It amazes me where a major in English could lead. I have found that no matter what the subject, chances are that a college graduate today will have five or six jobs during several different careers. On top of that, only the early jobs are likely to relate to the major at the University.
So, why learn Chaucer or Drucker or the Foucault pendulum? Classes and campus life are the annealing cauldron in which we develop both technical skills (quickly outdated), and human skills (that last for life, on and off the job).
Fortunately, I woke up to that distinction before it became current. I wanted be a journalist like Edward R. Murrow. In 1948 in a blue beanie hat, I settled into the freshmen dorm, a remodeled Army barracks near Ithan Avenue. Yes, that was 64 years ago. The University enrolled about 2,000 undergraduates. Nearly 600 of us were freshmen and most straight out of high school.
The rest, about one in four, were the last of the GI Bill war veterans who dominated the once placid campus. They awed us with the things that older, smarter, worldly-wise bruisers taught innocent youths. Positively, they modeled for us valuable life skills: survival, independence, self-discipline, a bit of cynicism, a discerning attitude and, of course, how to find the path to Kelly’s.
Adapted to veterans, the college treated us new batch of kids as they treated the vets, with high expectations, not too much discipline and a stubborn insistence on scholarship and religion. It was different—but there was no better way for us to grow up quickly.
Four years later, I ejected into the adult world. Rather than wait to be called in a draft for universal military service, I enlisted in the U.S. Army. Never in my heart was I a soldier, much less an infantry grunt running combat patrols in the no-man’s land north of Korea’s 38th parallel. I kept muttering to myself “How dumb is this to be doing; I’m a college graduate.”
Two years later, I shipped home as a 25th Infantry Division sergeant, with colorful medals and an undiagnosed case of Post-Traumatic Stress. I returned a wiser and more wary person, certain about the futility of war and dazed by its brutality. The country I fought for had largely ignored how and where we risked our lives. “Been away somewhere, Jim?” Korea was the first in a series of U.S. wars with no victory to celebrate. I am still proud of my service, but thankful that I didn’t become the last dead hero, with deep empathy for those who did in Vietnam and for the last 10 years.
My hometown newspaper, the Staten Island N.Y. Advance, offered a midnight to 8 a.m. reporting job, for less money than I was making in uniform. That jolt of reality propelled me into the alternate world of corporate public relations and a succession of four PR agencies.
A terrible truth accelerated professional advancement for my age cohort. Too many men who were older than we were never came home from the war. Their deaths created a gap on career ladders in the expanding post-war economy. Inexperienced arrivals like me learned quickly to work over our heads. At age 30, for example, consulting with the CEO of J&L Steel, I chided myself, “I hope he never finds out how much I don’t know.”
Public relations got repetitious and boring after 12 years, even in that era of TV’s mythical “Mad Men.” Inspired by the famous “Ask not…”challenge from John Kennedy’s inaugural, I felt a need for more meaningful service to society. I talked my way into becoming managing director of a conference center started by Jesuits in New York City. Our mission was to conduct off-the-record discussions on national issues among political, religious, business and social action leaders. Now I was really over my head.
After passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, I worked with Bayard Rustin, the civil rights strategist. He drafted a working paper on the next steps in the struggle for equality. The high-powered conferees chewed it over, endorsed its principles and enrolled their diverse constituencies into approval for Lyndon Johnson’s executive order the following year banning workplace discrimination.
Funding dried up after the death of my boss, the Jesuit John Courtney Murray. I segued through a personal contact into an unlikely position as president of a struggling Catholic women’s college in New Jersey. Within two hectic and exciting years, I was able to resuscitate the place, quadrupled enrollment, started programs for non-traditional students, won grants for minority students, reached positive cash flow and earned accreditation.
At age 40, I need time to rethink my own career, with the help of graduate work at New York University. It dawned on me in a psychology of work course that every assignment I took in business and community life called for what social scientists before me identified as human skills. Mine were: developing innovative programs, motivating teams of people to carry them out and communicating to important constituencies. Modestly, these even went back to my days as editor-in-chief of The Villanovan.
I hadn’t been using just technical knowledge of how to massage the language and when to use a comma or semi-colon. Reframing experience in terms of human skills permits their transfer to diverse arenas. Even today, not many people become aware of this perspective as they visualize their futures too narrowly in terms of the category on their degrees.
That insight led to setting up one of the first consulting firms to coach executives in career and job changes. Our clients included firms from banking, insurance, finance, education, law, defense and many others across business and professions. They each faced downturns and had to downsize staff. My firm grew to four offices in the Northeast and merged with a similar group headquartered in Houston with another ten offices.
Twenty years later, in 1990, I framed an exit plan for myself, sold my firm, moved to a heavenly place called Marin County in California…and learned that retirement is really a myth. I confidently brought those same skills to other venues, for example, as chair of the Marin Shakespeare Festival, the strategic planning task force of Covenant House and saw a dozen other non-profits that excited me in the child development, environmental and performing arts fields.
After moving back to New Jersey, I was inspired to set up a family foundation directed by three of my wonderful and loving four daughters. I saw it change their lives as they carry forward the values I learned from my parents. During the Great Depression of the ’30s, my parents shared what little we had with even more needy neighbors. Following their example, as “pay back” to the University for its financial aid to me, I’m now setting up an endowment for scholarships for student journalists.
The big lesson learned: to paraphrase Shirley McLain, “It is where you start and it is where you finish.” In between, know and be confident of your own human skills, and follow the red robin rule: “Live, love, laugh and be happy.” I envy your fresh opportunity to do so.