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M a r ~ n N.

Olasky

A Reappraisal
Of 19th-Century
Public Relations
This article describes how voluntarism and a spirit of public enthusiasm characterized
public relations in the early 19th century. An extraordinary grassroots effort was the
halhnark of this era, later giving way to the forerunners of association public relations with
which we are so familiar today. The latter half of the century saw the emergence of the paid
advocate as corporations increasingly sought ways to protect their images from the
relentless pens of the muckrakers.
With the evolution of professional public relations, the traits of voluntarism and restraint
that had characterized early 19th-century public relations diminished. The author of this
article questions whether that aspect of public relations can ever be restored to the
profession.
Dr. Olasky is on the faculty of the Department of Journalism, the University of Texas,
Austin.

nly a few scholars have attempted to chart the 19th-century ancestors


of 20th-century public relations. One of the best monographs, that
written by Alan Raucher in 1958, noted three major antecedents: press
agentry, advertising, and the early attempts of business reformers to place
private corporations under some degree of public controU But a fourth,
and neglected, aspect of 19th-century public relations may be crucial for
our understanding of problems affecting the 20th-century occupation. It is
time to examine the surge of non-professional, spontaneous public relations
activity in the United States during the early 19th century.
One example of the difference between decentralized, voluntaristic 19thcentury public relations and the current professionalized model was the
handling of Lafayette's visit to America in 1824-25. Lafayette, hero of the
American Revolution a half century earlier, had had both political disappointments and financial difficulties in France. His hope of American-style
constitutional government in France was dashed with the reinstatement of
the Bourbon monarchy following Napoleon's final downfall; financially, he
had contributed much from his own pocket for the American Revolution
and had then seen his ancestral estates confiscated by the French revolu3

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tionary government. In the 1820s Lafayette was excluded from the Chamber
of Deputies in France because of his opposition to Bourbon policies. 2
Meanwhile, the United States during the 1820s was trying to remind itself
of its revolutionary principles, and was also trying to show the monarchies
of Europe that this republican country had grown and come into its own.
One of the frequent charges levelled by aristocrats against democracies is
that "the mob" had no sense of history, no sense of gratitude to those who
had served it, no sense of the meaning of "virtue," which implied selfsacrifice for the sake of honor. With Lafayette in trouble and America
needing an opportunity to do what was rightmto show that a republic
could have gratitude and could pass on its heritage to new generations--a
unique public relations opportunity presented itself: Lafayette was invited
to tour America half a century after the revolutionary triumphs, and to see
what men and God had wrought, What is interesting, though, is that there
was no central planning committee, no Hill and Knowlton making the
arrangements; each community invited Lafayette on its own and made
preparations to receive .him properly as he passed by on the grand tour
scheduled by a personal secretary w h o traveled with the aged Lafayette
and by the grand old man's son, George Washington Lafayette.
For instance, here is a typical report of public relations planning, in this
case from the town of Murfreesborough, N.C., as printed in the Norfolk and
Portsmouth Herald of March 4, 1825: " O n Friday the 25th about noon, we
received information that Gen. Lafayette would probably pass through this
place, on his way to Raleigh; and being anxious to show him every mark
of respect and esteem in their power, the citizens assembled to make such
arrangements for his reception and accommodation as the shortness of the
notice would allow." The citizens formed three committees: one to meet
Lafayette in Summerton, Va., and invite him to stop at Murfreesborough;
one to arrange for his reception and provide housing; the third to choose a
speaker w h o would make a formal address of welcome. Everything proceeded well: Lafayette was "'escorted into town, where he was received
under an arch, (erected for that purpose, which was handsomely illuminated, and decorated with evergreens)." A Mr. Thomas Maney made the
welcoming speech: "Those of us who have risen up in another generation
behold in you the original of that picture of excellence which our fathers
have impressed upon our hearts. ''3
Fayetteville, N.C., townspeople also met and voted to establish an invitation committee, an arrangements committee, and a banquet committee.
Their invitation noted that Fayetteville had been the first town in America
to be named after the revolutionary hero, and Lafayette said that of course,
he would come. At the banquet, a Judge Toomer gave Lafayette the public
relations message, on behalf of the town committee: "We are plain republicans, and cannot greet you with the pomp common on such occasions.
Instead of pageantry we offer you cordiality," and in this way show that
"ingratitude is no longer the reproach of republics. ''4 Similarly, the main
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19th-Century Public Relations


