From Goldman Sachs To Ground Zero: A Life Spent Uniting Business and Public Service


When John C. Whitehead was asked to run the government body charged with redeveloping the area surrounding the World Trade Center towers in Manhattan, his first reaction was one of shock.

“I was reluctant to take [the job],” Whitehead says. “At 80, I envisioned having a little more of a relaxing time—maybe getting the chance to read a book or two.”

New York Gov. George E. Pataki gave Whitehead only 48 hours to decide whether he would head the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC). Immediately, Whitehead received phone calls from prominent politicians and community leaders encouraging him to take the position.

“They told me that I was the only person to do it, and it was very difficult to say no,” Whitehead says.

Throughout his life, Whitehead has frequently been the right person for the job, allowing the former investment banker to extend his notable career far beyond normal retirement age in areas ranging from financial management to public service to ownership of a professional sports team.

“I’ve been lucky in my own life to be thrown into a lot of different types of jobs from which I’ve learned,” Whitehead says.

Whitehead will share that knowledge with the graduating class of Harvard Business School (HBS) today, focusing on leadership in all walks of life.

The Early Years

Born in Evanston, Ill. in 1922, Whitehead grew up in Montclair, NJ, the son of a telephone lineworker who lost his job in the depression and sold porch furniture to keep afloat.

After graduating from Haverford College in 1943 at the height of World War II, Whitehead enlisted in the Navy, serving on the first wave of landing craft that hit the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, and later participating in the invasion of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

Whitehead credits his Navy experience with substantially honing his leadership skills—even though he was unprepared for the responsibility.

“I went into the navy as a young, green ensign and I was immediately put in charge of a division of 54 men—all older than I, in the Navy longer than I and knowing more than I did,” Whitehead says.

Although Whitehead had planned to return to Haverford to teach after his time overseas, he instead enrolled in Harvard Business School (HBS), receiving an MBA in 1947.

Whitehead speaks of his time at HBS with great fondness, remembering how much it helped him in his future professional career.

“I was made aware of a lot of different aspects of business that I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise,” says Whitehead.

Golden Man