J. Peter McNerney

J. PETER MCNERNEY, 1924-2012

     J. Peter McNerney, 88, of Lincoln, Mass. and Biddeford Pool, Maine, died at home on October 14, 2012, surrounded by his beloved wife Natalie and their five children. He was a discerning and persistent pioneer in business and education who eagerly sought a place for the life of spirit in the midst of what he called “the ordinary pursuit of worldly ends.”

     Peter was President of Seneca Wire & Manufacturing Co. of Fostoria, Ohio, from 1971 to 1990 and served as Chairman of the Board until his retirement in 2002. At Seneca he implemented management practices that promoted shared responsibility and decision-making across all levels and divisions of the company. “He dedicated a big part of his life to searching for ways to get everyone within the plant working together in a better, more cooperative way,” said his son John, who succeeded Peter as board chairman.

     “He really cared about the people that worked at Seneca,” recalled board member Dr. Arthur Schleifer, Professor Emeritus of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. “I think that made a difference in how the company was able to survive hard times and become the dominant player in the tempered wire market in the U.S.” He promoted women to positions of leadership at a time when women in management were rare in manufacturing. He instituted a college tuition reimbursement program and made a point of encouraging employees to take advantage of it. A former machine operator, now director of engineering at another manufacturing firm, spoke of how the opportunity for an education, urged on him by Peter, changed the course of life for his entire family. And at Seneca’s plant in Brookhaven, Miss., a band of wire drawers and loom operators began meeting during breaks to pray. When Peter discovered this, he promptly joined the group. “Mr. McNerney was right in the middle of it,” remarked a former Brookhaven manager. “That they were doing this was very impressive to him.”

     In Fostoria, Peter lived with his family on a farm on Eagleville Road where they raised horses, pigs, geese and, briefly, peacocks, and struggled to employ some of the principles of organic farming in an area that was strictly traditional. His favorite occupations were cutting trails for horseback riding and hauling buckets of water to trees he had planted, usually done in coat and tie as he was too eager to get outside to bother to change clothes after work. Moved by the beauty and abundance of the fields around him, he placed his land under a conservation easement to restrict development in perpetuity. Following his retirement he moved to Lincoln, Mass., with his wife of 55 years, the former Natalie Marie Berg of Worcester, Mass. “Her amazing and constant love and support have made my life so marvelous and happy,” he often said.

     He was a member of St. Joseph Church, Lincoln, and attended the Men’s Discussion Group at St. Anne’s in-the-Fields Episcopal Church in Lincoln. He is remembered for his “discerning and convincing insights about being a Christian,” said a member of the men’s group. “He expressed his thoughts in a quiet, reflective way, not making pronouncements but sharing his own experiences with us and asking us to share our experiences with him.” Peter divided his last years between his home in Lincoln and a summer cottage in Biddeford Pool, Maine., where he enjoyed boating with his children and grandchildren, watching sunsets over the tidal pool, walking to church, and laying out his coffee table with books and articles, heavily annotated, for discussion.

     Peter was born in Toledo, Ohio, on February 23, 1924, the eldest of four children of John Howard and Eula Norris McNerney. He was a member of the first graduating class at Ottawa Hills High School (Ohio) in 1941, Williams College class of 1945, and served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He returned to Toledo to work in the industrial engineering department of Owens-Illinois Glass Company, where his first job had once been as a glass-blower's carry-in boy. He received his MBA from Harvard Business School in 1954 and taught there while earning his doctorate.

     His work documenting the steps for using a data processing system in business was published by Harvard in 1961. “It was the first written record showing how a company could automate the flow of information and data needed for decision-making, before computers were ever used,” said Schleifer, who was a fellow student in the doctoral program at Harvard. “It was a very significant first step in a field that’s become extremely important.”

     Following business school Peter joined McKinsey & Co. in New York City as a management consultant and became active in the Laymen’s Movement, an early effort to integrate spiritual values and ethics into business practices and personal life. He lived for ten years with his young family on Rocaton Road in Darien, Conn., where he enthusiastically taught the neighborhood outdoor games, marched in the street’s Fourth of July parade, tracked the constellations in the night sky and flooded several yards, including his own, for an ice rink, all in an effort to get his children to put down their books and go outside and play. “A day spent indoors is a day wasted,” he would often say.

     His own library, however, was extensive, and ranged from early Christian mystics, theologians and psychologists to experts in business, finance and environmental sustainability. He was a dedicated letter-writer, beginning his epistles with a salutation to family and including whichever friends he thought would be interested in its contents. His self-published book of thoughts and essays documents his interior striving to move beyond an “over-attachment to success – as if my life depended on it” to become “wholly God’s,” which, with his characteristic humility, he never felt he had achieved. “This was Dad’s greatest labor, his life’s work,” remarked his daughter Caroline. “He was always on the lookout for any obstacles within himself to the free flow of love that he associated with being completely open to God.”

     Peter is survived by his wife Natalie; his children, Elizabeth Marie (Donald Bell) of Oak Grove, Minn., Mary Eula (Stephen Mitchell) of Lincoln, Mass., John Peter (Kimberly Clark) of Monkton, Vt., Caroline Anna (Jerry Whiteleather) of Meredith, N.H., and Timothy Harold of Northampton, Mass.; and six grandchildren, Henry, Grace and Maria Bell, and Peter, Patricia and Sofia McNerney. Also surviving are his brother N. James McNerney of Toledo, Ohio, and his sister Mary Gunther of St. Louis, Mo.; he was predeceased by his sister Caroline McKee of Grosse Pointe, Mich.

     A memorial service was held on October 20, 2012, at St. Joseph Church followed by a reception at the Ryan Estate in Lincoln, Mass. Home hospice care and complete preparations for a green burial were provided by the immediate family. Ashes will be interred at Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Mass. For those wishing to send remembrances to the family, contact information is available at www.petemcnerney.com.

     The family suggests contributions in Peter’s memory to small, local charities where they will have the greatest impact. Peter was particularly interested in organizations that focused on the poor and suffering, land conservation and spiritual development. During his life he gave to Vermont Coverts, Black Swamp Conservancy, Lincoln Land Conservation Trust, Friends of Silence, Episcopal Relief and Development, Catholic Relief Services, and Oxfam.