speaker in Charleston, S.C., contrasted professional public relations work
in ancient Rome with his town's volunteer efforts: "The triumphal entries
of Pompey and of Caesar were but the adulations of a conquered city,
followed by victims, gladiators, and spoils. But the voluntary burst of
gratitude and admiration, w h i c h . . , a whole continent of freedom expresses
for the friend of Washington and the rights of man, is without a parallel in
the history of mankind. ''~
The fundraising aspects of public relations were also handled in unpaid
but competent style. In Savannah, Ga., members of a volunteer committee
produced 500 copies of a brochure which they sent out to solicit funds for
a memorial to Revolutionary War generals Greene and Pulaski; the brochure
summarized the "character and services" of the war heroes, then concluded, "We therefore invite our Fellow-Citizens throughout the state to
cooperate with us in this work of duty, that the State of Georgia may give
another example to the world that Republics are not unmindful of the
obligations which they owe, both of the living and the dead." The contributions came in on the basis of this frank appeal to a republic's public
relations: the goal was often to give an "'example to the world. ''6

Not everything always went smoothly. At Charleston, the limitations of


even careful public relations planning became evident:
To Dr. James Davis and Professor Henry Nott had been assigned the
duty of going about 20 paces in front of the procession to see the path
clear and all in fitting order for the tread of the august personage
(Lafayette) to follow. Some mischievous boy, at a cross street, threw
in an old gander . . . . To try to catch the goose was out of the question,
as it, of course, would create confusion and unseemly mirth; so he
walked, in solitary dignity, poking out his neck from side to side,
stopping now and then to give a hiss at the men. The doctor and
professor, hats in hand, (were) venturing a mild "shew! shew!" and
giving a gentle flourish of their hats to accelerate his movements. The
gander would give a "quack! quack!" in return, not improving his
pace, but merely resuming the even tenor of his way, and so he led
the van to the end of the line. 7
But these were citizen public relations practitioners, and some problems
were expected and accepted. In short, throughout the year of Lafayette's
"pilgrimage of liberty" throughout the United States, arrangements were
made, speeches were written, the press was used artfully, brochures were
produced, funds were collected and distributed, public opinion was sounded,
and "a good time was had by all,'" without professional public relations
counsel.
Less important events also brought forth the volunteer public relations
committee. For instance, one flurry now forgotten by historians occurred
in June 1846, w h e n the unpopular Pope Gregory XVI died at age 81. Americans had been reading how the prisons of the Papal States (consisting at

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that time of the province of Rome, the Romagne, Umbria, and the Marches)
were overflowing with political prisoners, so there was rejoicing when the
cardinals' conclave selected Giovanni Mastai Ferretti, a young man with
more democratic views, to be the next pope. Ferretti, who took the name
Pius IX, immediately abolished secret tribunals for political offenders and
declared an amnesty for all political prisoners among the eight million
persons of the Papal States. 8
The question for American followers of international news was, how
could they tell others that a new era in international politics may have
arrived, and how could they best assert their support for the republican
forces of Europe? Now a call would go to Burson-Marsteller, but in 1847 a
group of New Yorkers met privately to discuss ways to register public
approval of the papal action. They decided to form a committee of influential
men to organize a public meeting: Vanbrugh Livingston became chairman,
~and Horace Greeley, Theodore Sedgwick, William C. Bryant, James W.
Gerard and Joseph Avezzana also participated. Several thousand people
showed up at the meeting they had arranged; New York Mayor William V.
Brady spoke of the public support for the Pope's reform efforts. Horace
Greeley had chaired a volunteer committee to write a letter to the Pope,
and that letter was read to the audience: "We address you not as a Sovereign
Pontiff, but as the wise and h u m a n Ruler of a once oppressed and discontented, now well-governed and gratefully happy people. We unite in this
tribute, not as Catholics, which some of us are while the great number are
not, but a s . . . lovers of Constitutional Freedom." The letter was adopted
by acclamation, and copies of it were distributed around the United States.
That volunteer public relations effort led to resolutions by several legislatures, editorials in newspapers across the country, and a heartening of
Europeans fighting for republican and against monarchical principles2
Another typical example of early 19th century public relations work involved
the development of railroads. There were no professional public relations
staffers on the nascent railroad lines of the 1830s, but nevertheless, public
enthusiasm led to the volunteer publication of railroad brochures and booklets. The first pro-railroad American magazine, for instance, emerged from
the hamlet of Rogersville, Tenn., after a group of excited citizens met on
their own to discuss ways to disseminate information on the utility and
practicality of railroads. A committee of 20 published "The Railroad Advoc a t e - C o n d u c t e d by an Association of Gentlemen"; the first issue, published on July 4, 1831, advocated "extending the railroad throughout the
country" as "'an immediate means of encouraging industry and developing
the resources of the state. ''1
What could be called railroad "product introductions" were also decentralized, volunteer efforts. For instance, the opening of a railroad from
Providence, R.I., to Stonington, Conn., on March 10, 1837, was planned
by an ad hoc Stonington committee. Committee members arranged for the
steamer Narragansett to bring a party of railroad directors and guests from
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19Lh.Century Public Relations


