Moments of transition define Brigadier General Harry Bendorf’s life. He fled from Germany’s shift toward Nazism, witnessed World War II veterans move into civilian life at SMU’s business school and rose through the ranks of the U.S. Air Force as the Cold War took hold of U.S. foreign policy. He is also the highest-ranking veteran alumnus of SMU Cox School of Business.
Born in Germany in 1928, Bendorf and his family escaped their home country and the Nazi regime, arriving in the United States in 1939 when he was just 11 years old. They eventually settled in East Dallas, where he graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School. As he followed the war from the relative safety of the United States, Bendorf developed a respect for the military. He knew that the U.S. had given him and his family an incredible opportunity, and it helped inspire his desire to be a part of the armed forces.
“When I came over as a refugee, I always wanted something to give back to this country because it gave me opportunity and freedom,” he says. “I felt I needed to give something back, and that was one way I could do it.”
An SMU Business Education
Bendorf’s family emphasized the importance of getting an education, but he knew he would need to pay his way through school if he wanted to go to college. Going to school nearby meant he could save money by living at home and keeping his department store job where he could work nights, weekends and summers.
SMU checked all of Bendorf’s boxes. It was nearby, it offered a growing business school (before it became the Cox School) where Bendorf would go on to major in leadership management and it also had an air force ROTC program, which would allow him to get a reserve commission following graduation. “SMU had excellent academic reputation, and it offered the discipline that I was interested in. My major was called Leadership Management, and I was able to combine management and my military aspirations, which interested me very much,” he says.
While at SMU, Bendorf witnessed the building of the middle class, as millions of veterans returned from World War II and went to college because of the G.I. Bill. He also enjoyed being present in the glory years of SMU football, with Doak Walker leading the team to a Southwest Conference Championship, earning multiple All-American honors and a Heisman Trophy along the way.
The veteran presence on campus created a more professional culture. Many of the former soldiers had wives and children and were more focused on their education than the average college student. SMU in the post-war years accelerated Bendorf’s maturity. “It’s a maturation process,” he says. “It helps shape you in deciding what you may wish to do later in life, and it’s a development process.”
From the Classroom to Combat
Bendorf’s time in the business school served him well in the military and beyond. His leadership management focus gave him the tools to successfully serve the country and build a career. “Leadership always intrigued me, and I felt I wanted to lead something,” he says. “My view is that you lead people, and you manage things, but it’s an interesting combination because that’s what business is about.”
“As you rise through the ranks and as you decide what you want to do, be sure to take care of your people so that they take care of you.”General Harry Bendorf
Bendorf hoped to have a reserve commission in the Air Force but didn’t necessarily have dreams of a career in the military — the Korean War, however, changed those plans. Bendorf graduated as a distinguished member of ROTC and a second lieutenant in the Air Force and entered into flight training in 1951, months after graduating from SMU business, to prepare for the ongoing Korean War.
He went through combat crew training on the B-29 aircraft and flew a combat tour of duty during the war as a master navigator. The professionalism and leadership training gained at SMU served him well in his most harrowing moments. “When you’re flying in combat, you have a mission to perform, and there’s no question about it,” he says. “Are people scared? Sometimes they are. It’s a job like anything else. This is your mission. This is what you’re asked to do and what you’re trained to do. You have to do your job when you’re in the military to serve the country.”
Applying Experience to the Business World
Military promotions slowed following the Korean War, and Bendorf considered moving into the civilian world and pursuing a business career. He eventually received a regular commission and began rising through the ranks in the Air Force — and was named brigadier general in 1979. When he retired from the Air Force, he spent 17 years as an executive at Boeing, where his knowledge of the military allowed him to develop the company’s marketing strategy as it sought government contracts.
In his corporate and civilian life, Bendorf embraced a world of change and carried with him the lessons he learned at SMU, which helped him adjust to a life that didn’t turn out how he might have planned it. He found comfort in a helpful Yogi Berra adage: “When you come to a fork in the road, you take it,” Bendorf says. “You take the forks in the road, you develop, and it all comes together. You don’t necessarily plan it all.”
In a life defined by transitions, 93-year-old Bendorf’s admonition to students and alumni is fittingly centered on ageless advice. “Take full advantage of your education,” he says. “Your time at school is probably the happiest time that you spend in your early life. As you rise through the ranks and as you decide what you want to do, be sure to take care of your people so that they take care of you.”