From Republican to Democrat

I was asked recently at a Democratic fundraising dinner why it was that I left the Republican Party and began voting Democrat. I took a moment to gather my thoughts and began:

I was VP or CEO in half a dozen firms from 1987-2014, nearly 30 years, most of which I spent directing scores of workers in the steel fabricating industry. Prior to this I worked for 20 years in data processing sales and as a staff person in telecommunications. During those earliest years I hardly knew what the framework of our government amounted to – no great credit to the civics courses I know I, at least, attended! My life, as far as I was aware, was in the hands of our government, regardless of the political affiliation, and we just had to endure it; administrations and policies come and go. But, leaving these areas of employment as essentially a “worker” to become a manager shouldering bottom-line responsibilities changed everything. Now I had to be aware of any and every aspect of our existence that might impact productivity and, most importantly, profitability. Those laws and regulations that someone else had heretofore had to worry about were now clearly in the middle of my desk. And we know where the buck stops!

I had the chance now to make my mark. I studied everyone successful in manufacturing of any kind. I wanted to think like them, manage like them, be successful like them and I was prepared to do whatever it required. I had already unconsciously sold my soul to the devil. I would proclaim for the first time in my life that I was a specific party patriot, a Republican. I was a member of all the business organizations, nationally and locally, from the Mississippi Manufacturers Association to the National Association of Manufacturers and National Federation of Independent Businesses, all strong Republican supporters. The owners of the closely held firms I managed were all Republicans as well. I even supported the NRA. I was all in! I did not broadcast my political leanings at the plants or to staff persons, but they would have had to be blind and deaf to have not known. If a law, policy or regulation supported our business we were for it. Short shrift was given to the employees, families and neighbors that were doing without to finance big business at our company and throughout the country. All the areas we are concerned about today like healthcare, Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, trade, education and housing were a concern then as well and seldom addressed by the Republican administrations I was pledged to.

I am ashamed to say that it took me well into my third management position to realize that if this work meant I had to navigate against my own moral compass I had to do something else. Clinton, a Democrat, was into his second term and having his problems by then. But I had seen enough to realize the Right was Wrong and my political reformation was well underway. After three years of GW I was through with the Republican Party and with manufacturing management as well. I spent my last 11 years working for the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi as Executive Director of its camp and conference center. A more liberal environment but still in Mississippi. The crowning blow to my conservative leanings was yet to come.

I retired the last day of 2013 and moved to Boston, Mass on January the 2nd, 2014. We would stay there for two years assisting with our young granddaughter. We lived in the center of Cambridge, halfway between MIT and Harvard. It was, as our oldest would say, “when Dad got his Liberal Enema!” Everything about that trip told me I was a Democrat. No more discussions. We also knew we couldn’t return to either Alabama or Mississippi once we really did retire. Raleigh and NC were where we decided to move, still Southern but a great deal more progressive than the Deep South. Home is where the heart is and here we will stay.

Ponderings

I have for decades returned to thoughts on what it means to come to Jesus “as little children.” Today I read from the daily posting of Richard Rohr and it comes even more into my conscious musings a thing I should think about more deeply. I look at my granddaughter, Sharon, and how, at 2 ½ she experiences everything so innocently, so naively. She doesn’t judge anything or anyone, even her dog that has real social issues. At this age there are no good people and bad people, just people (or dogs!). Fact is, she hardly notices differences even in individuals’ skin tones. How glorious, and yet, one would say – maybe cynically – that it is dangerous as well.

Consider for a moment how our childhood’s innocence is in most cases unintentionally taken from us. “No, no don’t hit your brother; that is bad!” heard as: “YOU are bad.” What is ‘bad’? For the child it must be opposite from the ‘good’ that they hear when parents/adults are pleased with them. And the examples go on and on in so many small but cumulatively large ways. A loss of innocence and creation of dualistic thinking are firmly a part of our makeup before we make it to Pre-K school. For the majority of our years most of us will see everything as black or white….,bad or good….,up or down…happy or sad.

Eddie and Steve

I was asked to serve our state in a volunteer capacity in the area of workforce development. It was a heady appointment and one I took seriously. There were all manner of others serving the same cause and we grew to know one another well over the several years of our participation. Some of them I would become friends with and except for the distances between us in our regular lives we would probably have been even closer. There were informal times before and after meetings and on the road and in the air traveling together; we relished these as times to become better acquainted. Steve and I, though not ‘good’ friends, were probably closer than most of the group with no every day connections.

