Miamian Spring '09 - Q&A with John Smale ’49

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Although John Smale ’49 and Charlie Mechem ’52 attended Miami about the same time, they did not meet until later when both were deeply involved in the Cincinnati community as CEOs of their respective companies, Smale at Procter & Gamble and Mechem at Taft Broadcasting (later renamed Great American).

As they came to know each other better, they developed a personal friendship that continued to grow as their wives, Phyllis Smale (Western College ’49) and Marilyn Mechem ’54, became close friends.

For “The Best Years of Our Lives” article about John’s experiences at Miami, he and Charlie talked by phone for more than an hour, John in Florida and Charlie from his home in California. Here is an edited version of the Q&A.

Charlie: John, how are you, my friend? The first question always, in any interview, is where were you born? I know it was Canada, John, and I know it was a log cabin. (John laughs.) Beyond that, we need details.

John: Well, it wasn’t in a log cabin, but it was in Listowel, Ontario, in August of 1927.

C: Were you raised there as well?

John Smale – Fly fishing J: My parents were Canadian. I did have a twin sister. Unfortunately, she died in 2000. At the point of time of our birth, my dad had taken a job in Chicago with Marshall Field’s, so we were in Listowel a few months because that was my mom’s home. Then we came to the United States. During the course of the ’30s, I spent most of my summers in Canada at a town called Wellesley, which was close by to Listowel and was my dad’s home. My aunt would fix me a sandwich, and I’d wander off with a cane pole and a can of worms to a lake or a stream or a pond. It was an ideal way to spend a summer for a child, at least one who was interested in fishing.

C: Your dad was at Marshall Field’s. How long was he associated with them?

J: Marshall Field’s had a wholesale operation, and my dad was a traveling salesman. He sold yard goods, woolens and silks and so forth in bolts. In those days it was popular for women to sew their own clothes or make clothes for their families. He would travel throughout the Midwest.

C: What was your house like growing up? Your dad obviously was on the road a lot, but how would you describe your bringing up?

J: Conventional. I went to grade school and high school in Elmhurst, Ill. My twin sister, Joy, and I were — particularly because of my mother’s focus on our achieving good grades — we were in competition generally. Joy was generally doing better than I.

By the time I was in high school, the Second World War had started, and that changed the nature of the whole society. We had a victory garden. There was gas rationing, and you had different stickers on your windshield telling how many gallons you were allowed to buy a week. There was a shortage of fats, butter, things like Crisco.

This was a backdrop throughout my entire high school. We had a lot of friends and did a lot of things like going around caroling and having toboggan slides and stuff like that. I was editor of the newspaper and involved in the Players theater group at the high school.

When I turned 17, I joined the Navy. They didn’t take you until you were 18. My dad was taking Joy around to look at schools because we were due to graduate in May or June of ’45. They both liked Miami. The then director of admission at Miami, Harry Gerlach, said, “Well, if her brother wants to come here, he ought to. There could be a big influx of veterans after the war, so he probably should try to get some experience here if he could leave high school early,” so that’s what I did.

It was not a voluntary action on my part. I was having a great time in my senior year in high school, but my parents wanted me to get to Miami before I went into the Navy, so that’s what I did.

I went to Miami in January of ’45. Got a semester in. And then I got a summer school semester in before I finally went into the Navy in September of ’45. I was in the Navy just for a year and came back then in September to Miami. My freshman year at that point was complete.

C: John, you’ve touched on something. I remember the war years very well. It’s like it became a totally different world. The gasoline rationing, the rationing of various kinds of foods. My dad was in the shoe business, and leather was rationed. I used to paste the little stamps that people had to bring in to buy shoes in a book that had to be sent into the government. Everybody in America understood that a major conflict was going on, and they felt that they were sacrificing.

J: When I went to Miami in January of ’45, I think there were about 3,000 students. Almost all of them were women. And there was a V-12 and a V-5 program, Navy programs. But then by the fall of ’46 when I went back, the population had to have at least doubled or maybe more.

I was living at the Phi Delt House and there were four of us in one room. And they had a Vetville. They put up Quonset huts for veterans who were married and had little babies.

C: I remember those very well.

J: And the attitude on the campus was pretty focused and serious. We had guys in the fraternity who had been prisoners of war, some of them had been crippled as a result of injuries in the war. They were really focused on getting an education and then going to work.

C: John, what were your first impressions of Miami?

