Bob Sherrell's story, part 7 [Soul of a Liberal Village, Ch.2]

the AT&T years

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By Tom Holmes

AT&T

 

            After Zenith moved from Chicago's North Side to Melrose Park, Bob was promoted to be a training department manager.  In order to get federal money, Zenith was required to hire and train 6400 black workers.  He made a video of a program called Project Step Up which he helped design.  Two Illinois Bell executives saw the video at a presentation to the National Alliance of Businessmen and believed Bob was a man "who could work on both sides of the fence."  He was, it seemed to them, not a man who didn't belong anywhere but someone who knew how to function in two worlds.

 

            These two Illinois Bell managers set up a dinner meeting at the Bismarck Hotel in the Loop with Bob, the Assistant Vice-President of Personnel, John Baumann, and the Vice-President of Illinois Bell, Jack Gable.  In the middle of the interview in Bismarck's swanky dining room, Bob revealed part of the effect his Selma experience had on him by saying to these four corporate big shots, "If you're looking for a nigger to be in this job, count me out."

 

            A few minutes later, Gable got up, folded his napkin, and said "alright by me" and walked out.  Shortly after that, Baumann stood up, and said "bring him on" and followed his boss out the door.  Bob, who was left sitting there with the two managers who had put the meeting together, had no idea what was going on.

 

            "You know you got the job," said one of the managers, and that was the beginning of a relationship with what would become AT&T which would change Bob's life.

 

            To be hired as a second level manager right off the street by Illinois Bell was virtually unheard of in 1968, especially if the applicant was without a college degree.  What that meant to Bob was that he was being hired not in spite of his being black but because he was black.  It had nothing to do directly with affirmative action.  He was being hired as a manager, because Gable and Baumann believed that in their communications with the African American community, his voice would be credible to both sides.

 

            He could speak the "tongue of the white man," as he put it.  He could talk about manufacturing, because he had been there.  At the same time, he could speak to black folks—a market in which Illinois Bell hoped to increase its business--and understand where they were coming from, because he had been there, too.

 

            The pieces of his identity which had been scattered in the wake of his experience in Selma were beginning to come together to form a recognizable picture.  He began to come out of the funk of loneliness and isolation he had been in for three years.  For the first time in his life, he was not representing his race or his family. 

 

            "Here I am," he said, "this black guy and I'm credible!  For me the pieces, the separate parts of my soul, started to come together in a way that made sense to me.  And, I liked the picture I was seeing.  It wasn't me as the black guy or as a symbol.  It was me.  It was me who happened to be black."

 

            This upward trajectory of Bob's life was occurring when much of what surrounded him was falling apart.  In the spring of 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, the riots on the West Side made the neighborhood like a war zone, the Democratic Convention debacle followed the riots, the Vietnam War was escalating and Bob was going through a divorce. 

 

His job became the anchor in the storm around him, a constant he could rely on, a means of survival and even thriving.  What mattered was not just that he was winning the game, but he was winning with integrity.

 

He had identified three principles to guide his behavior.  He called them the "Three Cs:" Competence, Credibility and Compassion.  These principles seemed to allow him to transcend even Charles Lowery.  He was still playing a game, but now he was playing it by his rules.  He was, in many ways, post Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois.  He had integrated the feisty assertiveness of DuBois and his mother with the competence and credibility which Booker T. had preached.  And, he was able to play the game with compassion.

 

"I was able to see myself at a level at which I no longer had to apologize for who I am," he said.  "I could actually be a black voice, even a strident black voice, but at the same time soothe the white guy by saying it's not my ambition to eliminate you or get revenge.  My success is paved by your success.  I believed that.  I believe it today.  For the first time I felt good about being beyond representing."

 

He was also ready to get married again.  While playing bass for the St. Luke Church of God in Christ gospel choir in Cabrini Green, he met an attractive white woman from South Dakota named Kathleen, an ex-nun who was doing social work in that neighborhood.  They were married in 1971 and moved to Oak Park soon after the wedding. This year they will celebrate their 37th wedding anniversary.