Steve and I were in similar occupations, Owner and President, respectively, in the metal fabrication industry. We had a lot in common and shared ideas and frustrations of management and opportunity. I have characterized our association as a “bar stool friendship”. Not that we drank a lot together but it was that kind of arm’s length banter one has just sitting at the bar after a long day’s work. It is protected talk, some to influence the other and some to probe and discover what the other is actually made of, what’s his worth, his talents, his deficiencies. I was a mixture of intimidated and in awe of this obviously quite successful businessman within the same small niche producing custom-made machinery.

He was a large man, maybe 280-300 pounds? His size alone could certainly be intimidating. He had a swagger about him and a not-so-subtle sharing of his wealth-positon and status. I was oblivious to a lot of this, writing it off as, “just who he is”. (This was, unfortunately, endemic to the way I was; some would say, too accepting and naïve.) “He had to be smart ‘cause he was so successful.” Didn’t he? That was where I was in admiring (?) him. I would vote for him. Hell, given the right job, I’d work for him!

I saw another side to Steve one evening when he invited Trudy and me to have dinner in Granville. It had the chance to be a free dinner with interesting talk. It was just a dinner. He brought with him a menagerie of minions that looked as if they could have come from the Bowery and a Mafia stronghold. I don’t remember ever knowing who they all were and their attachment to Steve. It was a weird evening and revealed more of the man I called friend. He was ‘holding court’ as the expression goes. He was leading and guiding all that went on around the table and was not especially respectful to his dinner guests. Of course, I was oblivious to much of this and a bit defensive as I had portrayed this man quite differently to Trudy. Admitting you’ve backed the wrong horse is difficult for some of us.

Life would go on. My company would be up for sale and I would bring together the owners and Steve. He would eventually be the successful bidder and I would go to work for him. This should have been the right position for me with good pay, benefits and support for greater business success. The future was bright. But I remember all too clearly saying to the employees, “Let’s give this man a chance. Don’t go looking for another job. We’ll be here together assessing our future individually and as a company. Give him a year and I will be here with you.”

I loved all those hard working men and women. I owed them much as they had rebuilt Bright Star Industries and put it back on a solid financial footing. They had believed in the dream and given much to see it materialize. The change in ownership should have been the next great step for us all. The promise of better wages, nicer facilities, money to promote and expand, all this was the dream we now shared. Then grayer clouds began to gather.

While negotiations were still going on I visited Steve’s plant in Willow Stands several times. One time I was in his office upstairs over the plant floor. He picked up a phone and motioned for me to be quiet, he obviously listening to something on the other end. I could see his expression changing and a grimace covering his face. He made some notes and then, exasperated, hung up the phone. He told me then that this was a phone line he had installed so he could listen in on calls made from the floor by employees. He was especially interested in this one person’s call as it was with the adulterous employee’s lover. In a self-righteous rage he went on and on telling me how sinful and shameful this was. He would tell me later how he called the employee in and presented him with his knowledge of the affair and how if he didn’t call it off immediately he would be fired. He related that the man did this and that once again all was well. I was astounded on all kinds of levels. I had to admit this could be a real problem and a huge mistake made in promoting this man as new owner of the plant. There was nothing I could do but support him and try to guide his management of our plant in ways different than I had witnessed at his. It would prove to be a fool’s duty.

The sale was consummated and we all took our places. I watched Steve do things I couldn’t imagine. On the one hand he would do anything to get what he wanted, the ends definitely justified the means, and yet he would stand in front of the entire employee body, floppy-backed Bible flowing like a water fall down both sides of his outstretched left hand, his right hand evangelist-style raised in acclimation of the Word, preaching the glories of honesty, hard work and church attendance. He was in his element as the center of attention and if his words made this flock work harder and produce more that he had done God’s work.

Steve second-guessed everything I did. He put me down with the same ease with which he listened in on personal phone calls. The end was near. I think it was the day I reported to him on some matter and began, “Steve, I feel…….” Bam! He retorted, “I don’t give a damn about how you feel; tell me what you know! We don’t have time for feelings around here!” Within an hour I was back in front of the emperor’s throne. “I think we both realize this is not going to work for us. Thank you for the opportunity but I’m resigning as of this moment.” His only response, with no indication of any emotion whatsoever, was, “Yeah, I think your right.” We did shake hands. This was on day 363 of our first and only year together.

