By Vernon A. Williams, Gary Crusader
My first visit to the Gary City Hall came as an eight-year-old on a field trip with Mrs. Rickman’s third grade class at Garnett Elementary School. The building was overwhelming. There was a certain majesty to it.
My most sustaining memory oddly, was seeing only one person in the whole building whose color was the same as mine; standing alongside a mop and bucket, he nodded to the tiny visitors passing double-file.
It did not particularly strike me as a good or bad thing, or that it made any difference at all. It was just something that stood out in my mind the rest of the tour as I anticipated in vain another “familiar” face or two.
My next recollection of visiting City Hall did not come for another de-cade, until 1968. By then, someone whose color was the same as mine was the first African American elected mayor of a major U.S. city – Richard Gordon Hatcher.
Three months into his term my alma mater, Gary Roosevelt High School, was celebrating the city’s first state championship in basketball, in the parking lot of City Hall. Coincidence or karma, it was a serendipitous moment.
The ensuing decades of white flight, of Gary businesses and residents is inextricably linked to the city’s transition to Black leadership– despite the fact that urban migration was a national trend and that numerous Hatcher administration overtures for reconciliation were summarily rejected.
Even Hatcher’s most ardent detractors can’t deny the positive vibes generated during his tenure. The city hosted the National Black Political Convention. the Miss Black America Pageant, the National Baptist Convention. Indiana University basketball games under Bobby Kni-ght and Chicago Bulls basketball with Michael Jordan were played in the Genesis Convention Center, where a constellation of stars including Whitney Houston and Prince performed.
Say what you will, during the Hatcher years Gary reclaimed its “swag.”
This weekend, Mayor Hatcher and friends will celebrate the 50th Anniversary of his first of five consecutive elections to serve as the city’s chief administrator. If the Lord says the same, I will be somewhere inconspicuously in the crowd among those giving honor to whom honor is due.
Along with his incredible contribution to the political and social landscape of Gary, the state of Indiana, the nation and, frankly, the global community, like so many others, this will be a time to reflect on how Mayor Hatcher personally touched my life.
By 1986, I had launched Paragon Advertising – a public relations and marketing firm first located in Glen Park, then downtown Gary. The Mayor and his top minds were organizing the first National Civil Rights Museum and Hall of Fame Telethon. Plans were to host the event live at the Genesis Center – broadcast live over Black Entertainment Television (BET). Organizers were in need of professional promotions.
I remember the meeting in the conference room just outside the mayor’s office where top city officials and prominent civic and business leaders discussed recommendations for an agency. The consensus was industry giant J. Walter Thompson, a global public relations and advertising firm with offices in Chicago would take the lead.
You could hear a pin drop when Mayor Hatcher suggested a local firm – Paragon Advertising. Finally, two or three respected voices broke the silence, acknowledged the nobility of the suggestion, but questioning the wisdom of it – given the brevity of planning time for the telethon and my comparable lack of experience
Indelibly etched in my spirit is Mayor Hatcher’s response: “If no one gives him the opportunity, how will he ever get the experience?” The quiet tension in the room was palpable. Over virtually everyone’s objection, Hatcher chose Paragon for the assignment.
In the ensuing weeks, my company traveled to New York, Washington D.C. and Chicago to spread the word. We orchestrated a press conference with the Congressional Black Caucus and empathetic lawmakers like Sen. Ted Kennedy. We staged similar media activities involving Rev. Jesse Jackson and Operation PUSH.
The goal of the telethon airing across the country and beyond was to generate $1 million in pledges. We exceeded that goal in the first two hours. By the end of the night, pledges surpassed $3 million. The greatest feeling for me in the aftermath was not for personal accomplishment but rather affirmation of Mayor Hatcher’s faith in the unknown.
When the mayor proposed engaging Paragon’s services for the tele-thon the following year, there was no dissent. Indeed, how would they have known what I could do – how would I have known – had it not been for the confidence and daring of Hatcher?
My interactions with Hatcher are too many to remember, professionally and personally. I remember bringing my daughter Bridget to birthday parties of his firstborn Ragen, at his west side home. The girls were classmates and friends in school. The mayor and I enjoyed a professional relationship and times when we just talked.
Through Hatcher, I gained access to major activities and events that otherwise might not have been on the radar and benefitted from the opportunity he provided to meet scores of nationally and internationally prominent luminaries. His influence as a role model, mentor, friend and leader is immeasurable.
Hatcher’s vision inspired me to imagine what did not exist and believe in the impossible. His courage encouraged me to challenge the status quo without fear. His heart for service taught me that words are cheap if no actions follow. His principles reinforced my opting for ethics over expediency.
Two truisms of Mayor Hatcher ring as true today as they did 40 or 50 years ago. One is his saying, in terms of life choices, is “I want to be on the right side of history.” The other gospel is, “If you don’t stand for something – you will fall for anything.”
It means the world for me to have this opportunity – while he is still of sound body and mind – to formally, publicly, and enthusiastically say, “Thank you, Mayor Hatcher.
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].