New York to Stonington. They had the guests greeted by the roar of 18pound cannon last used against the British in 1814. They put on a banquet
at which everyone took turns making toasts, including the following: "'To
the ladies of Stonington--may the railroad, the completion of which we are
this day called to celebrate, more extensively introduce their claims and
virtues to their fellow citizens from Maine to Georgia. "'It
Later on, of course, professionals planned systematic efforts to promote
settlement along rail lines moving west. Early railroad enthusiasm, though,
was one subset of the voluntarism which amazed French observer Alexis
de Tocqueville, author in 1835 of the highly-respected Democracy in America:
"Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form
associations . . . . If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some
feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a s o c i e t y . . .
what political power could ever (do what Americans voluntarily) perform
every day with the assistance of the principle of association? '''2
The answer to de Tocqueville's question at that time, and perhaps in our
own as well, was clear: No political power could accomplish as much as
popular enthusiasm. Yet, voluntarisrn was sorely tried during the late
nineteenth century. Financial pressures from large, growing corporations,
and political pressures from aspiring governmental bodies and popular
movements, affected public relations and many other activities.
A brief review of the situation, material and ideological, may be helpful
here. On the material side, it should be noted that, from the end of the
Civil War to the early 20th century, the U.S. rate of economic growth was
more than 1.5 percent per year; overall during that period, there was a
threefold increase in per capita output. This was real growth, since deflation
dominated prices during the postbellum third of a century.
Such growth was accomplished by considerable economic discontent,
however. Wages among the employed during the deflationary era tended
to remain constant or decline, and workers did not like that. Greater fluctuations in employment developed as the cash-trading, market sector of
the economy expanded and the success of individual trades and activities
became tied more to the wellobeing of the entire economy. Declining demand
in particular sectors of the economy at the start of the depressions of 18731878, 1882-1885, and 1892-1894 led to lower spending by the unemployed
of those sectors and a consequent creation of unemployment in other sectors
as general demand decreased.
Urbanization also increased the number of those who saw themselves
not as "poor," but as " p o o r e r " - - t h e change in emphasis from a generally
healthy consideration of one's own position to a potentially covetous comparison with the position of others. An increase in nationwide publicity
outlets caused by the continued growth of the penny press led to more
understanding among the poor of the manner in which the truly rich of
metropolitan areas were making out. The growth of big business brought
with it a number of very rich industrialists without the local ties of past
years. There always had been rich and poor in America, often living in close

