John Milton Hancock was born February 2, 1883, in Emerado, North Dakota, to North Dakota pioneers, Henry and Isabel (Irvine) Hancock. His father was a farmer, who came from Canada in 1878 and founded the town in which his son was born. Henry Hancock was also a partner in the local hardware store and a realtor in the township. John Hancock’s immediate family included three sisters and a brother: Ethel, Edna, Maude, and Harry. In 1897, the family moved to Grand Forks where Hancock took preparatory college courses at the University of North Dakota (UND).
Once Hancock enrolled at UND, he was quick to involve himself in many of the activities available to him. He was a varsity football player for three years until injuries forced him from a game in the fall of 1902. Even though football and track absorbed much of his time, Hancock still found time to be active in A.D.T, a newly founded literary society, and editor-in-chief of The Student. He graduated in 1903 with an A.B. degree.
After graduation, Hancock served as high school principal in Tower City, North Dakota. In 1904, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. That same year, Hancock married Ida Mary Buckingham in Grand Forks on June 23. The couple had two children: Ruth Laura and Ralph Henry. Hancock entered the U.S. Navy as an ensign, serving as assistant paymaster in the Supply Corps. After training at the Bureau of Supplies and Accounts, he served as general storekeeper at the Olongapo Naval Station in the Philippine Islands. Soon after, Hancock went out to sea with the USS Galveston.
From October 1909 to March 1914, he did accounting tours at Navy yards in Boston, Philadelphia, and Puget Sound, and then returned to the Philippines at the Cavite Naval Station. When World War I broke out, Hancock was on patrol duty aboard the USS Helena on the Yangtze River in China. He was soon ordered back to the United States, where he was placed in charge of the purchasing division of the Navy's Bureau of Supplies and Accounts. In this capacity, he obtained the rank of lieutenant commander in October 1916. This was followed by promotion to commander in January 1918.
As head of the purchasing division, Hancock made purchases of Navy supplies in excess of $2 million per day. He designed a system based on commodity sections: estimates were made to reflect as closely as possible the Navy’s material needs, and contact was maintained with the country’s industries. The Navy's newly legalized authority to award contracts based on profitability prompted the War Industries Board to form a price-fixing committee, of which Hancock was a member. From April to August 1917, he served on the General Munitions Board and, in 1919, accompanied Franklin D. Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, to dispose of accumulated naval equipment overseas. Hancock also established organizations to settle claims against the Navy. Finally, in 1919, lured by challenges in the private sector, Hancock resigned from the Navy at the rank of commander.
His accomplishments in the Navy resounded through the business world, generating numerous attractive offers, all of which Hancock turned down while still waiting for a challenge that befitted his skills and talents. A challenge did finally present itself when Herbert H. Lehman, a very good friend of Hancock’s, offered him a position with Lehman Brothers investment bankers in New York City.
In October 1919, Lehman Brothers asked Hancock to undertake the reorganization of the Jewel Tea Company in Chicago, which had been financed by them and was now deep in debt. The company had been operating at an annual loss of $2 million, along with a substantial debt of $4.5 million. Hancock came on board as vice-president and under his watch implemented corrective strategies: unprofitable branches were closed, low-volume routes were dropped, inventories were substantially reduced to provide badly needed cash, common dividends were canceled, and preferred dividends were deferred. After these changes were implemented, the result was a complete turnaround for the company. By 1924, the company's annual profit was $750,000. During Jewel Tea Company’s transition, Hancock was promoted to president in 1922. In 1924, the same year the Jewel Tea Company changed its financial course, Hancock became a partner in Lehman Brothers, a milestone since he was the first partner not to be a Lehman family member. In March, Hancock surrendered the presidency of the Jewel Tea Company to Maurice H. Karker. The Jewel Tea Company’s new fortunes were an immense accomplishment from which Hancock reaped a reputation. He became director of many different corporations, including Sears Roebuck, Florsheim Shoe, Cluett, Peabody, Brunswick-Balke Collender, International Silver, Kroger Grocery & Baking Company, and American Stories.
