I joined the DuPont Company as a financial analyst in 1979. I was invited to Wilmington, Delaware for an interview after DuPont recruiters visited the University of Rochester where I was close to completing my Master of Business Administration degree. I received a few other interview invites but had made up my mind that I was going to join DuPont if I was given an offer. It was close to Huntington, New York where my family and my wife Doretha’s family lived, plus friend and classmate Parris had graduated from the MBA program six months before me and joined DuPont. His feedback about the company and Wilmington appealed to me, and the fact that Dorey and I would have good friends there in Parris and his wife Panta, made DuPont an easy sell.
I did accept one interview just to get a trip to California though. I visited Continental Airlines as a candidate for their management-training program. I was conflicted about accepting airfare and wasting the company’s time to fly me out for the interview as I knew that I did not want to live on the other side of the country, and my mind was set on DuPont. But hey, I was 22-years old, and my mom’s sister and family lived in Los Angeles, so why not take advantage of this opportunity to get to California for the first time, see family, tour Beverly Hills, and go to Disneyland. Besides, there was always the possibility that something, such as a great salary, would change my mind.
If I were single (and shallow), there was something that might have changed my mind. In a Continental Airlines Human Resources waiting area, along with me there were perhaps a couple dozen women; all beautiful, with “big hair”. Farrah Fawcett was at her
peak then, and it was like being surrounded by Farrah Fawcett clones. The women were there for stewardess positions (flight attendant was not a generally used term yet). At the time there was a high premium on stewardesses being “eye candy”. There were no male candidates, and no women of color. Nothing changed regarding my desire to work for Continental but my trip was memorable. The cliché, a kid in a candy store comes to mind.
While I flew to Wilmington for the DuPont interview, Dorey, who was pregnant with our first child flew to Huntington. After the interview I joined her in Huntington for a short vacation and then we flew back to Rochester. When we arrived back home I went through the mail that had piled up and sure enough there were two envelopes from DuPont. One was in a window envelope and was obviously a check reimbursing me for expenses I incurred to visit them. For the other envelope, we huddled together and slowly tore it open; whether I was rejected or hired, we were going to find out together. Good omen perhaps: the letter was dated August 17, 1978 (we were married August 17, 1974). Dorey and I agreed we would not read ahead, and then I read the letter aloud:
Dear Paul: It was good to have you with us last week. You made a fine impression on all who had the opportunity to meet and talk with you. We hope you feel your day was well spent. This letter is an offer of a position in the DuPont Company's Financial Analysis & Planning Division of the Finance Department at a salary of $18,900…
Dorey screamed. I jumped up and down. I was going to work for one of the world’s foremost companies at a salary far more than anyone in my family had ever made. First we called the parents, and then the small circle of friends we had at the school (you could count on two hands the number of African-Americans in my class.) Then we partied; and partied.
Hours later, after the partying ended and friends left we got ready to retire for the night. Dorey asked me for the DuPont expense reimbursement check so she could deposit it in the morning at the bank she worked at in downtown Rochester. It was nowhere to be found. Exasperated, I decided to check in the only place left that I could think of: the dumpster in the middle of the graduate student family housing complex. I had taken the trash out earlier after going through all of the mail, and I must have accidentally tossed it with all of the junk mail. So I went out with my flashlight, got in the dumpster and searched for the check. I found it.
The next morning, when I arrived back at my townhouse building after taking Dorey to work, there was a bag in front of my door. Perplexed, I slowly opened it. It contained sandwiches and a couple of apples and bananas. I was livid, and embarrassed. Some nosy-assed neighbor must have seen me last night with my flashlight at the dumpster and mistakenly assumed I was foraging for food. The more I thought about it the more my anger grew. Was the assumption made because I was Black? (There was only one other African-American family in the complex; friends of ours, he was a medical student at the University of Rochester Hospital.)
After a few minutes my anger subsided and I was able to reflect on the situation. This person was trying to be a Good Samaritan; perhaps they were presumptuous but meant no harm. Then I started to smile; and then I laughed. What I initially found to be very embarrassing became very funny to me; a story that I would share with many. I thought, perhaps there is a lesson for me to learn here about compassion.
Compassion would come to play a significant role in both of our lives.
Dr. Paul Thornton is currently a university administrator. In the past he has been a professor, small business owner, and corporate executive.