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Liberal Arts Paved Way For Trucking Execs



Matiss Duhon '01

To learn more about these Cornell grads' trucking businesses, check their Web sites:

Tom Brown '68:

Gary Dohrn '71, Marcia Monson Dohrn '70, and Heather Dohrn '99:

John Smith '71:

John Ward '83 and Rainford Brown III '90

Cornell doesn’t offer “Diesel 101.” No courses titled “History of the Semitrailer,” no “Theory of the Big Rig.” Though it is hardly a training ground for the trucking industry, Cornell has its share of graduates who head trucking firms. For all of these graduates, family ties pulled them into the business.

Rainsford Brown Sr., a former Cornell College trustee, shocked his son, Tom Brown ’68, when Tom showed up the Monday after graduation to work at the family’s transportation and trucking business. Rainsford didn’t offer him a job until he was certain it was Tom’s desire, and not a sense of duty to family that brought Tom back.

Brown is now president of Brown NationaLease in Des Moines. The company leases trucks to manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers.
Brown says Cornell prepared him well. “I really feel with my liberal arts education, I was learning how to think,” he says. “When I ran into problems, I was able to go through the thought process to solve those problems.”

The Brown trucking legacy can be traced to another Cornell grad. Tom Brown’s niece, Ruth Brown Ward ’82, is married to John D. Ward ’83, president of Standard Forwarding Co. in East Moline, Ill. Ruth’s brother, Rainsford Brown III ’90, is executive vice president of the company.

John Ward was a geology major at Cornell. Before he went into his wife’s family’s business, Ward was studying volcanoes, first in Hawaii, then at Mount St. Helens in southwest Washington state.

“It was very fascinating,” says Ward, who recalls being caught in a rock slide once when he was inside a volcano. He had planned to work on a master’s degree at the University of Iowa, but just before he was to register, Ward decided he needed a break. Married by this time, Ward planned to work a semester for his father-in-law. Opportunities, though, kept popping up at the trucking firm. Ward went from operations to sales to general manager at age 28.

“It presents all of the challenges that I could ever hope to have,” he says of his current job.

John Smith ’71 went off to college with the idea of eventually returning to CRST International Inc., the Cedar Rapids trucking business started by his father, Herald Smith. After earning a degree from Cornell and an MBA from Cornell University, Smith did just that. He is now president and CEO.

  “The stuff you learn is not as important as the ability to learn and to think and to communicate, both written and verbally,” says Smith. “That’s what stays with you. I think the liberal arts education got me through deregulation (of the trucking industry), which was by far the biggest issue I faced. I think my education helped me see it coming.”

Smith’s classmate, Gary Dohrn ’71 of Lynn Center, Ill., also went into trucking. Dohrn’s grandfather, Charles Dohrn, started Dohrn Transfer in 1921 in Rock Island, Ill. His father, Wayne, worked in the business, too. During his sophomore year at Cornell Dohrn decided to go that route. He agrees that he could have quit school and gone right to work. He stayed, though, earning a bachelor’s degree in economics and business.

“It was important to me to be exposed to other things—music, art, history—the things, if I had just gone to work, I wouldn’t have experienced,” he says.

Dohrn, president and owner of Dohrn Transfer Co., is joined in the business by his wife, Marcia Monson Dohrn ’70, and their daughter, Heather Dohrn ’99.

Dohrn believes his education at Cornell helps him even today.

“We do business with thousands of customers. You get a real mix of people, which I think the liberal arts education helps. It helps you relate to the corporate executives who ski in Switzerland and to the owners of the ma and pop stores who have limited exposure to things.”

Believe it or not, there is one other thing Tom Brown, John Ward, John Smith, and Gary Dohrn have in common: All were members of Cornell’s social group the Milts.

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