The Unforgettable John K. Shank
There once was a legendary, larger-than-life professor. If Marvel’s 137th movie of this year is named UltraProf, it would be based on John Shank. He taught a dry subject (think Accounting), but his charisma and his orchestration of his class made each class session seem like 60-person David Mamet plays. Every class had passion, drama, and some surprising reveal at the end that people still talked about ten years later. Here’s a quote:
Although the opposite is true, some believed he was only about style. This is because he wore Brooks Brothers braces, walked with a MVP swagger, drove a Dartmouth green sports car, and he had a runway model wife who was like some VP of Finance somewhere. His office was professionally-decorated with French draperies, super-thick Dartmouth green carpeting, and a massive 18th century French desk which sat in the middle of the room so his desk chair could face the doorway. Even his two huge perfectly groomed dogs were effortlessly well-mannered. On Saturdays he’d come to work, and they’d sit on either side of his desk and face the door. They were like lions on either side of a throne, and he was like Odin . . . or John Wick. His dogs keep eternal vigilance. My dog wets on me and then licks my face.
This was 1992. Because he had about the highest MBA teacher ratings at Dartmouth's Tuck School and I had about the lowest ratings, he let me sit in on his classes so I could suck less . . . so I could learn better teaching strategies and classroom management skills. One Saturday during a Tuck alumni reunion, I stopped by his office and told him I had overheard some alumni who were still talking about what they had learned in a class they had taken with him 10 years earlier.
He looked up over the top of his half-glasses, and said, “That’s what they’re supposed to do. It means I’ve done my job.”
He said his goal isn’t to teach students to get a great first job (or to, analogously, get a high score on the GRE or MCAT), his goal is to teach them to succeed for wherever they will be in 10 or 20 years. Although he got outstanding teaching ratings, he brushed them off by saying that teacher ratings mainly measured the moment – they mainly measured the warm feelings a student had at the time. Ratings might capture style (which he was very good at), but they may not always measure long-term substance.
I regret that I never had the presence of mind to ask him how he did it -- how he knew what long-term impact to aim at. Since he was on boards and did a lot of consulting with upper management, I suspect he taught his courses like he was teaching board members and upper management. That is, when he was teaching, he treated them like they were high level managers. That’s one way to do it.
Ten or fifteen years after I left Dartmouth I was in Boston, and I rented a car to drive up to visit John. I wanted to thank him for being so generous, and I wanted to prove to myself that his office, desk, and dogs were as amazing as I remembered them. There was a different name on his door. I was too late. I later learned John Shank had passed away in 2006 in a car accident in Southern California.
I love the idea of trying to teach for a long-term impact. It’s like trying to create long-term memories. I sometimes think I can remember everything John said to me because he was always so intentional with every conversation. Just like he was with his classes.
At the next reunion, if his former student’s aren’t talking about what they learned 30 years ago, they’ll be talking about how hard he tried. That itself was a great lesson.
Beating the Back-to-School Blues
"The summer's over and I didn't get anything done."
I’ve heard this every August, and I’ve said this almost every August.
Whenever I’ve asked professors and PhD students what percent of their planned work they got accomplished over the summer, no one has ever said “All of it.” Almost everyone says something between 25 to 35%. Everyone from the biggest, most productive super stars with the biggest lab to the most motivated, fire-in-their-belly PhD student with the biggest anxiety.
We are horrible estimators of how productive we’ll be over the summer. I was in academia for 35 years (including MA and PhD years), yet every single summer I never finished more than 30% of what I planned. How can we be so poorly calibrated? We never learn. We never readjust our estimate for the next summer. Next summer we’ll still only finish 25-35% of what we planned to do.
There are only two weeks in the year when I’m predictably down or blue. It’s the last two weeks of August. It’s not the heat (I mostly stay indoors). It’s not the impending classes (I love teaching). It’s not all the beginning of semester meetings (I loved my colleagues and loved passing notes to them under the table). Ten years ago, I realized that I felt down the end of every August because I had to admit “school’s starting and I haven’t gotten jack done all summer.” The beginning of school is the psychological end of the Academic Fiscal Year.