J: I didn’t, of course, know anybody at Miami, but I became a Phi Delt pledge, and my first semester I roomed at Odgen Hall. When I came back in ’46, I was at the Phi Delt House, and by that time I knew all of the Phi Delt guys and other people on campus as well.

It was a very busy time for the university. They had all these returning students. There were faculty shortages, as you can imagine, as well as housing shortages and so forth.

I thoroughly enjoyed the fraternity. I became social chairman of the chapter. That led to writing two how-to books. Actually, booklets, not books. That over dignifies what they were. The first one was called Party ’Em Up. It was a list of different parties — pirates party, Hawaiian party, Christmas parties, etc. — and ideas about decorations.

I wrote all the sororities and the fraternities in the country asking for ideas, and I got many back. That was the basis of this book.

The next year I put out the next edition, which was Party ’Em Up Some More. Phyllis typed the letters. We sold them COD to sororities and fraternities across the country. It was that, with the GI Bill, that really put me through the last three years of Miami.

C: That is a riot. Boy, if you could go on Amazon now and get one of those out-of-print books (John laughs), I’d pay a lot of dough for it.

John, did you start out as a business major?

J: No. When I went to college, my mother thought I ought to be a doctor, so I went into pre-med. I was taking organic chemistry or inorganic. I can’t remember which one. I didn’t like it at all.

Then I had to take German. In those days, medical schools required that the student knew German. I was a disaster. My background is German. The name Smale is an Anglicized version of Schmehl. My grandfather emigrated to Canada in 1854. When he was a young man, his mother who was a widow, my great-grandmother, came over with four children and settled in this German-speaking area of Ontario.

At the First World War, my dad was in the Canadian tank corps. When he came back, there was such an anti-German feeling in Canada as well as in the States that he was having trouble getting a job. So when he came to the U.S., he tried to Anglicize the name and changed the spelling.

Anyway, in the German class, the fellow’s name was Breitenbucher. He was a short guy. He asked me to recite, and I would recite, and he would put his hands over his head and say, “Herr Schmale, Herr Schmale,” in distress.

At one point I said, “There’s too much homework here.”

The following Sunday … we used to have blanket parties. Charlie, I’m sure you remember those. Guys and gals would go out. … In this case, I was at the golf course with a gal, and professor Breitenbucher, an amateur golfer, played through.

So the next class, the professor said, “Well, Herr Schmale, you still think there’s too much homework?” And of course I didn’t have much of an answer to that.

I changed to general business because I figured medicine was not going to be for me.

C: I know that Professor Joe was a huge influence on you. Tell us a little bit about that.

J: Joe Seibert. He’d had polio as a youngster, so he walked with a limp and had a cane. He was just a marvelous teacher. The experience, the exposure I had with Joe solidified my direction in life in marketing.

I worked for him. He had something called Oxford Research Associates, which was his research business. They gave me the metal plaque that was on the outside of the wall of the building where he had his office. I have that still today.

We went around and knocked on doors, and we got paid 40 cents an hour. I gave Joe a copy of a letter that I had written my parents that my mom had kept. This was, of course, years later. I said I was having a good time working in Oxford Research Associates with him, but I complained about the pay.

There was a company in Cincinnati called NuMaid Margarine. In those days there were laws prohibiting margarine from being yellow. It was white, like lard. They would package it in a plastic sleeve, sealed, and there would be a little tablet inside that the housewife would rupture by pinching it, and it had yellow dye. She would knead the margarine until all the yellow dye was spread through the margarine and it was yellow.

Joe had an assignment from NuMaid Margarine to get petitions signed. Of course, there were no supermarkets so those of us working for him fanned out in grocery areas and drugstore areas to get people to sign the petition asking the Ohio Legislature to change the law.

That’s when I decided that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to get into marketing.

C: And Joe Seibert remained a lifelong friend, I know. And continued to influence you over the years.

J: And his wife, Bea, also, after Joe died.

C: Speaking of wives, let’s talk about Phyllis. How and when did you all meet?

John &  Phyllis – Dance at Miami J: This was the fall of ’45. I had been called into the Navy, but before I was due to report, I went to Oxford. Phyllis was walking along the street with a gal who had been a classmate of mine in high school. They were going to be roommates at Western College. Bunny, as she was called, introduced me to Phyllis.

The next day Phyllis and another girl were on High Street. I was with the fella who I had been rooming with at Tuffy’s. And I said, “I know the redhead. Why don’t we ask them if they’d like to go up to the movies.” He said, “OK, but I think I’d like to go with the redhead.” So we flipped a coin and I won and we went to the movies.

