Tuesday, November 17, 2009

That Was Then ...

I was recently asked to write about my early years in this business. A few years ago I covered that topic in a speech. So I dusted off my remarks, did a bit of updating and sent this along. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

On August 1st 1956, I went to work for Lee Tracy, executive director of the community chest in Paterson, New Jersey, the Sodom and Gomorrah of organized fund raising. About a dozen struggling charities hung by their deficits. Our campaign goal was $200,000. The in-the-office campaign slogan was "Help support a sagging chest!"

I hired on as public relations director, a title invented by Lee to elevate my self-esteem, and keep me working cheap. The salary was $75 a week, $10 more than I had been offered as a general assignment reporter for the Paterson Evening News.

Lee was a defrocked social worker, a serious daytime drinker, a poet, and sober or not, one of the two best people for whom I’ve ever worked the other Harold Oram, of course. Here is some of what happened to me during my first campaign:

  • The pastor of the Dutch Reformed Church of Prospect Heights kicked me out of his office when I told him the Bible didn’t mention the Dutch Reformed Church of Prospect Heights. I offered this observation only after he told me the Bible mentioned neither the community chest nor township campaigns.
  • Two large, round, tattooed gentlemen escorted me from a steel extrusion plant on the edge of town. I erred in believing that workplace solicitation for the community chest was a movement whose time had come.
  • The newspaper called Lee a drunk in print. Lee and I went to the bar of the Alexander Hamilton hotel where I wrote the denial.
  • We had report meetings. Over at the Alexander Hamilton hotel, volunteer solicitors gathered at breaking light. Following God’s blessings, watery scrambled eggs with little pieces of bacon floating in them, pastry of uncertain manufacture, and tepid coffee, these worthies told in tones of abject defeat the result of their failed entreaties to the merchants and counting houses of the city. It was a heady start on the day.

Lee had me write my first direct marketing piece, an earnest plea to the shoe stores, dry cleaners, butchers, hardware purveyors, barbers, pizza parlors, tarot readers, pool halls, bodegas, saloons and other tenders of Paterson’s commercial life. For inspiration, I repaired to the Tree Tavern, where warmed by wine and bloated by pasta, I wrote my heart out.

In the fullness of time, Alexander Hamilton left Paterson. Allen Ginsberg left Paterson. And so did I.

My next stop was nearly nine years at the Greater New York Fund, now United Way of Tristate, where I learned how to work effectively with CEOs of big companies, and how important good tradecraft was and is. I was well trained as a fundraiser, and mid-level manager. I was promoted twice, and I had a shot at a top job either in New York, or elsewhere within the United Way movement. I don’t see a lot of good tradecraft or training today ­ despite the proliferation of workshops, degrees, conferences, and what not. PowerPoint has dulled the senses, and almost no one can write a simple declarative sentence. The volunteers with whom I worked at the Fund were mostly terrific. As top executives in the city’s major firms, they were usually white, Protestant, and Republican. They were always hiring away my Fund colleagues, which was fine by me. I never bought the corporate rap. I played the part. I never truly believed in the script.

I remember one top solicitor from those years. This citizen was a partner at Morgan Stanley, and had pulled Fund duty because one of his clients had recruited him to the campaign. At the Fund, we used institutional leverage effectively, to raise volunteers and money. This guy had me to lunch at one of the restrictive downtown clubs and over his version of soul food told me utterly without irony that there were three important things in life: Morgan Stanley, the Episcopal Church, and the Republican Party. Certainly not the Greater New York Fund, a conservative place, sexist, ageist, racist, politely anti-Semitic in the manner of the time, homophobic, a simulacrum of the business community ­ which is exactly what it aspired to be.

In those days, I dressed for success, and I was quite a picture. The rule was to mimic the titans of trade: white button down shirts, dark pinstripes, rep four-in-hands, black wingtips, fedoras, and yes, by God garters to hold up the black socks! It was so perfect it was almost a send-up of the IBM look. The women wore dresses or skirts, and not those genderless dress-for-success-suits that came along later. A woman who showed up in pants would have been sent home. After she’d been fired.

The Fund was stultifying boring. My outside stimulation was graduate school, local Democratic politics, and involvement in many of the major social issues of the day, especially civil rights.

Every mid-level manager on the Fund’s campaign staff had to take a turn running one of two major luncheons a year. These huge, soporific affairs were held in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria. The carte de jour was the greasy, gray rubber chicken bred especially for the captive banquet trade, wrinkled little peas that tasted like grapeshot, and the spongy mystery cake covered with viscous red sauce.

