The Moment



August 1940

Peter Drucker's typewriter is packed for his vacation and this is a problem. He's leaving New York City tomorrow but he has to write a letter tonight. A handwritten note is out of the question. Miss Elsa, the fourth-grade teacher he worshipped, called his handwriting a disgrace. His father, deciding a penmanship intervention was necessary, enrolled him in an intensive course, but even Mr. Feldman, the handwriting master of Vienna, could do little to improve the situation. Peter knows he needs to mail this letter before he leaves. He resorts to typing on an "old and strange machine," apologizing for the appearance of the letter in a postscript.

He is writing to Robert Devore Leigh, president of Bennington College. They met earlier in the day for the first time. Leigh is in New York, staying at the Hotel Shelton and contacted Drucker at the request of a faculty member interested in having Drucker come speak at Bennington. After discussing the possibility of a visit, Leigh poses a question to Drucker: Can he recommend anyone for Bennington's newly established honorary fellow positions, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation's programs aiding refugee scholars?

Peter is typing with determination. "I am afraid I overwhelmed you with names and recommendations of refugees and quasi-refugees this morning; I hope I have not been too much of a nuisance. But it is not often that I meet a college president and even less often that I meet one willing to do something for refugees. And for the last seven years-ever since the flood started with Hitler's coming to power-I have spent most of my spare time trying to help those who had to leave their native country..." As he types he accidentally presses two keys at once and the typebars fly up like swords locked in battle on the page. He pries them apart with his fingers and pushes them back down into their proper places. "And since I have no money to give away and no sources of funds I have been forced to confine myself to those refugees where I feel that they are entitled to my help not on account of their need but primarily on account of their qualities and qualifications. Even with this limitation there is still a very large number left as you may have realized this morning."

Since his meeting with Leigh he has thought of another couple, the soprano Lotte Leonard and her husband. It is this omission that compels his urgent letter writing. He pushes the return lever hard and types, "Now both are in Toulouse and expect daily to be handed over to the German Secret Police."

In the months ahead, Lotte Leonard and her husband will flee to America. She will teach at the Juilliard School. President Leigh will select Karl Polanyi as one of Bennington College's honorary fellows. Polanyi will teach and work on his seminal book The Great Transformation. Ultimately, Drucker himself will join the Bennington College faculty and enjoy collegial relationships with Polanyi, Martha Hill, Robert Woodworth, and others. But this is all in a future he can't know at this moment. At this moment he does what he can. He battles the typewriter, desperate to get the words down on the paper, hoping to convince Leigh: "Please forgive me this new frontal attack. But to try to help people like the Leonards, the Polanyis etc. is all I can do at present. And it is little enough. Sincerely yours, Peter Drucker."

From the Archive

Biography

Known as the father of modern management and a self-described social ecologist, Peter Drucker led the way in exploring and creating management as a field of study. Drucker was a faculty member at Bennington College from 1942-1949, where he wrote and published two of his books. The Future of Industrial Man (1942) was responsible for bringing his expertise to the attention of General Motors, who then asked him to study their corporate structure. While still at Bennington, he spent time observing General Motors from the inside, leading to his groundbreaking book Concept of the Corporation (1946), considered to be the first study of a major business venture. Drucker recommended faculty member Karl Polanyi to President Robert Leigh at Bennington in 1940. He went on to write over 30 books spanning over half a century. His awards include the 2002 Presidential Medal of Freedom and in June 2004 he was presented with his seventh McKinsey Award by the Harvard Business Review. In 1999, Laura-Lee Whittier Woods '48 established the Peter Drucker Fund for Educational Innovation.

Sources:
Drucker, Peter. Adventures of a Bystander. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1994. Print.
Drucker, Peter. "Letter to President Leigh." 1 Aug, 1940. Letter of President's Office, Leigh, Robert, D., Acc. 132. Print. https://crossettlibrary.dspacedirect.org/handle/11209/5445
Drucker, Peter. "Letter to President Leigh." 3 Sept, 1940. Letter of President's Office, Leigh, Robert, D., Acc. 132. Print. https://crossettlibrary.dspacedirect.org/handle/11209/5413