Denman McNear traces his start to the pastoral Sonoma Valley, where he was born into the fifth generation of California McNears. “My great-great-grandfather came from Wiscasset, Maine, settled in Petaluma, and started a hay, grain, and feed business—it was over 100 years old when I was a child,” he says. But, McNear continues, he didn’t stick with that business: “I chose to follow my mother’s father instead.”
McNear’s maternal grandfather, George W. Kittredge, graduated from MIT in 1877 and spent his career with the New York Central Railroad. After retiring as chief engineer, Kittredge moved to Yonkers, and McNear, his mother, and his sister “would go back every summer by train to visit Grandfather,” he recalls.
His grandfather’s career and those summer trips cemented McNear’s interest in MIT and railroads. In 1942 he enrolled at the Institute, began studying civil engineering, and joined the Beta chapter of Chi Phi house, which became his “home away from home.”
“[In a fraternity,] you develop greater relationships, appreciation, accountability, and responsibility,” McNear told the Chi Phi Chakett in 2010 after being awarded the fraternity’s highest honor, the Walter Leland Cronkite Jr. Chi Phi Congressional Award. “You have a brotherhood environment that helps us to our highest potential.”
McNear graduated in 1948, after serving two years as a radio technician for the U.S. Navy, and that summer he started his own career in the railroad industry as an engineer in the Sacramento Division Engineering Department.
As he worked his way through the ranks, McNear married, had three sons, and continued his education, earning an MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business in 1950 and attending Harvard Business School’s Advanced Management Program in 1966. In October 1983, he became CEO and chair of the Southern Pacific Transportation Company.
Today, McNear is retired from the railroad but still active with his fraternity and MIT. He is an honorary director of the MIT Club of Northern California and life director for the MIT Club of Cape Cod. In 1995, five years after a divorce from his first wife, McNear married Barbara Stanton Gaillard—the widow of his freshman-year roommate—and the two began visiting numerous countries and making local stops to see family and friends.
Looking back, McNear says he is most proud of “working for the railroad for 42 years, raising a family, and keeping up the tradition of the family.”
Become an Insider to get the story behind the story — and before anyone else.