The Thunderbird Mystique

By Jake Strickler, Co-editor

I’ve spent the last week or so poring over the archives of this rag, working on a big “Best Of” project that’s taking form out of 45 years of old, yellowed mimeographed newspapers. In doing so, I’ve learned more than I needed to, or at least probably more than I should have, about the history of the school and the trials and tribulations that have been flung at it by the universe throughout the years.

Something that has really struck me is the reliability of the appearance of certain attitudes and behaviors. Like clockwork you can see their influence ebb and flow over a period of three trimesters or semesters or tripartite curriculum units or whatever measure the school happens to be favoring at that time. These can be broken down into three discrete stages as follows:

Stage One: The Starry-Eyed Grad School Honeymoon

Thunderbird campus in 1946. Courtesy Arizona Memory Project.
Thunderbird campus in 1946. Oasis in a whole lotta nothin’. Courtesy Arizona Memory Project.

The new ThunderCadets report for duty bright-eyed and busy-tailed, and ready to take on any task that proves their mettle in front of a jury of their peers. This motivation is sustained throughout the trimester, with interest in/preparedness for/effort put into classes high and participation in extracurricular events – even the ones that don’t involve booze – also high.

Stage Two: A Happy Return from the First Break, Followed by Disillusionment, Burnout, and General Unhappiness

The developing Thunderbirds leave the strange new nest of Glendale and fly off somewhere distant – Winterim in Cuba (a very surprising option that was unsurprisingly very popular during the 1990s), home, internships, Amazonian vision quests, etc. As the break nears its end, the students experience something even stranger than Glendale: homesickness for the desert. Upon return, they are renewed, enervated, and ready to jump headfirst into new classes with what are now old friends. However, after the first week or so, the enthusiasm is tempered by a stark realization: the honeymoon is over.

The workload, even if it may have not increased significantly in reality, seems like it has tenfold. The nights are chilly, and students begin to stick to their rooms and socialize less. When groups do gather they are often made up of roused rabble, and committees of redress are made and open letters are penned. The students latch onto the flaws and imperfections that they may have perceived earlier but chose to ignore in order to avoid this phase or something like it. Any number of articles/letters published even in the 70s and 80s about the value of the food in the dining hall, the cost of tuition, the lack of diversity in the selection of LPs available for purchase in the campus bookstore (well, maybe not that last one) could be re-run today, as in right now, and remain totally applicable. Sidenote: it’s very invigorating to see a school newspaper make a third-party dining hall business publish a full cost analysis of their menu items, with comparison prices showing that Thunderbird students were conclusively paying less for just about about everything than the normies over at (irony alert) ASU. What other school would do that?

Thunderbirds Around the World, photo taken in 1950. Courtesy of Arizona Memory Project.
Thunderbirds Around the World, photo taken in 1950. Courtesy of Arizona Memory Project.

Interest in and preparedness for classes begin to wane, even as effort put into them stays high, as if students are working to retain their stellar GPAs out of spite. Participation in extracurricular events not involving booze hits its nadir.

Stage Three: Over It, Followed by Acceptance, Enlightenment, and Wisdom

After another break period involving any, or a combination, of the experiences undergone in the first break, the students return to campus again. But by now the environment is totally familiar, and the students are in the know regarding what they need to put effort into and what they don’t. This comes out of getting a handle on their ideal career trajectory and personal strengths, and applying effort and interest more selectively based on realizations made over the break.

A conversation with Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater becomes a hot commodity for T-Bird students after he speaks on campus during the contentious 1968 Presidential race. Courtesy of Arizona Memory Project.
A conversation with Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater becomes a hot commodity for T-Bird students after he speaks on campus during the contentious 1968 US Presidential race. Courtesy of Arizona Memory Project.

It’s here that a kind of enlightened mindset becomes apparent; the thousand little petty demands of the day-to-day become subservient to a deeper understanding of What Really Matters.  The articles published during this stage develop a kind of looseness and, at times, a strong sense of gallows humor. They are frequently absurd; each Stage Three period generally has at least one debaucherous version of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in miniature, featuring a “global” cast of characters.  There’s a lot of nonsense poetry and pictures of the students in wacky costumes. The dissatisfaction experienced in the previous semester fades, and another surprising (especially so because in the last go-around nobody could wait to step off of these grounds for an extended period of time) realization occurs: they don’t want to leave.

Published in Das Tor January 27, 1978.
Published in Das Tor January 27, 1978.

