Editor’s Note: Dolores Wharton of Cooperstown and NYC, the SUNY system’s former First Lady, was the first black woman, as well as the first black, on a number of Fortune 500 boards. In her new memoir, “A Multicultural Life,” she describes Phillips Petroleum directors’ 1990 camaraderie-building trip to a North Sea oil rig, which helped “the old guard (adjust) to us interlopers.”
By DOLORES WHARTON • from “A Multicultural Life”
The intense exchanges during our meetings soon relaxed as the old guard adjusted to us interlopers. A sense of camaraderie evolved during a field trip undertaken by the entire board and company officers to ekofisk, the gigantic oil drilling platform twenty miles off the coast of Norway. That trip – the full board’s first-ever excursion to the platform – was at my request and to fulfill my desire to experience an actual drilling platform located in the North Sea.
Discovered in 1969, Ekofisk oil field, was so huge that at its peak, its oil and gas output amounted to more than a third of Phillips’ total energy production. Our party, arriving from different parts of the United States, gathered in London. From there, one of the company’s ocean-crossing planes took us to Stavanger, Norway, where a twenty-passenger helicopter that droned for two hours, brought us over the vast North Sea.
COOPERSTOWN – Lee Brathwaite, a rising executive as NYTel evolved into Verizon, found himself in a tough transition – from operations to sales.
“It was the most challenging transition of my career,” said Brathwaite, now CEO of Apex Construction, a Harlem-based company building commercial and multiple-unit residential structures and a board member for the Golub Company, which operates Price Chopper.
Among other things, in sales, his salary and his team’s paychecks depended on results.
He discovered communications skills – sharpened at Dolores Wharton’s Fund for Corporate Initiatives (FCI) through interactions with other young execs and captains of industry – enabled him to pull his team together, to develop a rapport with clients, and to close deals.
By the end of the second year, his team was routinely winning his corporation’s sales awards.
“It was the best experience of my career,” said Brathwaite, he said of his FCI experience.
As it happens, Wharton – she and husband Clifton R. Wharton Jr., the former SUNY chancellor, have owned a home above Otsego Lake for three decades – considers FCI as the pinnacle of her wide range of achievements.
‘There are no Caucasians present, though it would be difficult to distinguish them from many of those mingling in the mix of multi-hued wedding guests. Without exception, the guests are dressed fashionably, with stylish attire and stunning jewelry. The men are doctors, lawyers and undertakers; the women are school teachers and social workers … (The) waitstaff make their way through the crowd, bearing silver trays laden with chicken and crab croquettes, creamed sweetbreads on toast points, and slices of Virginia ham rolled with water cress – to accompany the Champagne punch served in crystal cups. Such is the life of many accomplished upper-middle-class Negroes along the Eastern Seaboard in the 1920s and 1930s.”
The quote, above, is Dolores Wharton’s earliest memory, recounted in “A Multicultured Life,” an engaging, irresistible memoir of not quite a century of American life, as she – in tandem with husband Clifton R. Wharton, Jr., the former SUNY chancellor (and much more) – moved from the nation’s black aristocracy to the heights of the American mainstream – in academe, industry and government.
Theirs is a soaring life story, of hard work, discipline, determination – and achievement.
Her husband was son of the first black U.S. ambassador (to Norway, 1961-64). He was a Harvard grad with a University of Chicago Ph.D., a Rockefeller envoy to South America and Malaysia, Michigan State president, then SUNY chancellor, TIAA-CREF CEO and reinventor, deputy secretary of State, and retiree to Cooperstown (summers and weekends year ’round), where he’s served on Bassett’s and other key community boards.
He recounted his astonishing career in a 2015 memoir, “Privilege & Prejudice,” a title that encompasses all the opportunities and obstacles to overcome.