Public Relations

Re~iew

proximity to one another, but the rich now found themselves with much
more to defend, and with an apparently faceless mass against which to
defend it.
For the first time in America, nationally organized poor and nationally
organized rich began to engage in battle. The railroad industry, which had
led the way with paid agents in the 1850s, was among the first to conclude
that voluntary, unplanned public relations enthusiasm no longer provided
an adequate defense. William K. Ackerman, president of Illinois Central,
straightforwardly argued that increasing public attacks made it necessary
for the railroads to "manufacture public opinion." Ackerman and Charles
E. Perkins, vice president of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy, cooperated
in paying for favorable books and articles which would be published as
supposedly independent analysis and scholarship. They also had their
staffs write articles for periodicals and give wide circulation to the executlves' speeches. For instance, Ackerman, Perkins, and others provided
funds to send reprints of one favorable magazine article to 2,000 newspapers
throughout the country and to 30,000 other influential individuals in the
United States and abroad. 13
Brash political groups and sedate court justices also contributed to the
sense that paid advocacy was necessary. An article in the 1875 volume of
the American Law Review captured the tendencies of the former: "The late
war left the average American politician with a powerful desire to acquire
property from other people without paying for it. ''~4 Concerning the latter,
U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Morrison Waite created the basis for the
future rise of public relations w h e n he wrote, in the 1877 M u n n v. Illinois
majority opinion, that those involved in key economic activities " ' . . . m u s t
submit to be controlled by the public for the common g o o d . . . , , I s
Associate Justice Stephen Field, recognizing the revolutionary potential
of that decision, wrote in his dissent to M u n n v. Illinois, "If this be sound
law, if there be no protection, either in the principles upon which our
republican government is founded, or in the prohibitions of the Constitution against such invasion of private rights, all property and all business in
the State are held at the mercy of a majority of its legislature. ''~6 While it
would be m a n y years before Field's dire predictions would begin to be
realized in significant ways, from that point on the principle of public control
over private economic activities was on the books, and the public relations
ante for businessmen had been upped. After all, as de Tocqueville had
noted, one of the factors promoting public relations restraint was the weakness of government, including the "absence of centralized administration."
As political leaders became less constrained in their use of power during
the years following M u n n v. Illinois, their corporate counterparts would
follow suit, and sometimes lead.
Another tendency in American society during the late 19th century was
the move toward centralization in opinion-making. Larger newspapers and
well-circulated magazines were to become turn-of-the-century vehicles for
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19th.Century Public Relations


muckraking writers. This journalistic change led to added tensions for
businessmen putting together large industrial combinations. By the first
decade of the 20th-century, executives such as E. K. Hall, vice president of
the new American Telephone and Telegraph, would be voicing the general
corporate concern: "We start out in our dealings with the public under a
heavy handicap; they do not know us, they misunderstand us, they mistrust
us, and there is a continued tendency to believe that our intentions toward
them are not fair . . . . This general attitude of the public mind is, as I believe,
not only a serious danger to the property of the business but it is, in my
judgment, the only serious danger confronting the company, because the
natural tendency of such hostility, founded as it is on misunderstanding,
prejudice, and distrust is, under slight incentive, to crystallize at any time
into adverse legislation. ''~7
Many changes, therefore, contributed to the downfall of the voluntaristic
r'mode of public relations. And, if the only question were one of voluntarism
vs. professionalism, early 19th-century public relations methods might rate
a footnote in the textbooks, but little more.
There is more, though. De Tocqueville observed in the early 19th century
not only voluntarism but restraint as well. He noted the existence of strong
theological constraints during the 1830s: "While the law permits the Americans to do what they please, religion prevents them from conceiving, and
forbids them to commit, what is rash or unjust. ''~8 Given our human ability
to contemplate wrongdoing, de Tocqueville may have been overoptimistic
on the conceiving, but he probably was accurate on the committing. Techniques of opinion manipulation were not unknown in 19th-century America, and some patent medicine advertising of the period reached heights of
eloquent but fraudulent persuasion far beyond those yet reached by current
television commercials. Yet w h e n it came to attempting to move men's
minds in particular directions concerning the virtues and vices of ideas, or
to praise or excoriate particular individuals, there was an unwillingness to
serve merely as a "'hired gun."
It is vital to understand this if we are to properly appreciate the early
19th-century volunteers, and even some of the individuals frequently cited
as predecessors of the modern public relations professional. Amos Kendall
of the Jackson administration, for instance, was criticized by his contemporaries for having lower standards than most, but he still knew that honor
has value. For instance, concerning one request for public relations assistance from a future United States vice president, Richard M. Johnson,
Kendall wrote, "I shall give Richard m y vote, but I shall not be his tool. ''~9
Historian Claude G. Bowers observed concerning Kendall, "He promised
himself never knowingly to misrepresent; if, through mistake, he did, to
rectify the mistake without being asked; never to retract a statement he
thought true; to resent an insult in kind; to defend himself, if assaulted, by
any means necessary, even to killing, and never to run. ''2 Kendall emphasized a newspaper editor's or publicist's "awful responsibility" to "himself,
his Country and his God. ''2~

