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2020 VISIONARY Peter Schwartz

The Values We Cultivated

“A lot of what drives Peter today comes from the idealism, the values that we cultivated in the ’60s,” says Jim Pelkey ’68. Pelkey, who was class vice president their senior year, met Schwartz the day they arrived as Rensselaer freshmen. When Schwartz founded Global Business Network in 1988, Pelkey joined its board of directors, a position he still holds. “Even then, Peter wasn’t afraid to be different,” says Pelkey.   

Of the 622 seniors pictured in the 1968 Transit, Schwartz is the only one with a full beard. But being different didn’t mean being aloof. Involved in many activities, he was named to Who’s Who in American Colleges and Universities and, as the first chairman of the Union Program Committee, he was instrumental in bringing concerts, lectures, films, and art exhibits to campus.   

“Peter was a fun-loving guy who was very committed to activities,” recalls Senior Class President John Lay ’68. But the Vietnam War cast a shadow on those years. “We were all very much involved in the anti-war movement,” Lay says. “Peter was the natural leader within the student body. He had the foresight to see what it took other students longer to conceptualize—the drain Vietnam was on the country.”  

“I remember Peter with his protest signs and I remember our going to Washington and arguing with senators, but the memory that stands out most clearly is the work we did on the class gift, and the joy we had in that,” says Pelkey. The new Rensselaer Union opened in their final year. Lay was chairman and Schwartz a member of the Union Dedication Committee. “Peter was the guiding force in buying art for the Union as our gift to the school,” says Lay. And he was the chief negotiator for the eight paintings the three purchased from New York City galleries. “Peter was always thinking of the bigger issues. I think he was trying to humanize Rensselaer,” says Lay.   

But Schwartz did not have quite such a clear vision for his own future. “My timing was really awful,” he recalls. “I got my degree in aeronautical engineering and in 1968 there weren’t any jobs in the aerospace industry.” He joined the Peace Corps and went to Ghana, but a disagreement with the Ghanaian government sent the volunteers packing. Back in the states he took a job teaching math in a Philadelphia high school, but he wasn’t very good at it.

Then Herbert Hodgson, the former Protestant chaplain at Rensselaer, offered him a job on the West Coast. Schwartz and Hodgson had become very close friends at Rensselaer and Schwartz jumped at the offer to help run student housing at the University of California at Davis. Schwartz wasn’t particularly interested in student housing, but he was interested in finding a mentor. Hodgson, says Schwartz, “was a remarkably effective change agent. What I really wanted to do was work with him and learn from him about human dynamics, about social and organizational change.”   

Three years later his fascination with change led Schwartz into the realm of strategic planning and what would become his life’s work. He became a bona fide futurist in 1972 when he joined SRI International (formerly the Stanford Research Institute), where he rose to director of the Strategic Environment Center. That’s where he started developing scenarios.

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