A Rare Maverick in the House

Author Thomas W. Jones stopped by Sage House a few weeks ago to sign copies of From Willard Straight to Wall Street—purchasing more than 500 books for friends and colleagues.  He inscribed a personal note in each book and paid to have them mailed.

This is who Tom Jones is. He diligently worked for eight hours to make sure his positive message for our country and the world would get to the people that mattered most to him. As he has done throughout his life, he was embracing the importance of the moment and his place in it.

Fifty years ago, Tom and a group of African-American students occupied Cornell University’s Willard Straight Hall with a cache of weapons. It was 1969 and one year and days after the assassination of Martin Luther King. A cross had been burned on campus (or near campus). African-Americans were dying in Vietnam. Cornell’s black studies curriculum wasn’t moving fast enough and the atrocities of slavery were being omitted from the classroom. These students felt intellectual oppression. During the days of the standoff on a radio show, Tom told the university, “Cornell has three hours to live.”

***

IMG_0161I first met Tom in September of 2015 at the Statler Hotel on Cornell’s campus. His manuscript had arrived at the Press from former Cornell President Hunter R. Rawlings via our editor-in-chief Peter Potter. He was attending a meeting of the Cornell Board of Trustees.

The manuscript needed work but I couldn’t get the story out of my head—the shear humanity of it. This was a story only a university press could tell.

With a rifle on his shoulder, he was prepared to die for the idea of black history and culture finding its rightful place in the curriculum. He had wished his ancestors had made more progress in the fight against slavery.

“Death is not the worst thing that can happen to a person…The wheel of history…had turned; my generation were to be tasked with the obligation and destiny to finally draw the line and end our oppression in America.”

Those lines stuck with me. Tom had led an armed occupation of Willard Straight Hall in 1969 and had gone on to a successful career on Wall Street—where he rose to power and was exonerated twice from SEC investigations.

He watched the planes hit the buildings on September 11th and walked uptown out of the rubble, turning back to see a gaping hole of evil in the North Tower. He had no idea that those buildings were metaphor as he bore witness to the collapse of the banking industry at Citicorp eight years later.

“Every day something was happening in the late sixties—the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Robert F. Kennedy, the riots at the Democratic National Convention and Vietnam raging,” said Tom. “It was the same thing on Wall Street. Every day another scandal broke. In both cases, America was coming apart at the seams.”

Tom Jones is an American-made success story—he believes in education and hard work. His story transcends race and cliché. He enrolled in Cornell at sixteen and was elected freshman class president. He had joined ROTC also in his first year but quit because of the number of black men dying in Vietnam. The Straight occupation arose from a number of factors but at its core was an intellectual argument for dignity and respect in the academy.

He became the first black CEO and President of TIAA-CREFF and was handling the pensions of the professors he challenged. He was unceremoniously walked out of Citicorp just before its demise and hit rock bottom. The spiritual foundation cultivated throughout his life saved him.

***

I struggled to find the right methodology to provide feedback during that first meeting. Like the former revolutionary I was facing, I made a short list of demands for the manuscript. I went in with guns blazing as an editor and an author.

We had a title we both liked—”Rare Maverick”—but not much else. The financial story was largely told through press releases. That moniker was coined by a reporter.

Three full edits and two years later, I told Tom that we couldn’t move forward—that he wouldn’t want his story to be told this way. We suggested that a ghostwriter could do this.

Then Tom hired a miracle worker—Emily Sanders Hopkins. She was a friend of our managing editor Ange Romeo Hall. She became the medium between publisher and author—channeling the best parts of the story into an entertaining structure.

Emily filled in the manuscript with detail and atmosphere. Working with Emily changed Tom. The stories became so powerful in her hands that he now freely lets the emotions wash over him when recounting them.

The story for me became more about Tom’s transformation and his journey. From Willard Straight to Wall Street is the new title because it gives a sense of his life’s expansiveness—the skills he learned on the steps of the Straight prepared him for the trials of the financial industry. He was chosen to witness, to fight for his beliefs and to prevail.

