Owen D. Young (1874–1962) belonged to a unique American generation: the last to know a country where the majority made their living from the land and the first to feel the full impact of modernization. Born on an upstate New York farm, educated at St. Lawrence, a small college nearby, and armed with a Boston University law degree, Young made a large difference in that transforming change. His early career dealt mainly with the new and sprawling utilities, and brought him to the attention of the General Electric Company. Joining it in 1913 as vice president and general counsel, and becoming chairman in 1922, with Gerard Swope as president, he soon transformed, with Swope’s impressive aid, a large national enterprise into a dominant international one. They were a singularly effective team, enterprising at home and abroad, and notably progressive in labor relations. Always the entrepreneur, in 1919 Young saw the possibilities of the ‘wireless’ and so set up the Radio Corporation of America.
International problems beyond those of GE and RCA took much of his time in the 1920s. He was a key figure of the Dawes Committee in Paris, which had the job of devising a workable solution to the post-World War I German reparations tangle. After establishing a payments system, he returned as deputy chairman (later chairman) to help in the New York Federal Reserve Bank’s persistent efforts at European reconstruction. In 1929 Young was back in Paris as head of the Young Committee to attempt a ‘final’ settlement of the still intractable reparations problem.
These prodigious efforts, combined with his solid reputation at home, made him a major public figure, and although public office at any level was never his goal or desire, press and public refused to understand this. In 1932, for example, Democrat Young was forced to declare that he could not become a Presidential candidate – disappointing many friends but not his friend Franklin D. Roosevelt. Nevertheless, the ensuing years of depression and war often found Young in Washington, pro bono publico, working long hours at nonpolitical and unpaid jobs. Young and Swope retired from GE in 1939 but the war soon brought them back for its duration.
Such is the bare outline of Young’s life, a life on the classical pattern of American success. What it leaves out is what makes this grand biography noteworthy, for however much it is a contribution to American business history, it is also the history of a remarkable human being. He knew always what was most important: his family, his native village, his college – and his work for youth and education, for labor, for peace. At ease everywhere in the world, a major figure in its boardrooms and banks, a brilliant innovator and a thorough bibliophile, Young still was most truly at home on his working farm and Van Hornesville, N.Y. No reader of this book will leave it without affection for this exemplary American or new respect for the system that made his emergence possible.