Kenneth G. Kramer · 1998
It was 1946 and James H. McGraw Jr. (of the McGraw-Hill McGraws) was looking for a bright mind and driving presence to lead a little magazine called Business Week out of post-war doldrums into the brave new world of the 1950s and beyond. Over a drink at the Statler Hilton, McGraw turned to a Hoosier named Ken Kramer – a DePauw University grad – to be Business Week’s new executive editor. That drink with McGraw changed Kenneth G. Kramer’s life -and the life of what was to become a great magazine.
For the next 22 years – Business Week’s publisher would later call them the “remarkable Kramer years” – Kramer made good on the assignment McGraw gave him: to make Business Week reflect and explain the changing world of business as the nation turned from wartime to peace.
How to do that? Kramer, applying typical Hoosier practicality, decided to model the magazine editorial staff’s structure after the structure of business itself.
“In order to accomplish what we had to do,” Kramer said when he retired in 1969,”we had to keep moving into new areas of coverage. The departments of the magazine were originally designed to match, roughly, the structure of a modern business corporation – as corporations spread out and recognized the importance of other areas, we found new departments to match this interest.
“My job has been building an outstanding staff and creating new departments to keep up with the considerable growth in business and our coverage of it.”
During his tenure, Kramer increased the size of the staff fivefold, expanded the magazine from six departments to 14 and increased its bureaus from 11 to 25.
Or as one of his former colleagues put it, “Ken widened the scope of Business Week coverage from strictly finance and economics to marketing, science and technology.”
For his first eight years at Business Week, Kramer was executive editor. In 1954, Kramer became managing editor, returned as executive editor in 1963 and advanced to editor in chief in 1965.
In that latter job, from a corner office on the 31st floor of the company’s headquarters overlooking the Hudson River, Kramer often plied his soothing influence with business leaders whose feathers were ruffled by one thing or another that Business Week had published.
“Often,” said Kramer’s successor, Lewis Young, “we would see irate lawyers trail into his office and watch them leave smiling. The staff could never figure out how he did it. We used to call him the vice president in charge of complaints.”
That ability to understand and relate to businesspeople was one of the things colleagues recalled about their former editor when Kramer died on Jan. 19, 1992, at age 87 in his retirement home of Lake San Marcos, Calif. “Ken visited business executives throughout the country to learn what was on their minds. He was the best-known magazine editor of his time in corporate offices,” Keith G. Feleyn, chief of correspondents, said in 1992.
Kramer undoubtedly developed some of that appreciation early in life as a clerk and doer of odd jobs in his father Henry’s East George Street store in Batesville, Ind. He was born in Batesville on April 28, 1904.
After he graduated from Batesville High, Kramer headed for DePauw, but he first got into journalism when he sat out a little more than a year from DePauw and worked as city editor at the Greensburg Daily News.
The news bug bit. Back at DePauw, Kramer became editor of The DePauw (Indiana’s oldest and, it boasts, “coolest” college paper) and was a contemporary of fellow DePauw student Bernard Kilgore, who would later help revolutionize The Wall Street Journal.
After finishing his degree at DePauw, Kramer worked at the Atascadero News in California and then did circulation work in California, first for Pacific Publishing in San Francisco and then for The Wall Street Journal.
As he worked his way back east, Kramer was publisher of the Daily News in Rockford, Ill., for a year and then moved to Chicago for another year of work in advertising.
The year 1935 brought a move to the nation’s capital and a move back to news for Kramer. For nine years, Kramer headed The Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau.
During the war, Kramer left journalism again briefly to work for the Automotive Council for War Production and then for the American Iron and Steel Institute. In both jobs, he specialized in terminating wartime contracts and disposing of surplus properties.
It was at the end of those jobs that McGraw sought Kramer out for the Business Week job. Today, on the verge of the 21st century, it is hard to imagine life in the late’40s and the decade of the ’50s – the post-war optimism, the booming economy, the changing technology, the transformation in lifestyles. And even Kramer, who seems to have been nothing if not a practical man, at least once looked, wide-eyed, into a crystal ball.
“In 10 years,” he said in a 1957 interview with The Indianapolis Star, “we are going to have the biggest boom in the history of the country…. From 1963 on, there will be one of the biggest outpourings of new products ever conceived. Newly developed turbine engines for automobiles, all-plastic houses, wearing apparel of paper, personal helicopters! Buck Rogers, but not so really Buck Rogers because it’s not a dream. It’s going to happen.” Well, maybe the personal helicopters thing didn’t happen, but he wasn’t far off on most of that observation.
The year 1957, by the way, was the same year that Kramer received an honorary doctorate of letters degree from DePauw, his alma mater.
Kramer himself? Listen to this paragraph about him in a profile Indianapolis Star writer Jane Allison produced in September 1957:
“Kramer is a solidly sandy looking man, whose generally brown apparel and brown tortoise shell glasses contribute even more to his overall sandy impression. He has a slow, still very-much-Indiana speech inflection and an unexpected, but all-pervading laugh from which he usually seems reluctant to part.” (Sandy? Generally brown? Oh, well, it was the’50s.)
In its retirement farewell to him, Business Week called him a “professional Hoosier,” who, like Kilgore at The Wall Street Journal, had done big things in the biggest of U.S. cities covering news about the biggest of the world’s economies.
Despite the glow of the big city, Kramer remained a proud member of the Sons of Indiana and saw his Batesville upbringing provide him lasting value and produce instant kinships.
“The chief Hoosier attribute that I have is in dealing with people,” Kramer told The Star’s Allison in 1957. “We’re all essentially gregarious. We like to meet people. And I think it’s quite an asset in business, as well as social life. I’m always meeting Hoosiers everywhere I go. But I wouldn’t know they were Hoosiers [if] we hadn’t gotten to talking. I just couldn’t have been more delighted when I was chatting away with a couple of fellows in Istanbul two years ago, only to discover one of them had graduated from Rose Poly [now Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology and the other from I.U.”