Hancock was also involved in civil affairs, often serving the federal government in an advisory capacity. In 1933, he was an executive officer of the National Recovery Administration and, in 1939, was a member of the War Resources Board. In 1942, he and Bernard Baruch participated in a survey of the rubber industry. In 1943, following an appointment by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Hancock assisted the director of the Office of War Mobilization in developing reconversion and post-war adjustment policies. He again worked with Baruch in 1946-1947, when he served as general manager of the U.S. Delegation to the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission. He helped formulate an American proposal on international control of atomic energy.
Hancock has often been recognized for his achievements and contributions. He was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross by the U.S. Navy in 1919 and the U.S. Army Medal of Merit in 1948. In 1945, he was awarded the Henry Laurence Gantt Medal by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers for “distinguished achievement in industrial management.” He was also a recipient of honorary degrees from Hamilton College, New York (1950), and New York University (1950).
Hancock was also an active alumnus of UND. He served as a director of the UND Alumni Association and led the efforts to build Memorial Stadium. During this process, he donated $25,000 to the cause. In 1932, the University awarded him an honorary Doctor of Laws degree. Hancock Hall was dedicated in his honor on October 24, 1952. Even though Hancock was a distinguished alumnus of UND, he spent most of his life outside North Dakota. John Milton Hancock died September 25, 1956, in White Plains, New York. He is buried in Kensico Cemetery, Valhalla, New York.
“Mr. Hancock and the Bomb,” Fortune: February 1947
Who Was Who in America, 1951-1960
The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, vol. 46, 1967
Various articles from the Dakota Student and the UND Alumni Review
The John M. Hancock Papers, 1932-1956, consist primarily of records related to Hancock’s service to the United States government. Most of the records were organized into three-ring binders either by Hancock or his secretarial staff. The binder contents, unless otherwise indicated, have been reorganized into folders. Box 9 was eliminated during this reorganization.
Many of the documents relate to the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission (UNAEC), which was formed in 1946 following the very first resolution of the United Nations. The UNAEC sought the peaceful use of atomic energy, along with the elimination of atomic weapons. Hancock served as general manager of the United States contingent, which was led by Bernard M. Baruch. Baruch proposed a plan by which the United States would destroy its stockpile of atomic bombs, in exchange for an UN imposed prohibition on the future development of atomic weapons. The “Baruch Plan” passed the commission, but was vetoed by the Soviet Union in the Security Council. UNAEC materials include correspondence and memoranda, meeting minutes, subcommittee documents, press releases, governmental reports, and various subject files. One binder pertained to criticisms of the Baruch Plan by then Secretary of Commerce Henry A. Wallace. Four scrapbooks are included as well.
In 1942, Hancock participated in a special survey of the rubber industry in light of national defense priorities. Materials from this survey include correspondence and memorandum, subject files, governmental reports, and transcripts of meetings. Six binders are found in Boxes 2 and 3, each of which has an index at the beginning. Hancock was also a member of the Office of War Mobilization, formed in 1943. He served in the Office of Contract Settlement, which was charged with the responsibility of settling terminated war contracts. In addition, Hancock was a member of the War Resources Board, which was the first federal agency to analyze mobilization options in light of possible entry into a war in Europe.
Other records reflect Hancock’s career in investment banking and securities. These deal with securities legislation, and include correspondence, governmental reports, and legislative text. Hancock’s service on a subcommittee of the Securities and Exchange Commission is documented. Four scrapbooks contain newspaper and magazine clippings regarding profit and inflation (1947-1954).
Hancock also chaired a special committee on behalf of the American Chemical Society, which sought to determine members’ opinions of the Society. Materials regarding his relationship with the University of North Dakota are found in Box 10, along with texts of some of his speeches. Box 11 also includes an undated history of the U.S. Navy’s purchase division in World War I, written by Hancock.
Five photographs were separated and placed in the Photograph File Cabinets, while the nineteen scrapbooks were placed on the shelves adjacent to the collection.