A comic published in 1978 presents this dilemma quite eloquently. It shows the typically overloaded T-Bird student performing the complex balancing act necessitated by this place. Merrily he skips along the path to graduation, but he has arrived at a crossroads. Signs point in two directions; the left path leads to the Pub, a coffee shop, and school administration, and the right path leads to Glendale, as well as to The Real World. Curiously, both directions offer a a way out. Anybody who has spent any time at this school should, it seems, recognize the choice of which path to take as one that produces a great deal of consternation; as much in 2016 as in 1978.

The reasons why we can see a uniformity in groups of students separated by forty years are, I think, twofold. First, the school and campus themselves have a certain timelessness to them. Thunderbird is, at once, a future-oriented learning institution and a living monument to all those who have crossed the equator with the motley group in the header photo, whether in spirit or in actuality. Some people seem to dig the cognitive dissonance produced by living, quite literally, in the past but always thinking forward, while others don’t operate on that wavelength (the decade-long clash that occurred between students and faculty from roughly 1994 to 2004 over incorporating internet technology and the world-changing role of “e-commerce” into class syllabi makes for a pretty fascinating case study of this dynamic).

Those who have trouble tuning in at all, however, seem to be few and far between. This, I believe, is due to the process of self-selection that occurs when there is a certain type of individual who is drawn to this place and guided here by instincts that, as the essay below discusses, are “as old as mankind.”   The Thunderbird student of 1978, then, displays little difference from the student of 2016 beyond wardrobe, and rather has much in common with him or her, specifically a feeling of boredom with average life, a ceaseless drive and desire to constantly explore and learn more about the world, and a fondness for beer.

This archetype has been pointed out to me and my cohort over and over, with a quite whimsical name affixed to it: The Thunderbird Mystique. Recognition of the breadth and depth of this elusive, almost occult, concept did not fully happen for me until I started this project and began to say to myself, “Hey, this article from May of 1995 is almost identical to that one published in May of 1993.” This happened so frequently that I made a spreadsheet and started keeping track of these spiritual concordances. At that point, a pattern emerged. And now here I am trying to sell you on it like a Glendale Nostradamus.

language class
A Spanish class held in 1985 in a familiar bunker-like Snell classroom. Courtesy Arizona Memory Project.

There is, however, one article that is published regularly and in full, but on a slower track. It seems to pop up about every 4-7 years. The discovery of it must keep happening in similar circumstances; a Das Tor writer, eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep, flipping compulsively through page after page of crackly newspaper searching for the answers to questions raised by taking a step back from the present and looking at the history of this institution from a macro perspective simply stumbles upon it in some iteration and has everything tied together for them in that moment. The infrequency with which it is published gives it an appropriately spooky urban legend feel, as if it’s something passed down from generation to generation, but only to those who choose to dig through the mountain of information that it is buried in.

Its author, Boyé Lafeyette De Mente, is a graduate of the class of 1953. He is alive and still resides in the area. But enough of my blathering, here’s De Mente’s bio:

1957. De Mente (kneeling) with fellow explorer Ben Carlin (standing) atop the amphibious Jeep called the Half-Safe that they were soon to (I'm not kidding) pilot from Tokyo to Anchorage, Alaska. The journey took four months. Photo courtesy http://www.4wdonline.com/reader-contributions/amphibious-jeep-half-safe-co-adventurer-connects-with-4wdonline-com.html#prettyPhoto
1957. De Mente (kneeling) with fellow explorer Ben Carlin (standing) atop the amphibious Jeep called the Half-Safe that they were soon to (I’m not kidding) sail from Tokyo to Anchorage, Alaska. The journey took four months. Photo courtesy http://www.4wdonline.com/reader-contributions/amphibious-jeep-half-safe-co-adventurer-connects-with-4wdonline-com.html#prettyPhoto

“I have been involved with Japan, China, Korea and Mexico since the late 1940s as a member of a U.S. intelligence agency, student, journalist, editor and author working out of Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong, Singapore and Mexico City. I am a graduate of Jochi University in Tokyo, and The American Institute for Foreign Trade (in 1953), now Thunderbird School of Global Management, in Glendale, Arizona, USA.

I wrote the first ever books on the Japanese way of doing business (Japanese Etiquette and Ethics in Business in 1959 and How to Do Business in Japan in 1962), and was the first to introduce the now commonly used Japanese terms wa, nemawashi, kaizen, tatemae-honne, shibui, sabi and wabi to the outside business world!”

