My first job was as a lowly public relations assistant at the corporate headquarters of a fortune 500 company which, at that time in the early 70s, was the largest retailer in the world. That was pretty heady stuff for someone whose formal education had been predominately classical performance. I needed to work to pay for further vocal studies after determining that my road to the Met was going to be a much longer haul than I had anticipated, so in a true stroke of luck, I landed my first real job in the business world. I was hooked and never looked back.
My first three tasks were writing assignments: rewrite all the executive biographies as obituaries (in case one them died), rewrite the histories of our stores, which had all begun as family run department stores at the turn of the century, and write a daily synopsis of current news. On day one the VP of Public Affairs (who just happened to be the former editor of the New York Herald Tribune – and my boss) stacked on my cubicle desk: The Wall Street Journal, Women’s Wear Daily, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Barron’s, Time, Newsweek, Fortune and Forbes – none of which I had ever read. I was to identify the relevant news items about which I thought our executives should know.
Believe me, it was more ludicrous to me than it is to you reading it today. And I was just egotistical and naive (what a deadly combination that is) enough to dive right in despite having absolutely no idea what I was doing. Undaunted, I gathered up my courage and on a IBM Selectric typewriter, typed up a one sheet annotated summary which was then duplicated and distributed to what we referred to as The Mahogany Row – the executive wing where all the big VPs hung out.
Can I just tell you that from that day forward, I was consciously grateful for the good fortune of having been educated in a superior school environment. From my parents I got my basic intelligence but who knows where I found the chutzpah it took to tackle my new job. My education had been extremely well rounded by teachers who were engaged and engaging. They cared deeply about our education and the basics were hammered into our heads long before we headed off to college. I also give credit to my home environment which fostered books and culture and very little TV. It’s no exaggeration that I had worked my way through the twenty-four volumes of my beloved Red Book Encyclopaedia before junior high besides being on a first name basis with the county librarian. But most important were those dedicated teachers who worked for the Upshur County Board of Education that put the students above politics.
I tell you this story to make two points. First, all that “stuff” I digested during those school years suddenly came into focus. All that random information that was floating around in my head made sense and with the tools that I developed at that first job I have been able to make sense of life every since. I learned that with a solid, well-rounded education and good work habits you can figure out most anything and achieve success. I learned to organize my work with to do lists and time lines; I learned to do the job once, slowly and carefully so I didn’t waste time. I learned how to work under pressure; how to get answers by doing solid research (what I wouldn’t have given for the Internet back then); and how to hit my deadline with discipline and good humor.
Second, I learned that knowledge is power.
Being informed is not just a right – it’s the responsibility of a thinking culture that is free to shape its future.
My executives back then knew they had to stay informed and by following their lead I grew to be passionate about information. We all must stay informed about things that matter – our government, our community, our ever shrinking world and how that all impacts our lives.
I get a sinking feeling when I see a television segment where people on the street are asked random questions about simple things like “Who was Thomas Jefferson or Alexander Hamilton?” or “What does the Speaker of the House do?” or “How many states are there?” or “How are Senators and Representatives different?” Wait, that last example is too hard. It would appear that the folks who are answering these quizzes apparently don’t care about what they don’t know and in my humble opinion, that is a recipe for disaster. We are sinking fast.
As George Santayana so aptly put it, “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.”
I realize that this is one small part of the difficulty we face today, and I don’t know that there are any short term solutions other than simply continuing to be informed and urging others to do the same. Oh, and speaking out – political correctness be damned.
So that’s what I’m doing. Speaking out. It does no good to be informed if we don’t put the information to good use. That is our responsibility.