Chester I. Barnard brought years of experience as a successful and respected business executive to the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) when he was named president in 1948. His organizational skills proved effective during his short four-year tenure as he presided at a time of transition, when the Foundation sought out new directions in programming in the postwar era.
Chester Barnard was born in Malden, Massachusetts, in 1886. He lost his mother when he was five years old, but his father, a mechanic, encouraged philosophical debate and emphasized the importance of education. After completing grammar school, he apprenticed as a piano tuner, a trade that helped to fund his education.
Barnard used his earnings from piano tuning to fund his way through Mount Hermon Preparatory School and eventually earned a scholarship to attend Harvard University. At Harvard he continued working while pursuing a degree in economics. While he excelled at Harvard, nearly completing a four-year course in three years, he left school before graduating. Barnard was unable to fulfill an obligatory science requirement while working to pay his living expenses.
He left Harvard in 1909 and immediately went to work at the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) as a statistician. From this entry-level position he rose rapidly through the ranks to become vice-president of the Bell Telephone Company of Pennsylvania in 1926 and president of New Jersey Bell Telephone Company in 1927. Yet Barnard was not just a successful executive – he also applied himself to the study of management. He authored two seminal books in the field of management theory. The Functions of the Executive (1938) and Organization and Management (1948) focused on topics of company organization and human relations. The Functions of the Executive is considered to be a classic in the field and has been translated into several languages.
During World War II, Barnard contributed to the war effort by lending his considerable administrative and management talents to organizing and presiding over the United Services Organizations, Inc. (USO), a job which later earned him the Presidential Medal for Merit. In the postwar period, Barnard became interested in atomic energy, serving as a consultant to the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission and co-authoring a report on the international control of atomic energy.
In 1948 Barnard left Bell to accept the position of president of the RF. This appointment capped nearly a decade of involvement with the Foundation, where he had served as both a Foundation Trustee and a member of its Executive Committee.
Barnard remained at the RF for four years, retiring in 1952. Following his retirement from the RF, he continued working for the improvement of society. In 1957 he was appointed a member of the New York City Board of Health. As a member of this Board, he helped to create the city’s new health code.
In addition to his interests in management, energy, health and social responsibility, Barnard possessed a life-long passion for music. This passion led him to help found and support the Bach Society of New Jersey and the Newark Arts Theatre.
Chester Barnard died in 1961 at 74 years old. Barnard's officer's diaries are digitized and can be accessed through the Rockefeller Archive Center's online collections. His papers can be accessed at the Baker Library at Harvard University.