mary Lee anc! her three sons of Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania, and Jonathan's Lancling, Florida, and by his sons, John D. of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, ant] Thomas W. of Knoxville, Tennessee. He is also survived by eight grandchildren. His first wife, Samma Lucille Mc- Crary, died in 1979. His eldest son, Rogers McCrary Harper, cried in 1980. Mr. Harper's service to the U.S. government and to the aluminum industry was long anct (listinguishetl. During his tenure as chief executive officer of the worIcl's largest alumi- num producer, he became the spokesman for the aluminum industry. He was an ardent advocate of the social responsi-
JOHN DICKSON HARPER 191 bility of industry and an ardent promoter of private enter- prise. He strengthened Alcoa's position as an industrial leader and led the company's penetration into promising and innovative market areas. A staunch believer in business and government cooperation, he was the friend and confidant of presidents of the United States.