 

"I tell young black people today that their role is to bring people into the tent, to show them how to open doors," he said.  "Your job is to bring them on board, to show that you're not a threat.  That's how you add value to yourself."

 

How far Bob had come is illustrated by an encounter he had with a second level manager in Peoria named Sam Fisher.  Sam was a pompous "king of the hill" in his area, and Bob had the task of explaining a new strategy which Illinois Bell's president, Charles Marshall was implementing. 

 

Sam, apparently, was unaware that Bob was already seated at the conference table when he entered the room in his officious manner and attempted to take control of the situation by announcing, "Alright ladies and gentlemen, I understand a nigger's going to be coming down here, and he's going to be in charge of some of the proceedings, so I want you all to be on your best behavior."

 

That was the moment when he looked around the room more carefully and saw that the "nigger" had already arrived.  "It was an 'oh s__t' moment," Bob said with glee.  "Some of the women at the table had been trying to warn Sam that he was digging a hole for himself, but in his arrogance he had ignored them."

 

Bob started to explain that Pres. Marshall wanted to cultivate relationships with the stakeholders in Peoria and the other communities around the state so that when Illinois Bell asked for a rate increase they would be supported by influential people.  Sam responded by digging himself even deeper in a hole with a series of statement laced with racial stereotypes.

 

            At that point Sam was standing on the edge of a platform with a noose around his neck which he himself had placed there, and Bob, who was one level above Sam, could have pushed him over the edge with a finger.

 

            Bob continued with his story.  "When I heard him say nigger the hair on my neck stood up and for a moment it was 1965 all over again, that one time we got off the bus and were encircled by 50 white racists.  I wanted to stomp the guy.  Shame was gone.  Everybody looked at me.  They knew what had just happened.  This is what I was able to do. . . .

 

            "I tell you what, Sam.  You write down some names of key stakeholders here in Peoria and I'll pass them along to Chuck, because I'm having a meeting with Chuck on Monday.  It hit Sam Fisher like a two by four.  No way he was ever going to call the president of Illinois Bell Chuck to his face, and here I am calling him Chuck."

 

            By invoking the name of the head of the corporation in a familiar way, Bob was letting Sam know that he was already as a young manager at a level that this arrogant racist from Southern Illinois could not dream of ever attaining.  He was also showing the compassion which was one of his guiding principles.  He was allowing Sam to crawl out of the hole he had dug for himself without punishing him.

 

            "Competence, credibility and compassion had won out over racist baggage," Bob concluded.  "My three Cs controlled me."

 

            While he was climbing the corporate ladder, Bob noticed many symptoms of systemic, racism within Illinois Bell's corporate structure and in the way the company interacted with the community.  Sam Fisher was not a rare exception.  Bob might be playing the game with integrity, but many others were not.

 

            So, while Illinois Bell had been a kind of savior for him after 1968, at the same time it created the tension John Hope Franklin had described years earlier as "the necessity of living in two worlds."  Bob was "bi-lingual," but that didn't make the task easy.

 

            In a happy coincidence, John Hope Franklin, who was serving on Illinois Bell's board of directors, and Bob Sherrell, who was becoming increasingly aware of inequities due to race, found each other.

 

            Franklin, who was at the time a professor emeritus at the University of Chicago and living in Hyde Park, was very aware that he was a token on the Illinois Bell's board.  He understood that he was playing a game, yet wanted to know what was really going on.  Bob Sherrell proved to be the source of credible information he wanted, and John Hope Franklin became a mentor who was on the same page as he was.

 

            "I was in awe of him," Bob remembered.  "yet he invited me to his house eight or nine times.  He would pour me a brandy and ask me what was really going on at Illinois Bell.  That was my freedom, because I knew I was not the only one who knew what some of the games were.  He helped me preserve my sanity."