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Even P. T. Barnum, often held up as a prototypical manipulator who


profited by deceiving the helpless, had a practice far removed from the
hidden persuasion that some say has followed. Barnum's hoodwinking in
antebellum America was done with a wink, and his practice as well as his
consumer guide, Humbugs of the World, condemned deceptions which hurt,
such as those of lottery sharks and phony auctioneers. Barnum believed
that since a sucker is born every minute, it is up to those who sell either
goods or entertainment to exercise restraint and pass up the opportunity
to take candy from babies. 22 As Daniel Boorstin has noted in Ttle hnage,
"'Contrary to popular belief, Barnum's great discovery was not how easy it
was to deceive the public, but rather, how much the public enjoyed being
deceived. Especially if they could see how it was being done. ''z3 Barnum
was a magician who enjoyed explaining his tricks, not a Great and Powerful
Oz who stood behind the curtain with guards to keep away little dogs.
The emphasis on restraint was evident in numerous accounts, including
one of the earliest American speeches on record concerning the practice of
public relations--that of New Yorker Hugh Smith (1795-1849) before Columbia
College alumni in 1842. Smith, discussing the "ethics of persuasion," argued
that efforts to influence opinion could be legitimate if they met three criteria:
They had to avoid the employment of falsehood, avoid appeals to prejudices
and passions, and avoid the "proscription of those who will not fall in with
particular opinions or practices. ''24
The decentralist and voluntaristic emphases of early 19th-century public
relations have clearly been superseded in this century by paid, concentrated
labors. That clock cannot be turned back. But noting that voluntarism was
accompanied by restraint is important for two reasons. First, volunteers
would carry out public relations labors because they were believed to be
useful, not because they were paid for. They could not be pushed by
financial exigency further than they wished to go. Second, even those
professionals such as Amos Kendall who could be hurt financially by refusal
to serve as a hired gun tended to examine opportunities in line with the
ethics of the time: They would not be "'tools."
H u m a n nature has not changed much over the years, but theological
restraints against writing and saying what was not believed may have been
stronger then than now. Can the idea of restraint in public relations be
brought back? Should it be? Public relations practitioners who are responsible and ethical have a hard time overcoming the popular depiction of the
occupation as one made up of those who will do anything for a buck, or at
least for big bucks. The past practice of voluntaristic public relations holds
before us the concept that individuals should advocate only what they
believe in.
The lessons of voluntaristic restraint may be limited. It may be easy to
say "'no" w h e n the financial future of a practitioner and his or her family is
not at stake. Still, without that concept of restrained advocacy, practitioners
are prime suspects for the charge against much of contemporary culture

