Lula Bell

Lula Bell hiding from the camera - Garden City Beach, 1975

Lula Bell hiding from the camera - Garden City Beach, 1975

Recently I was going through old family photographs when I stumbled upon a picture of a lady who used to help my mom, and before that, my grandmother with their housekeeping.  To say she was merely a housekeeper would be completely disingenuous.  When my aunt was a little girl, an African American lady named Lula Bell Wilson helped my Grandmother Russell around the house and kept my Aunt Terry until my grandparents arrived back home from work.   When I was three years old, I was by all accounts a precocious little tyke.  There is a good reason why my mom waited seven years to have another child.  My mom was almost a nervous wreck when my grandmother suggested strong reinforcements in the guise of Lula Bell.

Mama has always told me I had a difficult time pronouncing Lula’s name and instead called her “Wuda Bell.”  For the next six years, Lula kept me during the day while Mom and Dad were at work.  While I’m sure that many of the values and beliefs that I cherish today were no doubt passed on to me by my parents, I have no doubt that Lula herself also had a profound impact in shaping my world.   While I sometimes have difficulty remembering what I did last week, I can recall with clarity sitting out in the back yard with bologna sandwiches Lula had made us or walks up to the ice cream shop, roughly a mile round trip from our house on Carey Drive.  Mom said Lula would often pay for the ice cream cones out of her own pocket.  I was after all – her little boy.    I suppose it’s because of the time I spent with Lula that I’ve always had such difficulty seeing the contrast between black and white.  The differences between races, between those who have and those who have not have always been blurred for me.

Exchanging gifts with JCI Japan National President - 1993

Exchanging gifts with JCI Japan National President - 1993

In 1994, I had the chance to attend the Junior Chamber International Japan Academy with students from approximately 80 countries. Over the next two years I would serve Junior Chamber International as General Legal Counsel and then Treasurer, traveling into Japan, Korea, Central America, and Eastern Europe.  It was a rewarding experience sharing ideas and appreciating the diversity and customs of other cultures.

 This month the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce launches the first of its Women and Minority Business Development programs.  This is an opportunity to engage the diverse population that makes up our region.  Our hope is to create programs that strengthen us as a region, to open doors of opportunity, and provide resources for our citizens to help them reach their potential.  After all, we are at our best when we help others achieve their dreams. 

This past Sunday, I traveled to Rock Hill to help my dad on the farm.  On the way back to Huntersville, I drove to our old home where I grew up as a child.  I parked the car and looked at the house on Carey Drive.  I stood in the drizzling rain peering into the back yard, beyond the little fence, where Lula and I would sit and eat our sandwiches.     I can still hear her laughing at my many antics.  She would put her hand to her face and laugh with a sparkle in her eye.  To me Lula wasn’t a black woman or a white woman, she wasn’t well off or poor  – she was my Lula and I was her little boy.  While she has passed on now, her laughter still warms my soul.  The days we spent together, four decades later, are etched in the memories of my mind and through the eyes of a young boy I remember.

Speaking the Truth

This past January, an airbus 320, flown by USAir Captain Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger, ditched his plane in the waters off the Hudson River on a flight bound for Charlotte, NC.  There were no serious injuries to the 155 aboard.

Shiga-overviewNow almost forgotten is a similar flight that occurred November 22, 1968.  It’s been more than forty years since Captain Kohie Asoh, the Japan Air Lines Pilot, landed his DC-8 jet with 96 passengers and 11 crew members, two and a half miles out in the San Francisco Bay but in nearly exact compass line with the runway.  Captain Asoh landed the jet so gently that many of the passengers were unaware they were in the water until a sailboat appeared on the port bow.  No one was hurt.  No one was bruised.  No one even got their feet wet when passengers were taken off in inflatable rafts.  While the jet itself was not damaged.  It had to be salvaged before the corrosive salt took its toil.  Regardless of how competently he piloted the jet, a veteran pilot with over 10,000 hours, the fact that he landed the plane 2 ½ miles in the bay upset more than a few people.

Shortly thereafter, the National Transportation Safety Board held a hearing to determine the guilt for the deed.  Attorneys and the media scrambled to San Francisco representing their clients.  When Asoh took the stand, the investigator asked, “Captain Asoh, can you explain in your own words how you managed to land that DC-8 jet 2 ½ miles out in San Francisco Bay in perfect compass line with the runway?”  Asoh’s reply was. “As you Americans say, Asoh screwed up!”  Actually his comment was a bit more colorful, but I’m trying not to offend here.