There was little comic pause, but I was witlessly responsible for one memorable moment. We used a double dais to seat 60 volunteers, and in the backstage holding area, per the luncheon operations manual, I laid out 60 names on 60 chairs. As the band struck up "East Side, West Side," or whatever, I goosed the lead guy, and the grand entrance began. Unfortunately, I had reversed the seating chart backstage. The lower level dais was now the upper. Stage right was stage left! Toward certain confusion these merchant princes and plumed dukes of commerce advanced. Like a pack of squealing pigs on ice, they skittered from one end of the stage to the other, half the moguls climbing to the upper dais, half bumping their way down to the lower. Party time! … Clearly, I had absorbed all I could from this job. It was time to move on.


It was late 1963. I had just turned 30. My daughter, Janet, had only weeks before presented herself to the planet, and I had $100 in the bank. I answered a blind ad in the New York Times. Eve Bates, one of Oram’s vice presidents had run it. … What luck! I had heard a lot about the Oram firm, and the clients they served. I showed up at the appointed hour, all kitted out in the IBM rig, and was shortly conducted into the commanding presence of Harold Leonard Oram, HLO. He offered me an 11am cigar, a Dewars, (I accepted both), and after a nice bit of patter, sent me away, having asked for a writing sample.

A few days later, Harold telephoned to tell me he wanted me to "take a campaign" in Fulton, Missouri, at Westminster College, which had gained a moment of fame as the site of Churchill’s famed "Iron Curtain" speech. I had spent eight months at Fort Leonard Wood, generally described as the cloaca of military posts. No way was I going back to Missouri, or for that matter, any other landfill between New York and L.A. I turned him down. In those days, firms signed a campaign at 5 pm Friday, and needed a body with a pulse, on site, at 9 am Monday.

Three months later, HLO called back, and said he wanted me to work on a campaign for Hampton Institute (now University), then and now one of the nation’s preeminent historically black institutions, and the first of 14 HBCUs I have since served. Before I could spurn him again, he thundered, "There’s no money in Hampton. We’re going to run the campaign from here." And we did.

Harold Oram’s retinue of walking furniture included three VPs, all women, one of whom was African American, unusual for the time, and still pretty rare in the consulting business -- and the trailing edge of junior staff (including a second African-American) to which I had been seconded. Most other consulting firms either had no women on staff, or dunked them in the steno pool. No doubt about it: the Oram firm was really a different animal. We cherished a strong anti-corporate corporate culture, we were cause-driven, and we served liberal and left wing counter-cultural organizations.

Harold had come into this business as a publicist/fundraiser for the Lincoln Brigade, the American leftists, liberals, and idealists who fought on the anti-Franco side in the Spanish Civil War. It was the middle of the Great Depression, a time of one-cent candy, two-cent newspapers, and three-cent stamps. When I went to work for his company Harold had already carved out a brilliant career as advocate and money raiser for unpopular, often vanguard causes, and activists of every kind. Many of them couldn’t pay fees and we took them on anyway, hoping for the best. We often never collected and as sometimes happens friends became ingrates.

He gave free office space to any crony, cause, or luckless stray who asked for it. This habit of welcoming wildly different people of strong intellect and uncertain temperament led to many strong encounters in our clutch of airless Manhattan offices. Discordant personalities, invariably in need of unrestricted funds and unlimited photocopying, crossed paths with our small staff of equally eccentric and sometimes goofy people (two Mensa members out of a staff of maybe 20) whose common denominators were passion for causes and devotion to Harold. I fit right in. When I washed up on the Oram beach, I knew immediately this was where I belonged, I knew this was the work I wanted to do, and that is still true every day of every week.

We were a company (if you could call it that) of motivated, eclectic, multi-ethnic, noisy, opinionated, brainy men and women, vying for Harold’s time and attention. He was more loyal to us, and the retinue he towed, than any Tammany boss, and the flawed or fallen were like as not assigned to the compassionate payroll. Often ravaged by personal demons, they added zest and overhead.

Harold Oram’s world vision was coherent and purposeful. He was a political and social democrat, a one-worlder, and his true agenda was to make the globe a better place. That became my goal too – and still is. Clients were taken or turned away on that basis. Raising money was only a means.

He revered the written word and the compelling idea dramatically put. He expected felicity of expression in my and others’ writing. He was the best copywriter I ever knew. A compulsive editor, reviser and re-arranger, he rubbed copy raw until he got what he wanted. He was tough on the copy, but never on the writer. So naturally, I’d go back to my shared cubicle, broken desk and sprung typewriter, composing well into the night, hoping for his praise in the morning.