This journey also turned Thomas W. Jones into a fine writer.

jones cover


Dean Smith is the Director of Cornell University Press.


Upcoming events

 

April 16, 2019 at 6pm: Conversation with the Author: Thomas W. Jones ’69

April 24, 2019 at 8pm: From Willard Straight to Wall Street and Back: An Evening with Tom Jones ’69


You can find more information on the 50th Anniversary of the Willard Straight Hall Occupation of 1969, here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Rare Maverick in the House

Becoming by Michelle Obama (or why books matter to me)

My sister kindly gave me Becoming by Michelle Obama as a Christmas present, and I finished reading it on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day. Unsurprisingly, it really got me thinking…

Why do books matter?

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Continue reading “Becoming by Michelle Obama (or why books matter to me)”

Becoming by Michelle Obama (or why books matter to me)

Reflections on Martin Luther King, Jr.

As we celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr., recently, my mind went back to where I was fifty years ago. An angry young man in my senior year at Cornell University. There was no King holiday then, as King had been assassinated just the previous year. Mentally and emotionally I was prepared to be one of those African Americans who would meet my destiny in a struggle against oppression and injustice that was much bigger than any one of us, and even much bigger than all of us. I thought we were the generation fingered by history to draw the line on America’s ill treatment of African Americans. It had to stop with us, in our time.

Fifty years ago, America was still in the midst of a battle to secure equal treatment for African Americans in public accommodations, employment, housing, voting, and other civil rights. I remember as a child traveling with my family through southern states like Virginia and North Carolina, and my father stopping at gas stations where, before purchasing gas, he asked if we would be allowed to use the restrooms. Many Americans today forget that this country practiced that kind of segregation. Similarly, at that time African Americans were routinely denied employment opportunities simply because of race. Qualifications did not matter. Many Americans today forget that this country practiced that kind of discrimination. De jure segregation was enshrined in the law, and de facto institutional discrimination was the social norm in America.

The petty discrimination of being denied access to public facilities was intended to dehumanize African Americans, and to proclaim every day that we were different and inferior. And the systemic institutional denial of economic opportunities was intended to ensure that African Americans remained poor and powerless. And each previous decade as you step back through American history was typically more brutal towards African Americans.

But the purpose of reciting this history is not just to remind us of where we have been, but also to focus on how far we have come. It is important to know history, and to understand how the world we live in has been shaped by the past, but it is equally important not to be a prisoner of history. By that I mean there is no point in suffocating our potential for today and tomorrow with ongoing animosity over the grievances of the past. The burden is too heavy. Many racial, ethnic or religious groups have some plausible basis for resentment and animosity about some historical injustice. The historical injustices are not all morally equivalent, but it’s unlikely that we will ever achieve societal consensus on their relative hierarchy. So just as a family cannot heal unless it lets go of yesterday’s anger, so all Americans of every race and creed and ethnicity must be open to reconciliation and healing. If we don’t let go of our racial and social resentments, America will not achieve its potential as a multiracial, multiethnic, and religiously diverse democracy wherein all citizens live in freedom and civic equality.

It seems to me undeniable that African Americans, other minorities, women, and the LGBT community have educational, economic, and social opportunities available today which are unprecedented in American history. Does this mean that our country has overcome all its problems? Of course not! The legacy of hundreds of years of slavery, and physical as well as psychological abuse and neglect, created a scale of human misery and dysfunctionality which cannot be reversed in just fifty years. But is America moving in the direction of becoming the country envisioned in its noble founding documents – the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights – unequivocally yes!

When I left Cornell in 1972 after completing a graduate degree, I committed to living in accordance with Dr. King’s creed – I would choose my friends and associates based on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. That’s a decision I’ve never regretted.

Thomas W. Jones is author of the forthcoming, From Willard Straight to Wall Street: A Memoir. He is the founder and senior partner of venture capital investment firm TWJ Capital. He previously served as Chief Executive Officer of Global Investment Management at Citigroup; Vice Chairman, President, and COO at TIAA-CREF; ad Senior Vice-President and Treasurer at John Hancock Insurance Company.

Reflections on Martin Luther King, Jr.