Parade of States - 1991
One of the professions before I decided to pursue a career with a chamber of commerce was that of a property manager for a Charlotte-based real estate firm. The company managed several properties in Columbia, S.C. Among them was the Bank of America Tower downtown. While I enjoyed the relationships I established with our tenants, my real passion was my extra-curricular activities after hours with the Jaycees. During the years I worked as a property manager, I was as a state officer of the South Carolina Junior Chamber of Commerce (Jaycees). During those years I served in a volunteer capacity as a state vice president, state president, and later as a National Vice President with the United States Junior Chamber.
In 1990, while president of the South Carolina Jaycees, I was asked to participate in the Marion (SC) Christmas Parade. Melissa and I were asked to take part in a number of parades that year and we often joked about getting the wave “down”. The slight half cocked wave to the left and then to the right to everyone who’s lining the street. Now, we knew the reason most local folks attended parades was to see their son or daughter in the band or for a glimpse of the last float which was typically carrying the crowd favorite – Santa Clause. But that didn’t stop the elected officials and dignitaries from eating up their moment in the sun.
After this particular parade, we were invited by the parade organizing committee to attend a special luncheon for the parade grand marshal, elected officials, and special guests at one of the local churches in town. Typically the town and city parades are filled with your federal and state officials as well your county and local politicians. And one thing you can count on with politicians, they never miss a parade or a chance to glad hand a few voters. On this occasion, the Marion folks had done themselves proud and had a strong contingent of notable politicians. There was one in particular who symbolized the essence of southern politics. Now deceased, this individual was without question the ranking elder statesman in our state and perhaps the country. All of the parade dignitaries were invited to a buffet lunch which again was led by the elder statesman in the group. We filled our plates with the abundant southern delicacies of fried chicken, deviled eggs, green beans, and potato salad. Grabbing our sweet ice tea, we all moved down the line and then dutifully followed the Senator as he travelled down the hall and right into a closet.
We were all stacking up on each other pretty good. The Senator opened the door with confidence and we all dutifully followed right behind. It must have been quite a scene to the Church volunteers, watching all of the elected officials turning the corner and heading into a storage closet. We all remerged with a look of embarrassment in full view of our hosts.
The thing is, when a leader who has demonstrated time after time their strong leadership abilities, you begin to develop a healthy trust of their instincts. Every time that leader makes the right decision – the decision which advances the group’s common goals – he or she will become more trusted. Confidence and trust are earned – they are not just given. While embarrassed at the time, we later all laughed at our situation. It has occurred to me over the years that that single error – that wrong decision – never swayed our trust in our elder statesman. Over the next decade he continued to lead his community, his state, and his nation. He inspired people to follow him and in the process he developed many young people to become leaders themselves. Leaders are always moving forward – they are always going somewhere – and real leaders will develop people who follow.
A few years later I met this leader – Senator Strom Thurmond – in his office in Washington. DC. What amazed me, he remembered me being in that parade on that particular Saturday and then he asked if I recalled our little misadventure. I would have never brought it up. However, the Senator laughed at his mistake. Senator Thurmond left a huge impression on me that afternoon. He never lost sight of his humility and he had the courage to laugh at his mistakes. His final act was to walk me to his office door. Just as he had personally greeted me on my arrival, instead of having one of his many aids usher me into his spacious office. He patted me on the back and told me how proud he was of all the young men and women who were working so hard to make our communities and nation the best it could be.
Senator Thurmond in his office - 1993
Before I left, he asked if he could have a staff member take a photo of us together. Weeks later when I arrived back in my office at the U.S. Junior Chamber in Tulsa, Oklahoma, there was a package from the capital. The package contained a small gift, the picture of the two of us, and a note stating how proud he was a South Carolina boy was serving as National President of the Jaycees.
Over the years, I ran into quite a few South Carolinians who had similar stories of Senator Thurmond. He was a leader who knew where he was going and his people followed. More importantly, over his many decades of service, he taught generations of young people, the essence of leadership.
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