Each afternoon around five or six, anyone who was around gathered in Harold’s office for the best seminar on this business that anyone could possibly imagine. Clients, staff, jobseekers, and hangers-on drank his Dewar’s, and smoked what they brought. It was apt to be anything. Harold shared, smoked, chewed, and spat truly terrible Bock panatelas. And he held forth on clients, how we should serve them, how to approach their problem creatively, and he constantly exhorted us to think, think, think! At one such twilight collation, after a meeting with an impossible client, he resigned the account, and declared that "the pattern of client relations is ingratitude!" Often true, and I liked the ring of it. I prevailed on one of the failed academics we were then sheltering to render it in Latin. He came as close as he could to the vernacular and the framed rendition was right under HLO’s picture. It read "Patrono ingrates cliens semper cernitur," and it hung on my office wall until our devastating fire in 2007.

I moved up in the firm, and was given stock. Though I loved the madcap environment, I pushed us to become a business because I realized we could not survive otherwise. We went corporate in the 70s, as the staff grew. I caused the compassionate payroll to disappear, and gradually jettisoned the supernumeraries.

The client base broadened, and we moved to larger quarters. The quote "interior designer," another of Harold’s bi-polar rescues, managed to retain our look of impecuniosity and imminent demise. The late afternoons in Harold’s office became infrequent, and lacked the intimacy and bite of the late ‘60s. In 1978, I bought the business. The day after the contract of sale closed, Harold announced he was withdrawing his "working capital." That turned out to be $80,000, and it was a few days before I had to meet my first payroll. This was a lesson not previously imparted in the Dewar’s Seminars.

Though dependent on the success of the business for over half of his annual income, Harold did not hesitate to blow on the cards, then and thereafter. For many years after he retired, we had, at best, an ambivalent and mutually costly relationship. But in the last few years before he died on August 22, 1990, at the age of 83, I am glad to say we made it up.

I had bought the firm with the invaluable help of two demanding and eccentric outside investors whom I had come to know because we represented organizations in the peace movement, in social justice, civil rights, population issues, and the like. These guys were impact donors to all of them.

Stewart Mott, whose fortune came from General Motors, was brilliant, erratic, always true to his principles, and the family outcast. He was a libertarian marijuana grower -- in his Park Avenue penthouse -- devotee of Renaissance music, unpretentious but definitely odd. For example, he generally received any and all in his skivvies. When he wasn’t doing pot, he smoked an exotic brand of Egyptian tobacco that smelled like burning rubber and swamp gas, combined. Despite considerable wealth in the coinage of the time, and of course everybody was after it, Stewart was for a long time the Most-Eligible-Man-in-New-York-Never-to-Get-A-Second-Date-With-the – Same-Woman. His courting style was truly pathetic. But no matter. The ladies came in hope, and left in tears. Feminine raiment accessorized his bachelor lodgings. Stewart passed away in 2008, still a fervent believer in peace, family planning and all the other causes that had claimed his time, intellect and money.

Robert Wallace Gilmore was in personality totally different from Stewart, but equally off. He had some money of his own, and he had married into the Publishers Clearing House family. A Yalie, an ex-CIA man some said (I never found out), and Quaker do-gooder, he was a dreamer for peace and global justice. He and his wife Joyce established the Joyce Mertz-Gilmore Foundation. They both died years ago. … Alas. …They lived on West 11th, in Greenwich Village, across the street from the townhouse the Weathermen blew up.

Stewart and Robert backed me because they wanted to perpetuate the causes they helped so much. I remain devoted to the work they cared about even as I seek to serve a broader range of bill-paying, mainstream philanthropies.

Mott, Gilmore, their accountants, Harold Oram and I, constituted The Oram Group board of directors. One of the bean-counters was a sweet man who struggled with Stewart’s wilder riffs. The other was nice enough, but a hard-nosed guy, ever determined to save Robert from investing all his money in truly hopeless causes, into which category he had largely classified The Oram Group. For several years after he sold to me, Harold was Honorary Chairman of the Board. God. At one point he and I were suing each other over money. Robert was dreaming up an intergalactic peace movement, and Stewart went off on equally corky, incoherent ideas.

Board agendas were basically place mats. Our meetings were sometimes chaotic to say the least. That the company lost money in about as many quarters as we made it added a certain zest to our deliberations.

With Harold’s death, I was quite truly on my own. Working for Lee Tracy and the Greater New York Fund, I learned fund raising. Working for Harold, I gradually learned consulting, basically by making many -- and correcting some -- mistakes. Their gift to me was and is intellect, passion, and leadership: the ability to see things before others do, and to act accordingly. And I absorbed the simple truth of the old Romany proverb: "Sometimes you get the bear. Sometimes the bear gets you."

No comments: