Hand on the Shoulder: Finding freedom in the confluence of love and career
It was a cold day in June when I arrived at the Susquehanna River. The town of Endicott lay across the river, still shrouded in a morning mist and looking like a place from another era. Getting here from Virginia was the longest distance I had ever driven alone and the first trip of any kind in my new 1957 Plymouth, the model with the huge tail fins and push-button automatic transmission.
An engineering degree in hand, I was taking my first step into the unknown world of big business, technology, real Italian spaghetti, and northern American culture. IBM’s vast production plants with six thousand workers lay just across the river. On Monday morning, I was to report to their personnel department and begin finding my way in the complex labyrinth of the corporate world.
In four weeks, I would return to my small town, Orange, Virginia, to marry my high-school sweetheart and, a few days later, have her join me in this venture into the unknown. If she had been sitting with me looking across the Susquehanna Bridge, I could never have explained the future we would experience; two small-town kids on an uncharted road, infused with the culture, expectations, and values of the South.
In my childhood, there was a large open space, called Wynn’s Field, behind the back fence bordering our house. I sometimes stared over the fence curious to see what went on back there. A small creek, scrubby bushes, a few trees, and some unidentifiable pieces of metal sparked my interest.
“Play all you want in the backyard, but don’t go into Wynn’s Field,” Mom said.
As a child, I never crossed the fence into Wynn’s Field, but I have been searching for that place ever since. I like change, meeting new people, seeing new places, having new experiences, learning new things. I like to explore.
But taking risks and entrepreneurship were not the legacies of my clan. They were more likely to be dirt farmers than estate owners. And I don’t know any relative who was willing to risk other people’s money to start or grow a business. That would have been contrary to the family’s ethics. The family ethic demanded good behavior: Attend church, love each other, help other people, work hard, raise your family, avoid conflict, take responsibility, obey the rules, and be self-sufficient.
That legacy was fine until it wasn’t. My self-sufficiency folded under the weight of carrying too much responsibility alone. When I faced difficulties, I was embarrassed to admit them to my family and friends. I found myself alone on the prow of the ship with the cold wind blowing in my face, blinding me to the need to reach out to my shipmates.
When I needed to reach out, I turned inward, but finding no one there, swirled around in the miasma. I was drifting. I had stopped exploring. I was estranged from my wife, my extended family, my friends. I had failed to build a personal support system.
When I finally learned to reach out, to give and receive love and support, the path became clear, but it ultimately took moving to a new continent to find the way.
The stories in this book are the stepping stones, some leading to new adventures, others to slippery convolutions. And, at the foundation of each step lay decisions and assumptions resulting in unanticipated consequences. Those decisions were made in the context of the intersecting tides of personal drive, southern culture, company norms, and family needs. Tides I sometimes failed to understand while moving through life.
As with all memoirs, this is the way I remember things. I have changed some names to protect people’s privacy, but used the real names of prominent business leaders, who do not deserve to hide.
Writing this book has been part of the healing process, an opportunity to reexamine turning points, to reconsider old decisions and to take a fresh look at times and relationships from my upbringing in my small town in Virginia, to my stepping into a transformed life at the turn of the new century.
Yes, there is much to say about my life since January 1, 2000, when this book ends, the flowering of a new relationship, the exploration of a new profession in consulting, the new stories, the new characters. But that book will have to wait.
I write this with deep apologies to my three children, David, Lynn, and Laura for the missed opportunities of time together and for my absences in time of need. But I am thankful for them, my wife, Ancolien, and my brother Warren, for their love and support during my exploration of life.
I thank my editor, Rebekah Spivey for her expertise and inspiration in preparing the text. Her wisdom, insight, and good humor have been guiding lights. Also, thanks to members of the Holon team, Grace Beck and Leslie Cao, for their support and guidance, and Leslie, in particular, for our many conversations in formulating this book. And special thanks to my physical therapist, Rebecca Brown, who helped me keep a gimpy hip under control during the writing period.
And thanks to my many friends and colleagues who encouraged me to take on this project. “I’d like to know how you came to be who you are,” was a frequent comment. This book helps answer that.