CIRCLE CITY CONNECTION
By Vernon A. Williams
One of my career goals was to channel my communications and people skills into a viable business venture. Public relations, marketing and advertising was my natural inclination. So I launched Paragon Advertising in a Glen Park store front.
Affirming that decision, before the paint could dry on the signage over the entrance to my fledgling enterprise, I had my first client. While attending a luncheon at the Holiday Inn in Merrillville, funeral home proprietor Andrew Smith approached my table. It was our first meeting and somehow he had heard of Paragon and gave me his card.
Those we serviced included the Gary Housing Authority, the Lake County Economic Development Commission, the Genesis Center, Gainer Bank (now Fifth Third), the Gary Educational Development Foundation, the 10th Pan American Games in Indianapolis, the Gary Chamber of Commerce, the Miss Gary Scholarship Pageant (local preliminary for Miss America), the Gary Urban Enterprise Association, and Doctor Branch soft drinks, a 7-Up product.
Mayor Richard Gordon Hatcher invited Paragon Advertising to the table for his newly-formed Gary Small Business Development Council (SBDC). With my journalism degree and years of newspaper experience by the late 1980s, the mayor asked me to develop a monthly newsletter highlighting small business owners and goods or services provided.
Paragon Advertising was part of the mayor’s Small Business Development Council when Hatcher unveiled plans for the first National Civil Rights Museum and Hall of Fame Telethon.
With the Genesis Center as the site, he had already secured the participation of Reverend Jesse Jackson along with comedian Byron Allen and Jayne Kennedy, hosts of the event.
The challenge was having a limited budget and only months to promote the telethon. Conventional wisdom at that meeting was to hire either of two Chicago PR stalwarts – J. Walter Thompson or Burrell Advertising. You could hear a pin drop in the room when Hatcher asked, “What about Paragon? Could you handle it, Vernon?”
I affirmed that our company was up to the challenge, what would be the biggest yet.
Clearly without a vote of confidence of unpersuaded leadership in the room, Hatcher made the executive decision and asked me for a plan, which we had only days to develop. We met the next week in his office and it was on.
One of the key strategies was flying to Washington D.C. to convene a Congressional press conference in support of the Civil Rights Museum and Hall of Fame concept as well as spread the word on the kickoff telethon – which would be broadcast throughout the U.S. and internationally on Black Entertainment Television (BET).
There was an ominous aspect of the D.C. assignment. It came only a week before Congress was preparing for recess. When I met that Monday with an executive administrator of the lawmakers to share our ambitious plan to organize a press conference on Capital Hill in five days, her voice and facial expression clearly said she was sorry that I wasted time and money to seek the impossible.
In a most professional and apologetic manner, she explained, “You are talking about a press conference Friday when they go on recess Thursday. No one will stay in town an extra day for that. But I will make the calls and see what happens.”
Against the odds, the press conference drew 17 members of the Senate and House of Representatives including Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy. Media lined the back wall of the press conference room. Every major newspaper, radio and network TV news was there. Results far exceeded the best expectations.
The telethon aired and raised double the projected pledge amount as it was broadcast around the world to millions.
In the wrap-up meeting days later, the same Small Business Development Council members were summoned to meet with Hatcher. This time, rather than skepticism there were smiles and applause upon my entrance. In my mind, the true ovation was due to the visionary leadership of Mayor Hatcher who – as he did so many times over his 20 years in office – saw beyond what was, into the field of potential and possibilities.
Paragon handled marketing for the telethon the next two years.
The business continued successfully for six years. As mayoral administrations transitioned, and local businesses began to close, a decision was made to close Paragon. The thought struck me this week, HOW over his 20-year tenure, so many businesses owned by African Americans benefitted from Mayor Richard Gordon Hatcher’s inspiration and support?
This week a statue is being unveiled in honor of the nation’s first Black mayor of a major United States city. I posted that on social media a while back and the response was overwhelmingly positive. Predictably as in all politics, there were the naysayers and haters. Some were African American, but most were white. Compute that truth however you choose. It’s just a fact.
When Hatcher came into office, white flight had already started in Gary and urban areas around the nation. Somehow people tried to hold him accountable for a nationwide social trend. Hatcher fought through the detractors to stay focused on doing the best with what he had to work with to make Gary viable for two decades. He was a force for change.
When I think about a statue being unveiled in his honor, the most dominant thought is – that’s the very least Gary could do for a man of his stature. Congratulations, Mayor.
CIRCLE CITY CONNECTION by Vernon A. Williams is a series of essays on myriad topics that include social issues, human interest, entertainment and profiles of difference-makers who are forging change in a constantly evolving society. Williams is a 40-year veteran journalist based in Indianapolis, IN – commonly referred to as The Circle City. Send comments or questions to: [email protected].