 

            Another of Bob's roles as a level three manager was to act as a community relations representative who would paint Illinois Bell as a good corporate citizen.  He would, in that capacity, pull together some Illinois Bell execs to represent the company at events sponsored by civic organizations like the Urban League and the Chicago Urban Affairs Council.

 

            Part of that job was to keep Jesse Jackson from having his phone service cut off.  At that time the head of Operation Push was flying all over the world trying to be a peace maker and ambassador of goodwill, which cost a lot money, which resulted in Operation Push being $30,000 behind on their phone bill.

 

            Illinois Bell couldn't just write the bill off, because a zealous service rep could notice how far Jackson's organization was behind and go to the press saying that Illinois Bell had just cut off service to do some disabled grandma on the Southside who was behind on her payment but was letting Jackson slide because he was famous.

 

            "My job was to go over and smooth Jesse Jackson's feathers and get some money from him," Bob said.  "Then, I had to fill Chuck Marshall in on the situation so he didn't get blind sided by the press.  Finally, what we came up with was that we were going to make a donation to Operation Push for $30,000, so I had the check issued, hand delivered it to Jackson, had him endorse it, and deposited in Illinois Bell's account.

 

            "When Jesse protested 'hey, Bob, we don't have any money,' I replied 'that can't work.  You have money enough to go to the Middle East.  I know you have priorities, but we need our money.'"

 

            Towards the end of his with the communication giant, it became clear to Bob that the three "Cs" weren't the only factors responsible for his success.  He began to appreciate more deeply the place of loyalty in a corporation.  He said it's not what you know or even who you know, but it's who knows you.  "They get to know you," he said, "by your pledge of loyalty.  What held many black people in the corporate world back is that they didn't know that they needed to profess to a rising star that they were willing to do whatever it would take to make that person a success."

 

            "The only way I made level four," he continued, "is that I found a man, Jim Croll, to whom I could make that pledge—heart, soul and body—Jim, I am your main man.  The only way I could do that is because I liked him.  I could disagree with him and be honest with him, because he knew I was doing so in order to protect him."

 

            At the time he retired, Bob was a vice-president in his company which had now become part of AT&T.  He was at level four with only regional vice-presidents and the president above him in the corporate pecking order. 

 

            It had been a good 22 years.  Looking back at what had started in the midst of the social and personal turmoil of the late sixties, Bob said, "For me what happened with Illinois Bell in 1968 was the first booster thrust, and I was really enjoying the ride.  I was already air born but this was thrusting me higher.  It was a great ride.  I could actually see the stars and was enjoying the view."

 

            Toward the end of his time with AT&T, Bobbie Raymond and Edie Burton asked Bob if he would be willing to be interviewed by the VMA (Village Manager Association, a "political party" in Oak Park) which was making a slate of candidates for the 1988 election in Oak Park. 

 

            In his explanation of why he decided to be interviewed, Bob said it was an ego thing.  It was a way of testing himself.  He had never put himself in front of a community of people and asked them for their votes.  Although admitting that the group of thirty to forty people who interviewed him was intimidating, Bob found himself, once again in his life, saying, "If you're looking for a black face to be a token, count me out right now."  And, once again, those in authority said in effect "bring him on board."

 

            Bob was elected a trustee of the Village of Oak Park and served from 1989 till 1993.  While ego may have been part of the motivation for his running, he also wanted to make some changes in the way the village did business.  His main goal was to raise the level of management in the village.

 

            He was instrumental in adding a gay amendment to Oak Park's diversity statement.  As liaison on the Police and Fire Commission, he pushed to make both departments accountable to the village instead of their departmental structures.  For example, he said that police officers were going to the high school to pick up teenage girls and harassing black folk driving through town.  "This ain't gonna happen anymore," he told the commission.  Cops who were incompetent and even had rap sheets were being promoted.  "This ain't gonna happen anymore," he declared.

 

            He worked for economic development and demanded that the village manager be evaluated according to his performance.  "When Neil Nielsen didn't measure up to the performance standards we had set," Bob recalled, "we fired him."

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