That was the start of what eventually became a loving relationship that lasted over 56 years.

I used to tramp out to Western College in the wintertime on those cold, cold nights.

I remember in those days the fraternities had a practice. When you gave your girlfriend your fraternity pin, the girlfriend got serenaded. So the whole Phi Delta Theta fraternity marched out at night to Peabody Hall. Phyllis was up on the third or fourth floor with a candle in the window, and I had to stand in front of all of the fraternity and sing “I Love You Truly,” which had to be pretty awful, I would guess. Then the fraternity sang some great songs.

We dated all through college. Her home was in Evansville, Ind., and I would visit her there once or twice in the summer, and she would come up to Elmhurst once or twice during the summer.

I still have all of the letters I wrote her every summer, beginning when I was in the Navy. A couple of years ago I reread them, and they were pretty dopey, but they were love letters then. That relationship has been the highlight of my life.

C: And those of us who knew her could understand why.

The serenading of your pin plant was really something. I always figured this was the ultimate test of love. If they could survive your singing under those circumstances, there was a good chance that the whole thing was going to work. It was a wonderful thing, and my wife still talks about how much it meant to her.

You married when?

J: In September of 1950. Phyllis was born in May and I was born in August, and she was bound and determined that the paper was not going to list her age as one year older than me. So instead of a June or a May wedding, we had a September wedding.

C: How do you feel she impacted your life?

J: Phyllis, in a sense, Charlie, allowed me to focus on what I was doing for a living. I guess there are some people who can focus on more than one thing at once. I mean, they can have a difficult home life and still do well in the business world. I couldn’t do that. I was just not built that way. She raised our four kids. She was her own person. She was bright, attractive, but independent minded.

Gardening was her love. She spent so many happy hours at our home where we lived for about 30 years in Cincinnati overlooking the Ohio River, developing the landscaping, the flowers, and so forth.

She raised about a million dollars for what she called city gardens. This was to do plantings on parkways to provide a green aspect to the city.

I was so comfortable in my relationship with Phyllis and so at ease that there was no tension. The home life was totally supportive. I don’t know what life would have been like had I not had her.

C: John, in the interviews that you’ve given through the years, you’re frequently described as quiet, self-effacing, low profile. Do you think that’s an accurate description of you?

J: Probably. I’ve had chances to write books. The GM experiences [John Smale was chairman of the board of General Motors 1992-1996] produced quite a few of those chances. And I was approached after I retired from Procter, but it always seemed to me that that was mostly just curiosity seekers, people looking for who shot who or whatever.

C: Well, John, stop being so self-effacing for a minute and address as candidly as you can what you think your principal strengths have been. Obviously, I’m addressing your great success at Procter & Gamble and the reputation you built there. What qualities and characteristics permitted you to achieve to that level?

J: First of all, I was really having a good time. I was working often until 10 or 11 every night and a day on the weekend because I was totally immersed in what I was doing. This is when I was in brand management and an advertising manager. It was probably the first 10 to 15 years of my career. Life would be awful long if you were working at something you didn’t like to do.

I never really envisioned that I was going to end up as chief executive of Procter & Gamble. That’s probably a good thing because it seems to me that if you’re focused on making a success out of what you’re doing, then, certainly at a company like P&G, you could assume that your personal success is going to take care of itself.

C: If you had to enumerate your two or three career highlights, what would they be?

J: The first one was the success of Crest, which, when I became responsible, had about a five and a half share of the market and was faltering. The advertising agency developed a campaign called “Look, Mom, no cavities.” Within the next three years, we were up to a 12.5 percent and growing. At that point, we got the American Dental Association to award us their seal of approval, which was the first time they’d ever done this for a consumer product, and that sent the brand through the roof.

Later on in my career, the focus was on growing internationally. We significantly increased our presence around the world; Procter was very late getting into international markets. Before the Second World War, we were in Canada and the Philippines and Cuba and the UK and that was it. Our competitor, Colgate, was around the world long before that.

Another highlight was the acquisition of several over-the-counter drug companies, the most important was Richardson-Vicks, which got us into Pantene Shampoo, Oil of Olay, all of Vicks health products, Vidal Sassoon shampoo. When we acquired Vicks in 1985, we were not in Malaysia, we were not in Indonesia, we were not in Singapore, we weren’t really in Hong Kong to any degree or Australia or Thailand. Vicks had sales organizations, infrastructure, financial people, etc. in all of those countries. It was a golden opportunity to take Procter brands and expand from there.

