Sunday, January 18, 2009

Celebrating Dr. King's Day (A Tribute to Sybil Morial)

Those of us who are self-employed must decide how best to observe Dr. King's holiday. There's no "day off"; but it's important to me to mark the day in some way. Ever since I lived in New Orleans back in the mid-80's, I've marked the day by spending some time thinking about the struggles of the people who helped change history. Through an accident of timing and opportunity, I got to learn about some of those struggles from people who "were there", on the front lines.
We'd been living in New Orleans a few months, and I'd already secured a part-time gig at WWL-AM. I guess I was hired because I'd learned to pronounce many of the unusual street names in the Big Easy and knew that Treme was two syllables, among other things. I wanted a full-time gig to supplement the radio income, and answered an ad in a New Orleans business publication for a person with a background in marketing and telecommunications. Long story short, I was hired on the spot by Sybil Morial at Xavier University. I didn't know it then, but she hired me in her mind when I answered her question "what brought a Wisconsin boy to New Orleans?". I told her, truthfully, that my wife had been sent there by her Chicago-based company to set up a joint health-care venture with the Ochsner institutions, and I'd "come along for the ride" and the chance to live in one of the world's most exciting cities.
That was all Mrs. Morial had to hear...that I'd FOLLOWED my wife down to the city that care forgot. Of course, my background and qualifications were perfect for the job, but those questions came later in the interview. I knew at the time that this petite woman who was doing the hiring had the same name as the fellow I'd read so much about....Ernest "Dutch" Morial, the first black mayor of New Orleans. It didn't take me long to figure out that I was sitting across the desk from his wife. The young man I met a few weeks later, her son Marc, would go on to follow his dad into the mayor's job and then become head of the National Urban League. One of the reasons Mrs. Morial liked my answer about "following my wife" was that it was, to say the least, an "unusual" response. In Louisiana, the man was king of the domicile. Women, even in 1984, held a VERY subservient position in business and in society. Mrs. Morial, in addition to being an academic Dean at a highly prestigeous University, also owned a travel agency in the Central Business District, and was a successful woman in her own right. Yet, she was "Dutch's wife" to most everybody in New Orleans. One time, not too long after she'd hired me, she took me to lunch. She drove. Brand new BMW, 5-series sedan. NICE ride. I commented on it. She said "open the glove box and look at the registration". It was registered to Ernest N. Morial. Dutch. She said "Dutch did not give me this car. I bought it myself with my own money. And yet the Motor Vehicle people will not register it in my name". That was far from the only story I heard about the second-class status of women in the South. Not only did Mrs. Morial have to fight the battles that all people of color had to fight in the South, she had the additional struggle of being a woman in the South.
One time I asked her about Dr. King and if she knew him. She did. Her roommate at Boston College was a young woman named Coretta Scott. So it's fair to say she knew Dr. King VERY well and in a way probably not a lot of people did, being one of the closest friends of Dr. King's wife. And she knew Maynard Jackson, the first black mayor of Atlanta, and was on a first-name basis with him and scores of other people of color who'd fought so hard to get where they were.
Of all the places I've lived and worked as an itenerant broadcaster, and of all the people I've worked for and with, few have made as strong an impression on me as Mrs. Morial. None faced the struggles she did and excelled to her level. So, on Dr. King's day, I will spend a great deal of time remembering Sybil Morial, and all the doors she opened for me in New Orleans, and all the things she taught me about overcoming the odds.

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