By Mark Hyatt
President & CEO
Character Education Partnership
We who knew the late Sandy McDonnell, the former CEO of McDonnell-Douglas who died last month at age 89, certainly have been heartened by all the national coverage of his lifetime achievements in the aerospace industry and his global success as a businessman. But really, at most, that only tells half the story of this inspirational man. His other life passions—i.e. ethics and character—arguably warrant equal time (at least) for the lessons they hold both for Wall Street and Main Street.
As Sandy often said, “we in the business world don’t want young people coming into our employment and communities who are brilliant but dishonest, who have great intellectual knowledge but don’t care about others, who have creative minds but are irresponsible. All of us in business and the community need to do our part in helping build young people of high character. There isn’t a more critical issue in education today.”
One of his final acts reaffirmed his commitment to that core belief. Just hours after his death, we at the nonprofit Character Education Partnership—which he helped to found in 1993—learned that Sandy had bequeathed a very generous sum to our national organization. This is a fitting symbol of his devotion to a subject that consumed not only his retirement, but most of his life; a journey that saw him rise from Eagle Scout to junior engineer on the Manhattan Project to chairman of a multinational corporation that employed tens of thousands.
As an Air Force fighter pilot and squadron commander, I came to know Sandy through his aircraft, so he became a hero to me. When I logged more than 1,200 hours flying and preparing for combat in the McDonnell Douglas RF-4 Phantom II jet, my admiration for the man behind these great airplanes only grew. But as I would find out years later, Sandy was much more than a captain of industry. He was a passionate and tireless advocate of character education for students of all ages throughout America. In the relay race of life, he wanted to make sure we never “dropped the baton” of good character between generations.
I first met Sandy in 2000 when I ran the Center for Character Development at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. To my delight, I soon discovered that the same man who contributed so much to America’s aviation history was just as concerned about the type of people who built and maintained his great products, who piloted them and who rode in them as passengers. In his mind, everyone was connected.
That ethic was apparent in his management and leadership at St. Louis-based McDonnell-Douglas, where he integrated character education and training into company programs for all employees—even top management. As he told me once, to him “it seemed that most leadership failures in America are character failures.”
With that in mind, after Sandy officially retired as chairman of his company board, he threw himself full-time into character education, establishing the ‘CharacterPlus’ program for K-12 schools in the St. Louis area. Not long after, he founded the Character Education Partnership (CEP) in Washington, D.C., where he only missed one board meeting prior to last month. And he never stopped dreaming of future successes.
Last summer, as I prepared to step down after 10 years as a public school superintendent in Colorado, Sandy called me to St Louis for a meeting. He told me that he wanted me to take the controls at CEP and steer it in a bold direction that would greatly broaden its impact and firmly establish it as a clearinghouse for best practices in promoting good character and cultivating a school culture of excellence and a social climate of respect. If I would accept his challenge, Sandy also wanted me to take character education beyond grades K-12 to colleges and universities. “Character building is a lifelong effort and higher education must take its role seriously in teaching college students to be more than just excellent engineers, doctors, lawyers and managers,” he explained. “As future leaders, they must learn to be ethical and good always—on and off the job, at home and at work.”
Sandy also urged me to take CEP beyond our borders to international neighbors who have similar needs for character education. And lastly, he asked me to sharpen the focus of CEP on character based leadership. He felt that “doing the right thing” must start at the top. “How will we ever have ethical and good people if the leaders are not modeling good behavior?” he asked.
In January, I stepped into the job that Sandy asked me to take. And now, in the wake of his passing, I feel the awesome responsibility of carrying out his wishes and honoring his rich legacy, which extends well above and beyond aviation. In his final public statement, released upon his death this week, Sandy McDonnell wrote, “So when you are sad and sick at heart, go to our friends and relatives and do good things.”
“Do good things.” I, for one, will do my utmost to fulfill the final request of this American icon. It is my honor to have known him and my privilege to help the organization he founded to create a more “just and compassionate” world.