The other thing I would cite is the reorganization of moving to what we call product supply, which was a combination of putting purchasing and engineering and manufacturing and distribution all under a single executive for each of the divisions. It was moving our sales organization from focus geographically to focus by customer. So instead of an account seeing eight or nine different Procter sales representatives, they were seeing one, and they were seeing the same one on a continuing basis.

C: I know from personal experience that you and your four kids and five grandchildren are a very close family. I also know, John, that Phyllis was the love of your life, but a close second would have to be fishing, wouldn’t it?

J: Yes, I guess. We went fishing on our honeymoon.

My mother used to take me out in a rowboat, Charlie, when I was 3 years old. She’d take me off to fish for perch. And then, as I said earlier, when I was a youngster spending the summers in Canada, I went fishing with great frequency. I really didn’t start to fly-fish until I was about 30. And now for the last many decades, that’s the only kind of fishing that I do.

C: John, you’ve always been extraordinarily supportive of and involved with Miami. Why do you think your allegiance to Miami remains so strong over the years?

J: Partially, it’s due to the fact that Miami has reached out. I was on the Business Advisory Council for a number of years. I got involved in stuff connected to Joe Seibert. I sponsored a scholar-leader room in Stoddard Hall in his name. But then, most important, as you know because you were part of it, I was asked to chair the campaign that was run in the early ’90s where we had a $100 million goal and finished with about $112 million.

More recently I’ve gotten involved in the Interactive Media Study programs. Several years ago P&G put in $1 million as seed money to get that concept started. Now, of course, Mike Armstrong ’61 has given a fabulous gift in that area, and I’ve given some additional support for new equipment.

C: We’ve kept you talking here for an hour. What haven’t we …

J: Charlie, there was one suggested question you skipped. It says, “What is something that you think would surprise people?”

Did you know that I know how to mark cards and fix dice?

C: No, but I’m glad I know it now because as you and I end up in some old folks home somewhere, I’m sure as hell not going to play cards with you.

J: This is when I was in high school. The war was going on and there was a shortage of help everywhere. One summer Joy and I worked in the George Washington Coffee Co. in downtown Chicago putting labels on instant coffee jars. The next two summers I worked at a place called the K.C. Card Co.

What they were doing, and I kind of found this out after I went to work for them, was marking cards. There are different ways to do that. And loading dice or fixing dice, and there are about seven or eight different ways to do that, and then selling them almost entirely to people in the armed services.

You’d ship a pair of fixed dice along with the same exact dice but fair because, of course, people who play with fixed dice have got to be able to switch the dice at some point.

Anyway, I didn’t know if you knew that. I’m not sure whether that impresses you.

C: It does impress me.

J: Measurably?

C: I only wish I had known it when you were running Procter & Gamble. I’m sure I could have found an opportunity at some civic event to make reference.

J: Well, those days are gone, Charlie. You missed your chance.

C: One last thing as I was thinking about this. You have been exposed to scores of universities and colleges throughout your life, and some of them I’m sure you’ve been exposed to in a fairly in-depth way. What is it about Miami, because I feel this way too, what is it about Miami that makes us so proud to have been there as opposed to possibly other schools?

J: I think it’s a focus on excellence, not just in an academic sense. The sense you have when you’re there. The focus on undergraduate education, I think, is a fundamental aspect of the university. So many larger universities are really graduate institutions, law and medicine and so on and so forth. I know we have graduate programs, but I think the focus on the undergraduate experience … I think David Hodge is doing a great job as he tries to bring more and more involvement by the students and the faculty into that whole process of making classes at Miami really interesting and involving.

I’m sure, Charlie, part of this is just the age at which young people go to colleges and universities. First time away from home. Not in my case but in most instances, certainly in the last several decades. It’s a real opportunity to become connected with an idea, with an institution that’s apart from the institutions that surrounded you when you grew up. And there’s a great opportunity for affection to develop.

C: Indeed there is and Miami has no more greater representative or son than John Smale.

Stay well, my friend.

For more information

Contact Donna Boen '83 MTSC '96, editor of Miamian, at or 513-529-7592.


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Miamian, Miami University's alumni magazine, highlights alumni, student, faculty, and staff involvement with the University, updating readers on campus news and events, arts, sports, and alumni news. Miami's primary communication link with alumni and close friends of the University, the magazine sets out to inform and entertain while generating a sense of knowledge and involvement with Miami University. Miamian is published three times a year.