Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Ron: memories of a mentor

Going home always seems to prime the pump when it comes to memories from the past. I’ve been working on several stories from my childhood and young adult years. This is my first installment of a series about working with Ron, a man who was my boss from February 1981 through February 1984. In addition to being my boss, Ron was also a mentor. Somewhere I have photos of Ron and of my scouting days and maybe I'll get around to copying them and including a few in this blog.

With our plates overloaded with barbeque, cole slaw, baked beans and hushpuppies, Ron and I went searching for empty seats at the makeshift tables that filled Clarkton’s tobacco warehouse. It was a month or so after market, but the sweet smell of Brightleaf Tobacco lingered. We nudged our way to a couple empty seats. Ron turned to the man and his wife sitting next to them and asked if these seats were available.

“Ya’ll good Democrats, aren’t you?” the man asked in a strong southern dialect.

“Hell yeah, wouldn’t vote no other way,” Ron shot back.

I about dropped my plate as I knew Ron had never voted for a Democrat in his life.

It was homecoming day for Jimmy Green, North Carolina’s Lieutenant Governor. Green had just been acquitted of some kind of corruption charge. I was a young district scout executive and since many of Green’s supporters were also scout volunteers, they’d arranged from him to give a sizable gift to our camp and I was there to be a part of presenting him a plaque in front of his friends and neighbors on this day of celebration. Ron was my boss, the council executive, and I had told him about the program and he asked if he could tag along. Waiting for the program to began, we ate our barbeque and drank glasses of ice tea. Ron, with his Mississippi accent, fit right in.

Ron was a salesman, and a good one. He’d recruited me to work for the Boy Scouts, taking a significant pay cut when I left the bakery. He was also a good teacher and mentor and to this day I am indebted to him. Under Ron’s tutelage, I learned to run successful fundraising campaigns which not only raised money, but empowered people to feel a part of the organization. Although on this day in Clarkton, we were honoring someone who’d given a large gift to the scouting program, Ron continually emphasized to his staff that we go after every gift, regardless of size. Emphasizing the importance of grass root gifts, Ron told and retold the story of Big Jim Folsom, a populist governor from Alabama in the mid-20th Century. Whenever Folsom spoke, he passed the hat and encouraged people to put in what they could. “Even if all you have is some change,” Folsom would quip, “that’s fine; every gift is important and we will use your gifts to fight for you.” Folsom’s advisors questioned this policy, reminding him he had plenty of fat-cats backing him and didn’t need to nickel and dime the poor folk, but Folsom knew better. “People make their commitment with money,” he told them, “and if they give me a quarter, I don’t have to worry when the next candidate who comes around seeking their support; they’ve already sealed their commitment to me.

The last time I saw Ron, I asked him about Folsom. We talked for a few minutes about the former governor. Ron, who had later in his career worked with many in Clinton's administration, told me that Bill Clinton could have learned from Folsom’s straightforward approach. According to Ron, Big Jim had once been caught going into a hotel room with a beautiful young woman who wasn’t his wife. He admitted to his constituents that he’d made a mistake, but went on to say that his opponents were out to get him and that girl had been the bait they’d used and anytime they use bait that appealing, they’re going to catch Big Jim.

"Ron," I said, “Monica wasn’t that good looking and furthermore, I don’t think Willie was set up.”

Ron laughed and told me another story. A rumor had circulated that Folsom was known to have cocktails with the Kennedy clan. “That’s a damn lie,” Folsom retorted. “Everyone knows I don’t drink cocktails, I drink my whiskey straight, just like you folks.”

Although Ron had learned the skills of motivating people from a populist governor who was also a racist, Ron worked hard to overcome the prejudices instilled in those of us who grew up in the South. That last day I’d spent with Ron, I reminded him of an incident that occurred one day, not long after I’d started working with the Boy Scouts. Ron and I made a call on a Baptist pastor in Evergreen, a small community in Columbus County which did not have a scout troop at this time. Several parents and kids in the community, most of whom were black, had requested that a unit be started. We just needed to find a chartering organization. We had pleasant chat with this pastor, but he insisted that although he’d love to see a scout program, his deacons would have a fit if black boys were running around in their church. I started to argue about this being an unchristian attitude, but Ron cut me off. He was nice and polite and told the pastor that if things changed, to contact us. We quickly left, but as we drove away, Ron muttered, “That lying son-of-a-bitch.” “Don’t you believe he really wanted the troop,” I asked. Ron said that he felt the pastor and the deacons were of the same mind. Then I asked why he didn’t want to confront the man and he said that there were no way we were going to change his mind while sitting in his study, that it was better to leave, letting him think better of us than we did of him.