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19th-Century

Public Relations

leveled by novelist Larry McMurtry: "'One seldom, nowadays, hears anyone


described as 'a person of character.' The concept goes with an ideal of
maturity, discipline and integration that strongly implies repression: People
of character, after all, cannot do just anything, and an ability to do just
about anything with just about anyone--in the name, perhaps, of Human
Potential--is certainly one of the most moderne abilities. ''2s
The "ability to do just about anything with just about anyone" is one of
the leading contemporary public relations abilities, according to critics of
the field. Critics of current public relations practice sometimes exaggerate,
but the common criticism may be contrasted with a generalization by Henry
Steele Commager concerning the early 19th-century American volunteer:
"He had a high sense of honor . . . Words like truth, justice, loyalty,
reverence, virtue, and honor meant much to him. ''26 Commager may be
exaggerating on the positive side as some critics of public relations exaggerate on the negative. But w h e n was the last time we heard someone
saying about the average modern, professional practitioner, "He has a high
sense of honor"?
References
~Alan Raucher, Public Relationsand Business, 1900-1929 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press,
1968), p. 1.
2See Elizabeth White, American Opiniotz of Franc~ (New York: Knopf, 1927), particularly pp.
80ff.
3Norfolk and Portsmouth Herald, March 4, 1825.
4The Carolina Observer, March 10, 1825.
5Charleston City Gazette, March 19, 1825.
6Edgar Brandon, A Pilgrimageof Liberty (Athens, Ohio: The Lawhead Press, 1944), p. 90.
7Sketch by Dr. Maurice Moore, quoted in Brandon, p. 60.
8Howard Marraro, American Opinion on the Unification of Italy (New York: Columbia University
Press, 1932), p. 5.
9Proceedingsof the Public Demonstration of Sympathy with PopePius IX, and with Italy, 1847 (New
York: H. Nelson Gay, 1847), p. 1.
10p. Harvey Middleton, Railways and Public Opinion (Chicago: Raihvay Business Association,
1941), p. 8.
"Ibid., p. 17.
~2Alexisde Tocqueville, Democracyin America (New York: Vintage, 1945), Volume II, pp. 114,
116.
~3Reason, October 1984, p. 40.
""The Potter Act at Washington," American Law Review, 1875, p. 235. Quoted in Terry L.
Anderson and Peter J. Hill, The Birth of a Transfer Society (Stanford, California: Hoover Institution Press, 1980), p. 62.
~s94 U.S. 143 (1877).
1694 U.S. 152 (1877).
17Norton E. Long, "Public Relations Policies of the Bell System," Public Opinion Quarterly,
October 1937, p. 6.
~SDe Tocqueville, Volume I, pp. 315-316.
~gAmos Kendall, Autobiography (Boston: Ticknor, 1902), p. 175.
2Claude G. Bowers, The Party Battles of the Jackson Period (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1922),
p. 147.
2~Georgetown(Kentucky) Patriot, April 20, 1816.

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Public Relations Re~tew


=As one of Barnum's less-quoted lines put it, "The public is wiser than many imagine."
Barnum's autobiography is available in many editions and is stimulating reading; also see
M.R. Werner, Barnum (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1923), and Nell Harris, Humbug (Boston:
Little, Brown, 1973), as well as BlaineMcKee, "P.T. Barnum: Master Publicist," Public Relations
Journal, October 1972.
Z~DanielBoorstin, The hnage, or What Happened to the American Dream (New York: Atheneum,
1962), p. 210.
~Hugh Smith, The Theory and Regulation of Public Sentiment, 1842, quoted in letter from J.
Carroll Bateman to George M. Crowdon, assistant to the president, Illinois Central Railroad,
Jan. 15, 1957. Bateman papers, Barker Texas History Museum, The University of Texas.
~The Washington Monthly, May 1975, p. 14.
2~Henry Steele Commager, The American Mind (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954),
pp. 30-31.
Editorial Re~tew Committee
Robert L. Bishop, University of Georgia
Glen Broom, San Diego State University
Allen H. Center, San Diego State University
Hugh M. Culbertson, Ohio University
Scott M. Cutlip, University of Georgia
William P. Ehling, Syracuse University
William R. Faith, University of South California
James E. Grunig, University of Maryland
Carl F. Hawver, Hawver House
Michael B. Hesse, University of Alabama
Frank B. Kalupa, University of Georgia
Philip Lesly, The Philip Lesly Company
Walter K. Lindenmann, Hill & Knowlton, Inc.
Adolph Mayer, University of Denver
Douglas Ann Newsom, Texas Christian University
Carol Oukrop, Kansas State University
F. John Pessolono, Council on Republic Relations & Public Affairs
Marion K. Pinsdorf, INA Corporation
Betsy Ann Plank, Illinois Bell
John C. Pollock, Research & Forecast, Inc.
Kenneth H. Rabin, E. R. Squibb & Sons, Inc.
John G. N. Rushbrook, Phillips Petroleum Company
Linda Hudson Scanlan, Norfolk State University
Melvin L. Sharpe, Ball State University
Raymond Simon, Utica College of Syracuse University
Kenneth Owler Smith, University of Southern California
Leonard J. Snyder, San Francisco State University
Carlton E. Spitzer, Program Management, Inc.
William B. Toran, Ohio State University
Judy Van Slyke Turk, Louisiana State University
James K. VanLeuven, Washington State University
Dennis L. Wilcox, San Jose State University
Frank W. Wylie, California State University at Los Angeles

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