Keep these facts in mind (which you likely read with a hint of envy, as I did) as you read the following piece. I may not have found the answers to all of my questions yet, but Mr. De Mente has provided the answer to most of them. Maybe I’ll pass this along to him. After all, the walls between past, present, and future are fairly permeable around here and the incursion of one into the other is something that just happens, often from nothing more than taking a stroll around the campus. But I’ll let Mr. De Mente speak again. Following is his essay, written in the formative days of this school itself:

The Thunderbird Mystique

By Boyé Lafayette De Mente, Class of June, 1953

“It takes most schools decades if not generations to develop a mystique of any kind. The American Graduate School of International Management, which opened on October 1, 1946 as The American Institute of Foreign Trade, began with a ready-made mystical image that had the power to excite and inspire.

Another photo of De Mente standing aboard the Half-Safe as it is lowered into the waters off the coast of Hokkaido, Japan. Photo courtesy 4wdonline.com. I encourage you to click the link in the above photo for more information about the incredible journey.
Another photo of De Mente standing atop the Half-Safe as it is lowered into the waters off the coast of Hokkaido, Japan. Photo courtesy 4wdonline.com. I encourage you to click the link in the above photo for more information about the incredible journey.

The ‘Thunderbird Mystique,’ as it came to be known, had its genesis in the goals of the two men who conceived of the idea for the school, American Army Air Force Colonels Finley Peter Dunne and W. Strouder Thomposon, who were later joined by Army Air Force General Barton Kyle Yount.

Veterans of World War II, Dunne, Thompson, and Yount correctly foresaw the need for young people to be trained for careers in international business, with a strong emphasis on foreign languages and cultures. Under the leadership of General Yount, who had served abroad for many years, they set about creating a school uniquely designed for that purpose.

The mandate established for the school by its farsighted founders tapped into a basic human compulsion to explore strange lands, to communicate, and to understand – a compulsion that had played a fundamental role in the evolution and spread of humankind around the globe.

This deep-seated urge to see what is in the next valley, over the next mountain, and beyond the rivers, lakes, and great oceans – long since romanticized by the exploits of such figures as Odysseus, Marco Polo, Columbus, Magellan, Cook, Lewis and Clark, Richard Haliburton and others – still today pulls at young men and women like sirens of old, and is a key factor in attracting students to Thunderbird.

The location of the new school, on the site of Thunderbird Field I near Phoenix and Glendale, Arizona, where the Air Force had trained American and Chinese pilots during World War II, added its own special ingredient to the image of the new school. In the mythology of the Arizona Indians, the thunderbird personifies lightning, thunder, and rain, which each spring renews the spirit of the land – just as each new class of students at Thunderbird renews and carries on the spirit of the school.

It is, in fact, the students – newcomers and graduates alike – more so than the faculty and administration who keep the Thunderbird mystique alive.

Many students from each graduating class go abroad, using their new language and cultural skills to fulfill dreams that are as old as mankind. Most of those who do not go abroad become cross-cultural links with the world at large, and in many was contribute more than fellow students whose careers take them to foreign lands.

The Thunderbird mystique is the soul of the school. It is as important to the school as the knowledge and experience that Thunderbird offers to its students, and should be nurtured and celebrated.”

Look out for the Das Tor Through the Ages compilation at next week’s 70th Anniversary celebrations. Special thanks to our school archivist Shannon Walker for making this material accessible, and to Mr. De Mente for writing a great piece in 1953 that he likely never imagined would be firing up contributors throughout the history of Das Tor. Thanks also to the folks at the Arizona Memory Project for setting up an amazing online photo archive, which can be seen in its entirety at http://azmemory.azlibrary.gov/cdm/contributor?colln=tgmhistcoll

Sidenote: When questioned by his wife about why he spent four months sailing an amphibious Jeep from Japan to Alaska with Ben Carlin, with the foreknowledge that Carlin was in his words “a foul-mouthed, inconsiderate SOB whose behavior toward people was often outrageous,” De Mente responded: “The answer is simple. At that time I had two strong-willed Japanese girl friends who had just met and were on the warpath.  I decided that I would be far safer with Carlin on the Half-Safe than I would be if I stayed in Japan.”

I can be reached at jake.strickler@tbird.asu.edu

One thought on “The Thunderbird Mystique

  1. Hello! As fate would have it, I did the same thing you did (archive search / dumpster dive) back when I was an assistant editor (1987-88)! And I think I wrote some of those predictable, perennial articles that you mention. Good times!

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