YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

USC Chairman Learned Flights of a Bumblebee : Scharffenberger Finds His Busy Life Keeps Him Airborne

September 08, 1985|MARSHALL BERGES | Times Staff Writer

Can lessons about life be learned in a childhood hobby?

The answer is emphatically affirmative, if you take note of the life of George T. Scharffenberger, the recently elected chairman of the University of Southern California's board of trustees and an internationally known businessman and financier.

What he observed, as a youngster raising bees, is that "their efforts are disciplined and cooperative. No bee wanders off aimlessly on its own.

"On a hot day, for example, when a hive needs to be cooled down, the bees work together as ventilators. One group of bees uses its wings to push air into one side of the hive, while another group pulls the air out the other side, to achieve a cooling effect.

Persist to a Goal

"And bees persist to a goal. They never stop.

"In human efforts, I think these characteristics win the day. I'm not an advocate of mindless discipline or blind cooperation or persistence to the point of unpleasantness. But if one takes a sensible approach. . . ."

The sentence trails off wistfully. Scharffenberger does not claim that his own approach has been invariably sensible--indeed, with uncommon candor, he is quick to tell that while deeply devoted to his family, he has never been satisfied with his performance as a parent, and that his preoccupation with business often left his wife, Marion, with the burden of being both father and mother to the Scharffenbergers' six children.

At the same time his personal adventures indicate that he learned other key lessons from his boyhood hobby of beekeeping. With a disciplined, cooperative approach, he rose from the depths of the Depression to substantial wealth. And nowhere does the record, or even the not-for-attribution comments of competitors, indicate that during his persistent climb he resorted to unpleasantness.

Tall and slim at 66, with a still-boyish gleam in his light blue eyes, Scharffenberger tends to express himself with gentle understatement and with an undercurrent of quiet, self-effacing humor. His outgoing, friendly manner, courtly and empathetic, makes it clear that he enjoys conversation.

Sipping a glass of iced tea as he relaxed on a lounge chair on the brick patio of his sprawling white ranch house, amid a sweep of colorful flowers and eucalyptus trees on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, he spoke recently with a visitor on a variety of subjects.

He disclaimed the ability "to be a philosopher," but his observations ranged insightfully from family life (and the parental learning process) to the humanistic aspects of business (and the motivation of executives) to higher education. (In addition to chairing USC's board of trustees, a post for which only dedicated philanthropists are sought, he is also a director of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.)

He divides his time between a home in Southern California--where, among other activities, he continues to tend bees--and an apartment in Manhattan where he keeps a close involvement in the world of business.

Marion Scharffenberger balances her time between traveling with her husband--their six children are grown--and her devotion to a number of charities, including The Colleagues and the Peninsula Committee of Childrens Hospital.

George began raising bees during boyhood on Long Island. His father's death in 1930 thrust the 11-year-old into a man's world; in addition to holding down odd jobs while he went to school, he took charge of all the repairs required around the house, including electrical wiring, plumbing and carpentry.

The approach, he said recently, was less creatively inspired than essential. "The bank didn't want our house; it had plenty of foreclosures on its hands. So we--my mother and younger brother and I--were fortunate enough to have a place to live. But the house was old and there was always something in need of fixing: more power in the electrical circuits, replacement of water pipes. I simply had to learn to do it all, and I still know how to do it, although to this day carpentry--or getting two pieces of wood to match perfectly--is not one of my claims to fame."

The insecurities of hard times produced varying effects, Scharffenberger said. "The lack of money seemed to develop the introspective side of my nature, so much so that my Latin teacher told me, 'Obviously you're not very aggressive, you're not for the business world, you should think of teaching for a career.'

"But the lack of money also led to sleepless nights, wondering how to get the money to buy food. One week we had only string beans--that was our total dinner every night. To this day I'm not terribly fond of string beans. But such experiences became a propulsion to do something.

"When I was 12, I read an ad that claimed you could make money raising bees. So I took up beekeeping.

"Parenthetically, let me say: you know how kids like to hear their parents' stories about what happened during the Depression? Some 38 years later I told our kids about the experience.

Los Angeles Times Articles