Adelphi University notes with sadness the passing of alumnus John J. Phelan Jr. ’70, ’87 (Hon.). Mr. Phelan passed away on August 4 at the age of 81. Mr. Phelan, the former Chairman and C.E.O. of the New York Stock Exchange received a BBA, magna cum laude, from the Robert B. Willumstad School of Business and served as the first alumnus Chairman of the University’s Board of Trustees. In recognition of his service, he was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree in 1987 and was made Trustee Emeritus. Most recently, Mr. Phelan served as an Honorary Co-chair of the Campaign for Adelphi, and received the award for Lifetime Service at the 2007 President’s Gala. John Phelan was a trusted adviser, staunch advocate and an enduring friend for many at Adelphi University.
In 2007, he shared his “My Adelphi” story in the following interview.
“My life has been a series of serendipitous events. I went to work when I was 16 one summer for my father who had a small business on the floor of the stock exchange. I paid my transportation from Long Island, had my lunch, and came back; I didn’t have any money left by the end of the week. At the end of the summer, he said, ‘What did you think?’ And I said, ‘I’ll tell you one thing, I’m never ever going to work on Wall Street.’ The lesson I learned was to never say never about anything. But when I worked at the NYSE, I took an interest in a wide variety of things. I was very fortunate to start at the bottom, so by the time I was a specialist for 10 years or so, I knew all the different steps in the execution and clearing of the back office. My father died in 1966 when I was a young man, so the running of the firm, Phelan and Co., fell to me. Then I found myself on the board of governors of the NYSE in 1971 for two years. Then they reorganized the Exchange, and I found myself back on the board of governors in 1974. I became vice chairman in 1975, which was a voluntary job. In 1980, they needed a president and the board asked me to become president and chief operating officer.
Three years later, when I was in my late 40s, they offered me the opportunity to become chairman and chief executive officer of the New York Stock Exchange, which I naturally accepted.
From Marine to Scholar
As a student, I went to college for two years from the ages of 18 to 20, and for a variety of reasons, I got bored and joined the Marine Corps. I spent three years in the Marines, including a year of combat in Korea. When I went into the military, I had lost a lot of weight. One day, I was ordered to go down to the hospital to see a doctor, who was a major. He offered me a medical discharge, and I said, ‘I’d rather die.’ So they kept me. Through all my service, I acquired mental and physical discipline, learned management skills because the Marine Corps pushed responsibility down to the smallest level. The strength, skills, and self-confidence I learned in the Marine Corps I took with me for the rest of my life. That experience, plus my family, my religion, my education, and my
business experience, gave me the building blocks that I continue to rely on.
Once I came out of the military and was married, I wanted to learn something about computers to help me run my business, so I went to Adelphi and asked if I could take a couple of computer courses. And then I decided that maybe it was time to finish my education rather than worry about it for the rest of my life.
I had to start all over again. I went at night and it took six years. I thought the liberal arts education that you received in those days was excellent. I had a couple of English teachers, like Dr. Bell, who taught a writing course, and Dr. Molly, who taught art appreciation, who were wonderful. I took art because I thought it would be easy and I was interested in the subject, but it turned out to be one of the more difficult courses. Her final exam was a hundred slides, and you had to record who the artists were and at what point in their careers they had done this painting. You had to go to a major museum like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and look at different paintings by different artists and do a critique of their work.
I am married to a wonderful English woman, Joyce, for 52 years. The English love their language and are very good at it. She read a lot and had an interest in art and in the opera. We had a fine time while I was going to school, raising a family, and running a business. In those days, I had an enormous capacity for work. I could run a business during the day, go to school at night, and have a great time with my family on the weekend. Joyce is the best thing that ever happened to me in my life.
I was very grateful for everything I learned from the School of Business at Adelphi. Adelphi had a stimulating program in those days, in which you had to take 70 percent of your courses in liberal arts and 30 percent in your major which, for me, was business. The dean of the business school in those days was a gentleman named Jim Bender. He was a true entrepreneur and an inspiration to all who came in contact with him.
Adelphi, like all institutions, had a dark period in the mid-’90s, but it has emerged much stronger due, in large part, to a great faculty, fine administration, a wonderful Board, and an exceptional president in Bob Scott.
The comprehensive campaign that is underway is extremely important because, not only will it improve the physical plant of the University, such as the theatre, art, and athletic facilities, but it will also provide additional money so that the University can attract the finest students. Adelphi is in the midst of a renaissance, and has regained its rightful place as a premier educational institution on Long Island and in the greater New York region. By the way, did I mention that I’m extremely proud to be an Adelphi graduate?”
John J. Phelan Jr. ’70, ’87 (Hon.)
As told to Erin Walsh | Adelphi University Magazine, Fall 2007
Learn more about John J. Phelan, Jr. by reading his Adelphi Profile in Success.
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