Ron chuckled, as I recalled the incident that had happened nearly a quarter century earlier. He wasn’t doing very well, having had numerous surgeries and bouts of chemotherapy in an attempt to fight an aggressive brain cancer. His face was bloated from the drugs and he’d often forget what he was saying. I spent half a day with him while his wife ran errands. At about 11 AM, Ron insisted we have ice cream. An hour later, he decided we needed a sandwich and a beer. Ron was the only boss I had in my life that would treat his staff to drinks at lunch! We talked about working together in the early 80s and what had happened to the two of us since. Ron had risen in the scouting ranks to become the Scout Executive in Washington, DC, where he rubbed shoulders with many of these in government—Republicans and Democrats. He had done well, until his health forced to take a medical retirement, after which he moved back to Wilmington. Although we always exchanged Christmas cards, I had only seen him a couple of times in the 20 years since he’d been my boss. Ron talked about how he hoped to have a chance to write his memoirs before he died. That chance never came. In another two months, Ron would be dead.


  1. sage - you have lived an interesting life and encountered many interesting people. I enjoy reading about them. May Ron rest in peace.

  2. Good story. Btw, are you thick-skinned? Successful fundraisers are all thick-skinned aren't they? So let me get this right, you're thick-skinned, from the South, so you must have a strong southern drawl, you worked with little boy scouts, you ate too much BBQ, you voted *ahem*... well, tell ya, I'll nuke ya just fo' havin' dat combination! Brace yorsef :)

  3. Ron sounds wonderful. My father would buy lunch and drinks for his employees. I never expected an employer to do that for me but never realized how special he was for doing it

    I love the Folsom anecdotes.

    Happy Thanksgiving Sage

  4. Diane, I have been around lots of interesting folks!

    Mother Hen, I have a southern drawl, I've eaten a lot of barbeque and make some of the best pork bbq in Michigan, and I voted for who you recommended! But working professional with the scouts is different that working with scouts (that's done by volunteers).

    I often buy lunch for my staff, but never alcoholic drinks at lunch--working with Ron was the closest I came to a 3 martini lunch.

    Happy thanksgiving everyone.

  5. You don't think Monica's good-looking? I think she's the cutest of all of Bill's ex's.

    Happy Thanksgiving, Sage. I'll be at the in-laws tomorrow. Say a prayer for me. :-)

  6. He sounds like a very smart man, and a good mentor. I look forward to the photos and more stories.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  7. Sage - There is a lot to learn from Ron's words.

    Murf - Good luck tomorrow. I can only imagine what Iranians consider as equivalent to Turkey.

  8. Murf, serving Iranians, maybe serve some "cheese curds"

    Kenju, he was very bright

    Ed, Yes, he was wise, but a lot of fun, I plan to write a couple more posts about him

  9. Its so wonderful when we are exposed to people like Ron during formative years. He sounds like he was very special. Thank you for sharing such a fascinating glimpse into your "early years".

  10. Ah, so you aren't the one selling boy scouts cookies and ringing Christmas bell? You just sit back and order people to do the tough work? Bummer! I've read up Spring Summer Fall Winter, I bet I'll really like that, so have added already.

  11. Another one of those great characters you worked with somewhere along the way. Thanks for sharing.

    Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

  12. What a story! What a man. I hope you can dig up some pics from your scouting days. I'd like to see them.

    Happy Thanksgiving, my friend! :)

  13. Epiphany, he was good, but there was also another side to him--I'm not sure how much I'll write about partying with him after work--back in the 80s when "happy hours" with large buffets were the going thing.

    MH, tell me if you like the movie. As for the scouts, maybe I'll write more about my work. With the exception of summer camp and doing talks in schools, I had little youth contact. It was mostly working with volunteers.

    TC, you know, I have had many "characters" in my life! A few of them, I hope, see me as a character :)

    Scarlet, I'm sure I can dig up some photos! I have more stories to tell on Ron

  14. Ah, a perfect thing to read on Thanksgiving Day!My 15 year old just made life scout so I am fast approaching the eagle mark with him. It's been a looooong road getting here and I truly know I have earned that mother's pin! You should publish! Or maybe you already have?It's always great visiting the "musings".
    Happy Thanksgiving!