According to the story, all that could be said was in that brief reply and the judge adjourned the hearing.  Apparently Asoh was not aware of the American philosophy of never apologize…never take blame…never explain.  We live in a business society which does not approve of failure.  How many times have military officers been passed over for promotion because of a single blemish on their record.  I’m not speaking of repeated mistakes, just an honest error or failed attempt.

Would Richard Nixon have resigned if he had appeared before the American People and fessed up to the Watergate break-in?  Would the Challenger accident have occurred if the problem 225px-Richard_Nixonwith the “O” rings had not been covered up?  The good news is many companies, particularly small businesses are practicing  “Grace – the ability to forgive an error.”  Some companies are expunging records after a certain lapse of time.

The business community must provide a routine to wipe the slate clean periodically, removing adverse personnel actions from employee files.  Employees should be encouraged to acknowledge mistakes, to correct them before it significantly hampers the future efficiency of the business or organization.

Captain Asoh had the courage to assume responsibility for his own actions.  He didn’t blame others for his mistakes.  More than four decades later we need to learn from Captain Asoh, who by the way continued to fly for Japan Airlines without further incident until his retirement.  Innovation does not come from doing the same thing over and over again.  Innovation will be met with mistakes, errors, and failed attempts,  But it is through that process that we grow and learn.  I say set your goals high and shoot for the stars.  That way if you only reach the sky you’ve left the ground and cleared the treetops!

Creating Raving Fans

Raving Fans1Remember the good old days when you could pull your car into a service station and an attendant would not only fill up your car, but check your oil, tires, brake fluid and even clean your windshield?  Not long ago, I pulled into a service station that said “Self-serve” on the sign.  Just out of curiosity, I asked the manager inside if there was a choice.  It took a while for him to look up from his clip board, but when he did he looked at me like I was from Mars.
Several years ago, I read a book that I recently read again entitled Raving Fans by Ken Blanchard and Sheldon Bowles.  In the book, Blanchard tells the story of a sales manager who is counseled on the three most important tips in creating raving fans.  In a nutshell, to create raving fans of your business you must first identify what you want to achieve.  You must determine what the customer desires and then deliver more than they expected.  Sounds like common sense but too often businesses fail in that task.

I was raised in Rock Hill, S.C. and a fixture in that city for many years was a Texaco station

A Texaco Full Service Station Circa 1955

A Texaco Full Service Station Circa 1955

located on Main Street.  David Wylie operated the station with his wife Mable.  My father was an insurance agent for First Insurance Agency and wrote Mr. Wylie’s policy when a direct writer would not insure the station.  I can recall once having a problem with my car, and at the suggestion of dad, took the automobile to David’s station for repair.  David’s repairman had it running in no time and little by little I continued to patronize Wylie’s Texaco for gas and service.   David Wylie had several attendants who would hurry out to your car, put in the amount of gas you needed, check under the hood for all the fluids, and cleaned your windows.  They also engaged you in conversation and truly seemed interested in how your day was going.  On the occasion his attendants were busy with other cars or a new driver would pull up, Mr. Wylie, pipe clenched tightly between his teeth, would stride out to the island and began attending to their needs.  He never failed to ask about the family or how the day was going.

The Old Wylie Texaco Station Today

The Old Wylie Texaco Station Today

I always felt Mr. Wylie cared about his customers.  His station was older than most and his pumps worked a great deal slower.  But David never lost a customer because he and his staff always went that extra mile and gave just a little more than was expected.   Mr. Wylie retired from the service station scene years ago.  Today, the station still sits there.  The gas pumps have been removed but a garage still operates in the old building.  Occasionally I will drive by the old place on my way into Downtown Rock Hill.  Driving past, I imagine I see Mr. Wylie peering through the plate glass windows of the station, drawing on the pipe, overseeing his employees, going the extra mile to take care of his … raving fans.

Left High and Dry at Lake Norman

This article was written in 2008 and posted in the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce Lake Link newsletter.

Pic 1 lakeLast summer, I wrote an editorial called “Access Denied!” which our Charlotte area media picked up.  The editorial was focused on Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation’s current policy that prohibits public swimming in any of the County’s lakefront parks.   In my editorial, I pointed out that if you are not fortunate enough to own lakefront property or a personal watercraft or know someone who does – you have no access to the lake.  There are some area businesses which rent watercraft.  However, if you do not have the financial means, you are left “high and dry.” 

