A brochure sent to parents at the time titled “Your Cadet” said: “On Arizona's hot summer days, an evaporative cooling unit reduces the temperature to 85 degrees in his room.”
When it rained, the slats on the beds warped and the mattresses would fall to the floor. The runways became pot-holed mud fields.
But the young men didn’t starve. Thunderbird went through 65,000 pounds of meat and 25 truckloads of vegetables a month.
After four years, the tide turned, the war wound down and the cadets stopped coming. By the fall of 1945, the field sat vacant.
In 1946, Thunderbird’s business became peace.
Saturday night dances
At the end of the war, two retired Army colonels thought of a novel idea: Use the old base as a school to train businessmen to work in other countries. They pitched their idea to Barton Kyle Yount, a retired lieutenant general who jumped aboard.
But first, he needed to get the land from the Army.
The property was assessed at more than $407,000, but because he promised to create a school, Yount got the land for free. That giveaway of war surplus property prompted a brief congressional investigation. The hearings exonerated Yount but the flurry of nationwide attention raised the profile of the new school, which was flooded with applicants. The first graduating class in June 1947 had 234 students from 45 states.
While the school drew hundreds of students, the site was still rural, surrounded by fields.
“In the harvest time, it smelled like onions,” Warner said. “We would go into Glendale or Phoenix on the weekends. There was a beer joint on Glendale Avenue but that was it.”
Warner had gotten his undergraduate degree in Mexico and knew he wanted to work overseas. He saw an article in “Arizona Highways” magazine about the American Institute for Foreign Trade and decided to enroll.
“It was very different from what it is now. The professors were mostly retired businesspeople, not academics. They were successful businesspeople but the classes were taught at a fairly elementary level compared to now,” he said.
William Schurz was a beloved faculty member who served briefly as president. He was an expert on Latin America and traveled more than 27,000 miles along the Amazon, Warner recalled.
“He was really an Indiana Jones kind of person. He would lecture with no notes and he was just amazing,” Warner said.
“It’s a place that grows on you and you grow to love it after you get over the initial shock. And I mean that with affection.” — Kevin Rohrer, Thunderbird alumni
It was Schurz who uttered the phrase that became the school’s mission: “Borders frequented by trade seldom need soldiers.”
Students were immersed in cultural studies. They sung in the French chorus and learned to tango at the Saturday night dance club called El Botecito. Christmas was celebrated in a Latin American way, called “La Posadas.” Chopsticks were used during “Asia Night” in the dining hall. Ambassadors, foreign presidents and other dignitaries visited to talk to the students.
The school began to grow and add buildings, with the Tower Building expanded in 1960 and the campus' beloved pub added in 1971. The Frank Snell Learning Center went up in 1981. And by 1990 the onion fields had given way to endless development, when about enrollment ballooned to 1,500 students.
But the campus has never been fancy — and the students bonded over that.
“When I was there, it was still a little rough around the edges. You could tell some of the dorms were former barracks,” said Kevin Rohrer, who graduated in 1982.
“It’s a place that grows on you and you grow to love it after you get over the initial shock. And I mean that with affection.”
Rohrer said the language and cultural studies were important to his success as an American business owner in Hong Kong, but the non-classroom interactions were also crucial.
“There were a lot of people like me,” he said. “Some people wanted to work for big banks and major financial centers but there were also people doing marketing and who wanted to start their own business.
“Being around people with similar aspirations and meeting alums who followed their dreams really inspires you to give it a shot.”
The alumni maintain a strong network of 170 groups in 140 countries.
“Thunderbirds are very social, and there’s just something in our personality,” Rohrer said.
Many alumni are drawn back to the school.
After graduating, Warner went to work for a mining in company in Peru before starting his own business dealing in artifacts and folk art. After decades of travelling the world, he returned to Thunderbird in the early 1990s as a consultant, curating the school’s art and creating the Global Market, which is now the ThunderShop store. Much of the art in the International Business Information Centre was donated by Warner.
Rohrer was head of the alumni association and was a member of the board of trustees in 2014.
The alumni connections are crucial: About 70 percent of students come to Thunderbird because of contact with a graduate of the school.
One of those is Neha Bandekar, 26, a current student from India. When she expressed interest in pursuing a degree in global management, her brother-in-law, a Thunderbird alum, told her, “This is the school to go to.”
She visited the campus last spring when Thunderbird’s status as part of a larger university was new, and later she attended a networking event at a Thunderbird alumni group in India, where everyone welcomed her. Any hesitation she may have had disappeared that night.
“Every one of them was so proud, it was so beautiful,” she said. “All my doubts went away then and there.”
She has no regrets.
“This is a place when you deal with the real world,” she said. “In one class, it’s like a melting pot. I have students from 23 countries. I get to know their cultures, and it’s like a family.”
‘A new way of thinking’
Allen Morrison became CEO and director general on Jan. 1, 2015, the day that Thunderbird’s partnership with ASU became official.
He inherited an institution in transition.
Despite an international reputation, the previous two years had been a difficult time at Thunderbird.
The board of trustees had voted in 2013 to sell Thunderbird to Laureate, a company that runs for-profit tutoring centers.
Many alumni were furious.
They feared the move would tarnish their prestigious degrees and lead to the demise of their beloved school. Four trustees quit the board.
The accrediting body ultimately rejected the plan in 2014 and that’s when negotiations with ASU began, culminating in a deal in December.
Allen Morrison, CEO and director general of Thunderbird School of Global Management.
Morrison has worked for 11 months building connections with alumni around the United States, in Europe, Asia and South America.
Morrison said that ASU values the unique nature of the school, which loyalists call “the Thunderbird mystique.”
“At the same time, there is an appreciation that Thunderbird, by itself, does not have the scale or scope to meet its full potential,” he said.
ASU is helping with that. For example, the school has already begun using ASU faculty to design and teach some executive education courses. Thunderbird is ranked seventh in world for its corporate-training programs — a major source of revenue that Morrison hopes to greatly expand.
Also, new this year, Thunderbird has launched an undergraduate degree, which will award a bachelor’s in global management, with classes held on ASU’s West campus.
Morrison said that one way he’s re-engaged the Phoenix-area graduates is by starting a mentoring program that pairs local alumni with current students, many of whom are from other countries. The mentors help the students adjust to American culture and learn about business practices in the U.S.
The Glendale campus has about 300 full-time students now and one urgent goal is increasing enrollment. On his world tour, Morrison visited several universities he would like to partner with as feeder schools to Thunderbird.
“We’re interested not in increasing the percentages of students from a particular country. We’re more interested in increasing the quality of our students from all countries,” he said.
Morrison has emphasized those global ties because while about 60 percent of Thunderbird’s graduates go on to work in the business world, the rest work for governments, non-profit organizations and other international institutions.
Today, Thunderbird’s control tower overlooks a hangar that’s tied to the past as well as a campus that’s looking ahead.
“It’s a tension that exists between acknowledging the history of the past and how that’s contributed to the school’s brand and reputation while recognizing that the world is changing very rapidly, and what worked in the past may not work so effectively in the future,” Morrison said.
“It’s a balance between respecting the past and introducing a new way of thinking about things.”
So now Thunderbird, as part of ASU, is in the business of innovation.