One solution to our August blues lies in understanding what times of the year we do like most, and to see if we can rechannel those warm-glowy feelings to August.
If you had to guess the #1 favorite time of the year for most academics, you’d probably guess “The end of school.” The #2 favorite time of the year you might guess would be the “Winter or Christmas break.” What would you guess the third favorite time of the year is?
Surprisingly, I’ve heard people say it’s when they turn in their Annual Activity Report. That’s the summary they turn into their hard-to-please Department Chair that summarizes what they’ve accomplished in the prior 12 months: What they published, who they advised, what new things they’ve started, what new teaching materials they’ve created, and so forth.
Snore. How could writing an Annual Activity Report be a highlight?
Because it shows in black-and-white that we didn’t sleep-walk through the year. It reminds us that the publication that we now take for granted was one that we were still biting our nails about last year at this time. It reminds us of our advises who were stressing over their undergraduate thesis a year ago and who have now happily graduated. It reminds us of the cool ideas we've into hopeful projects -- ideas we hadn't even thought of a year ago.. Going back in a 12-month-ago time machine shows us what we did accomplish. It turns our focus toward what we did – and away from what we didn’t.
Once we cross things off of our academic To-do list, we tend to forget we accomplished them. August might be a good time to do a mid-year AAR. It might not turn our August blues into a happy face yellow, but might at least turn it to green. A green light for a great new school year.
Have a tremendous school year.
Some people have a rare aura around them. It's an aura or a glow that something is going to be different because this person is in the room. Or it's that something is going to be different because this person is in charge, or at the podium, or even at dinner with you.
Fred Webster had this aura. Some people saw it when he was a marketing professor. Some saw it when he was the Executive Director for the Marketing Science Institute (MSI). Some saw it when he started the Tuck Summer Marketing Executive Program, or when he was a volunteer fireman Etna, NH. Others even saw it when he was sitting across from them at a recruiting dinner. I think he had this aura around him all the time.
There's a great story that during WWII, Winston Churchill was attending one of Franklin Roosevelt's White House cabinet meetings in Washington DC. He was seated off to the side of the large cabinet table where all FDR and all of the cabinet Secretaries were seated. Roosevelt cheekily said to Churchill, "Winston, I bet you wished you were sitting at the head of this table." Churchill replied, "Anywhere I sit is the head of the table."
Anywhere Fred sat seemed to be the Head of the Table. At board meetings for the Marketing Science Institute, all of the marketing professors would crowd around CEOs. All of the CEOs would crowd around Fred. He was serious when the topic was heavy, entertaining when the topic was light, and always, always pithy and interesting. I had never heard of the words "turner of a phrase" until meeting Fred.
Fred grew up on a hard-working dairy farm in Upstate New York, not far from not far from Auburn. He must have done very well in school because a scholarship to Dartmouth and to Tuck followed, along with a PhD from Stanford, and an inimitable career of impact that continued long after he retired.
He did well wherever he was planted, but he also did well when working with wherever you were planted. At one point a veteran janitor at Fred's school commented that in 25 years as a janitor, Fred was the only professor who knew him and greeted him by name. Trees that grow in strong winds on dairy farms grow deep roots.
I used to write down the prophetic, or funny, or pithy, or interesting one-liners or stories Fred would say. They were Websterisms. They might be something he said in a meeting, executive education class, at lunch, or while passing each other in the hallway. I'd scribble them in a notebook because when I would reread them they would either make me laugh or think. After reviewing them over the years, some of them stick.
When I learned about Fred's passing earlier this month, I wanted to share what he meant to me to my three teenage daughters (who had only heard snippets about him over the years). After dinner, we migrated to the living room, as I scrambled off to find my book of Websterisms. Since I couldn't quickly find it, I had to wing it. Probably for the better. Instead of spending the rest of the night reading an endless list of funny quotes or insightful life lessons to three highly distractible teenagers, I spent it telling stories of what I remember Fred doing -- and being -- for other people.
