Jan 3, 2016
First National City Bank (now Citibank) recruited among the MBA’s at the University of North Carolina in the Spring of 1967. I was fortunate to receive an offer and I was very excited to accept the job. I wasn’t that long out of the tobacco fields of North Carolina. I had only been to New York once before, on a bus trip from High Point High School. And I was to receive the generous annual salary of $9,600!
But I had to call the senior personnel officer, whose name was Peter Thorpe. I said something like this: “Peter, I’m so excited to have this job opportunity with your bank, but am embarrassed to confess I have a problem and I am forced ask your help.” He listened. “My wife is pregnant with our first child. We don’t have any savings and I owe $1,175 on a $1,200 student line of credit with Wachovia Bank.” My parents didn’t have any savings either, both being manual laborers in High Point factories with only High School educations, and four children. “I have only one suit and one pair of shoes suitable for work. I’m sorry to ask—but is there any way you can consider an advance on my first paycheck to allow me to buy one more suit and one more pair of shoes? And we don’t know anything about housing in New York City. Can you advise us how to find decent affordable housing?”
Very soon he called back to say this: Yes, they would give me the advance on my first month’s salary, and on top of that, he had a housing solution for us, for the first three months in New York. He had talked to his friend Bill Chisholm. Bill, who was with First Boston, and his wife Frannie lived at 47 E. 88th, just off Madison Avenue, close to Central Park, in a large co-op apartment. They always took their children to their Connecticut home in June, with Bill commuting into the City from there for the summer. They had never rented out their city home while away, but Peter had easily persuaded them to help out this young couple from North Carolina and let us use their home for the summer of 1967. The only cost to us was to be their maintenance fee, which was $250 per month, just about what we could afford for rent on my salary.
We met Bill and Frannie and their children when we arrived. They showed us their large home, asked us to use everything, enjoy ourselves, let the doorman know if we needed anything. And they left us, stunned at the expanse of eight rooms and upscale furnishings of this elegant apartment and its surroundings on the Upper East Side. That summer was amazing–what an introduction to the City! The only problem was that we had to find a place we could afford for that price by end of summer, but we understood that and we had time to find it. Our small apartment in Queens bore no resemblance to the Chisholm home, but we were launched, and it was ok!
It’s been almost 50 years. I wish I could find Peter Thorpe and Bill and Frannie Chisholm, or anyone related to them. If you know how I can, please let me know.
I’m older now, but some experiences of long ago remain crystal clear, like this one–as if it was only yesterday. Reflection on the meaning of this experience and others of similar benefit to me, is bringing increasing concern that we as a people are failing to acknowledge the helping hands that collectively made all the difference for most of us. Most days I feel I “made it,” although I am far from the 1%. Every day I know I might not have made it (probably wouldn’t have) without people like this along the way. Peter, Bill, and Frannie are only a few. I have a long list of others.
On top of that, while from a poor family, I was male, White, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant. What if I had been a young woman of color, from the Middle East, and Muslim? What then? Would there still be outstretched hands? And, have we all fallen prey to the illusion that we did it all alone, without any help? That everyone can miraculously pull themselves up by their bootstraps?
If we do not acknowledge our natural advantages of birth, if we do not acknowledge the many helping hands most of us were offered along the way, then we are not likely to understand what we all need to do to make it right.
I keep trying, but I am far from repaying the debts I have to those who helped me along the way, many of whom are no longer here. I suspect Peter, Bill, and Frannie did not feel they were so very significant to us, that theirs was only a small thing to do. But it wasn’t.
Maybe today or tomorrow, I can find another opportunity to extend a helping hand to someone.
It’s not so hard to do, usually doesn’t cost much, but the collective impact can change the world.