Many of our county residents simply do not have the resources that many others of us take for granted.  Individuals and families who do have lakefront property, boats, and other watercraft should enjoy the fruits of their labor.  However, access to the lake should be made available to everyone.    A couple of years ago, I was leaving the Chamber offices on a summer afternoon around 5:30.  I had just turned the key in the front door when two cars pulled up at the Visitors Center loaded with young people.  A young man exited one of the cars with a wide grin on his face.  “Sir,” he inquired, “Are you with the Visitors Center?’  “I’m with the Chamber,” I replied back.  “How can I help you?”  The young man queried, “Can you tell me how to get to Lake Norman?”

“Well you’re here,” I replied back.  My response was well received as I could hear the gleeful conversations going on in both cars.  “Great,” said the young man whose grin had exploded into a wide smile across his face.  “Where can you go swimming?” he added.     It’s a question I’ve answered countless times throughout my time at the Chamber.  I informed the young man that we didn’t have public swimming here in Mecklenburg County.  He and his group would need to drive 20 miles up the Interstate to Lake Norman State Park.  Looking at my watch, I also informed him that it likely will be closed by the time he arrived.    I could see the dejection on his face.  I literally felt the exhilaration and energy that had once occupied the cars wither on the hot pavement below as the two cars of disappointed youngsters drove back home.

It’s moments like that – I really feel bad.  I cannot help but think of the Chevy Chase movie skiierVacation when the family treks across the country only to find the amusement park is closed for repairs.     It is time to change an archaic policy that has no place at Lake Norman.  We have a great lake.  Largely in part to the hard work of Visit Lake Norman, Anglers across this country know Lake Norman as a great fishing venue.  Water enthusiasts enjoy sailing, boating, skiing on our waters.  It is simply a great lake!   It is also a missed opportunity for our travelers and tourists staying at our hotels.  More importantly – it’s a quality of life issue for our families.  While pools are available at the hotels and parks – there is much to be said for the cool embrace of an inviting lake.

Our greatest liquid asset shouldn’t be off limits to the public.   Lake Norman is not just a large body of water – it is a lifestyle everyone should experience.

Access Denied – Letter to the Editor written in 2007

Big Day at the Lake

Big Day at the Lake

Once a year, a group of kids get to experience what many children experience summer round – access to Lake Norman. In June, Big Brothers and Big Sisters participate in the Big Day at the Lake that Business Today publisher Dave Yochum has poured his heart into. The project typically pairs 120 to 150 kids with a Big Brother or Sister for the day. Local lake businesses and community citizens have embraced this project providing a day of fun, food, and fellowship on the waters of Lake Norman. Simply put, it is a great event!

The shame is for the other 364 days of the year, the region’s greatest recreational asset is largely off limits to a huge segment of our population. Not since the civil rights struggles of the 1960’s has one demographic of the population been denied the privileges afforded others. Lake Norman, which covers more than 32,500 acres with 520 miles of shoreline, has only one public swimming area and NONE on the Mecklenburg County shoreline of the lake. Certainly people who have worked hard and earned their respective lakefront property deserve the fruits of their labor. Thousands more have boats and personal watercraft that give them access to our greatest liquid asset – Lake Norman. However, if you do not know someone with lakefront property or someone who has a boat or watercraft, you are one of the growing majority denied access to North Carolina’s largest man-made lake.

Residents of North Mecklenburg and South Iredell and our visitors have one alternative – Lake

Jetton Park

Jetton Park

Norman State Park located at exit 42 in Troutman. The park is a nice amenity with hiking trails, picnic shelters, and a public swimming area. But the point is that taxpaying residents of our region, the visiting public, and perhaps most importantly – our children – should not have to travel to Troutman to access the waters of Lake Norman. The real shame is Jetton Park in Cornelius, with its beachfront, was originally designed for public access but the threat of liability has led Mecklenburg County to enforce a strict “no public swimming” policy for its parks.

There is a great injustice to thousands of families and residents who are denied the privileges of swimming at Lake Norman because of one simple demographic – household income. The issue of public access at Lake Norman is not a racial issue but it is one of fairness and we should do something about it. One thing is for certain – nothing will change until the cry for change is heard so often and so loud that it cannot be ignored. As the civil rights leaders of a generation ago would admit – no great struggle is easily won. However, the struggle for fairness will always win the day if you believe and work hard enough for the outcome.