Now all of this is not just a tale of my poor judgement of character or of some buffoon I knew down South. No, it’s more a tale of how men like Steve, on a much smaller scale, can be so “billionaire-real estate-developer-like”. There is a DNA there that gets a scent of another chance at personal glory and increased wealth and can’t do anything else but pursue it. Whatever it takes is what it takes and you can take that to church with you. I’ve worked for two of these men and been sucked in by their self-centered ways only to be the loser in both cases.

Beginning With Being Fired

“Oh, yeah, I will need your car on Wednesday if you could make arrangements to get it back here by then?”  And so were the last words said to me as I was fired from my job as VP of Operations at the tire company.  The how and the why of this is a story for another time, but this set in force our move to Mississippi.

“Whoa!  What are you doing home at this hour?”  With my arms loaded with newspapers from all over the south, I told Trudy I had been fired and was starting my search for another job.  By suppertime I had written dozens of letters and made as many phone calls looking for our next paycheck.  This would go on for several months, being tantalized by this job, and frustrated by that rejection; encouraged by this ad, and frightened by the dearth of anything at all.

It was fortunate for me that the drive for re-employment absorbed my every waking hour for the next few months, but Trudy was not so lucky.  She was already near her threshold of tolerance just dealing with four young children; to have this bombshell dropped on her I feared would push her over the edge.  I had to wear my happy face no matter what the realities were.  She never would know how desperate we truly were, how crazy I was to push for an appointment as CEO of a manufacturing firm in – of all places! – Mississippi.

There was so much, in hindsight, that should have given me pause as I went through the strangest of employment processes I would ever experience.  But I was blind to much of anything except a check, including the actual job’s requirements.  I said ‘yes’ to so many things, all with the hope and faith that I’d be able to find out how before anyone ever discovered I had no idea what I was doing!  I did get the job and the family began to move to Mississippi, known to Alabamians as “The only thing keeping Alabama off the bottom of all those surveys!”

We knew that the plant I would be managing was between Vaiden and Winona, MS, not far from the major north/south interstate, I55.  Trudy and I made our first trip over to find a home.  It was not fun.  In fact, she hardly stopped crying for the next couple of days!

Mississippi can be green and lush and even beautiful, but not in the late fall.  It’s mostly just grey and on a day shrouded in clouds and threatening rain, it can look like any place other than where you’d want to live.  We started in Winona, then to Greenwood, via Highway 82, and then to Grenada and on up to Oxford.  The gulf between living in Winona and Oxford is as wide as the oceans.  But Oxford was just too far away from my workplace south of Winona.  Driving into Winona off of 82 from Tuscaloosa, Alabama and across the midsection of Mississippi in late October can be dismal, but with your mind considering it as a place to settle down with the family, well, that could justifiably coax tears from even the hardiest of us.   As Trudy cried I tried to again play the happy game looking for anything that might make it more appealing.  Now I’ve had to sell some less-than-best products before, but I wasn’t anywhere near to seeing buying signs from her.  This was not looking hopeful, but we forged on.

Little Shards of Light

Fresh out of college, just married, and working for a weekly giveaway newspaper, The Florence Picture, I was driving my boss’s land yacht back toward Florence. I had just dropped off the gallies for the upcoming issue at our offset printer’s offices. As I remember it, it was nearing dusk and overcast, not an evening of inspiring rural scenery. I had lots on my mind, but through my reverie I was told to put on my seatbelt.

Now seatbelts back in 1968 were, first, not in many cars and, secondly, no one used them anyway. So, beyond the mystery of voices speaking to me, it is equally amazing that I acted upon the words I was hearing. With one hand on the wheel I slipped the belt across my lap. I don’t remember chest straps being a part of these back then. And then it happened.

I approached a small hill and just as I topped it I was headlight-to-headlight with another car! Bam!! It was over as quickly as it had begun. The only thing breaking the silence were the radiators spewing steam from their ruptures.

The truck that the ill-fated car was passing on that hill stopped and the driver ran back to assist with the certain injuries. I was not hurt beyond the fright and dread at what had just happened. But I couldn’t say as much for the driver of the other car. She had not been wearing a seatbelt and badly injured her face. The truck driver and I did all we could to comfort her until a ambulance arrived. She survived but would take some time to fully recover.

Thank God, thank you for nudging me to snap on that seatbelt!