I'd like to think that as they heard the stories, they saw the aura and the glow.
If you knew him, you might even see it in his photos.
Frederick E. Webster, Jr.
TUCSON, AZ — Frederick Elmer Webster, Jr. passed away on Tuesday, May 24th, 2022 in Tucson, Arizona with his wife Mary Alice and daughter Lisa by his side. Fred was born on October 22, 1937 in Auburn New York, the son of Fred and Evelyn Webster.
Fred grew up in Auburn, New York and met Mary Alice while attending Auburn High School. They were married for 66 years.
Fred was a scholar, teacher, father, and husband with a deep devotion to family, community and service. He was a class of 1959 graduate of Dartmouth College establishing lifelong friendships with many of his classmates. He continued his education earning an MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth in 1960 and a PhD from Stanford University in 1964. By the time he completed his work at Stanford, he and Mary Alice had three children; Lynn, Mark and Lisa.
Fred moved his young family to Tenafly, New Jersey for a brief time to explore the business world in New York City. He quickly discovered that the commuting life was not for him, and moved the family to Hanover, NH in 1965, where he began his career with the Tuck School. They moved to Etna, NH in 1968 and lived in an idyllic setting on 200 acres of land. Fred and Mary Alice and the kids had a small farm on the property with sheep, chickens, a few rabbits, cats and dogs. When he was not at the Tuck School or at the fire department, he was out in the fields on his tractor. He loved working the land and still found ways to work outside in the desert heat of Tucson.
He was a disciplined scholar and teacher. A professor of management, his area of expertise was marketing. He had a strong reputation in the field and was a pioneer in the areas he studied, making significant and enduring contributions.
Service to his community was deeply important to Fred. He served on many local and national boards. And everyone knew the importance of his commitment as a volunteer firefighter with the Etna Fire Department for over 20 years. His Tuck colleagues recall one day when a small fire erupted in Byrne Hall, he was the first on the scene and ready to go. He had spotted the smoke from afar, exclaimed to colleagues, “Well, that isn’t right!” and quickly dashed off to gear up. He also joined the Southport Fire Department in Southport, Maine where he and his wife would spend summers. Upon retiring to Tucson Arizona, he served as a volunteer with the Sherriff’s Auxiliary.
Fred loved cars. He drove several different models of Mercedes - all with the recognizable FEW plates. On his 50th birthday, Mary Alice surprised him with a 1937 Ford Woody. He spent many happy hours driving around town and to car shows.
A lifelong educator and learner, Fred continued to find ways to teach and research when he retired to Tucson. He was a visiting scholar and lecturer at the Eller College of Business at the University of Arizona, and he remained engaged with Tuck’s executive-education programs and marketing faculty colleagues.
He is survived by his wife, Mary Alice; daughters, Lisa Webster of Tucson, AZ; Lynn Webster Brink and her husband Russell of Sun City, AZ; daughter- in-law Annie Dean and husband Doug Jones of Falmouth, Mass; grandchildren, Bene Webster of New York City, Henry Jones of Boulder, CO, Maddie Webster of Tucson AZ, Nick Lane and wife Heather of Anthem, AZ, Kelly Lane of Phoenix, AZ; and great grandchildren Riordan, Declan, Damon, Madi and Maxine. Fred is preceded in death by his son, Mark.
The family would like to thank Traditions Hospice of Tucson for their compassionate care in Fred’s final 24 hours that allowed him to be home.
A memorial service will be held at Saint Alban’s Church in Tucson on Tuesday, July 26 at 10am.
If you would like to make a gift in Fred’s memory, please consider Saint Alban’s Episcopal Church, 3738 N. Old Sabino Canyon Road, Tucson, AZ 85750 or the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, 100 Tuck Hall, Hanover, NH 03755-9000.
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