The Evolution of the National Black Chamber of Commerce – Part 6

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Harry C. Alford and Kay DeBow

Beyond the Rhetoric

By Harry C. Alford & Kay DeBow

Here we were – racked up with broken bones in the Las Vegas Sunrise Hospital. Word traveled fast as we were bombarded with phone calls from well wishers from all over the nation. Kay’s brother Chuck was sent out by her father to look after us. My cousin, Michael Crawley, drove up from Los Angeles to do the same. Pretty soon the “MGM Fire Couple” was in the press from coast to coast. We did a phone interview with the Detroit Free Press and the Los Angeles Times and those stories were replicated in papers for the following month.

Everyone was so nice. I called Avis about the car rental and they said don’t worry about a thing. “We will find it and bring it back to LAX. There will be no charge to you.” On our return flight back to Detroit, United retrofitted the first-class section of the plane so that Kay could lay on a gurney – next to my seat. There was no cost!

Prior to going to Las Vegas, I convinced Kay to resign from her job at Colgate-Palmolive. It was time for us to start planning on becoming entrepreneurs. Johnson & Johnson would soon have a surprise for us. It was getting out of the baby diaper business. Those employees who elected to assist in the selling of existing inventory would receive a nice severance package. I chose that option. We weren’t quite ready for me to start our entrepreneurial endeavors.

While helping J&J in shutting down the diaper operation, I began shopping for new employment.  My choice would be the Hanes Hosiery division of the Sara Lee Corporation. They were transitioning from using sales brokers to a direct selling force. My initial duty would be to construct a sales district headquartered in Minneapolis/St. Paul. We thought that to be exciting and accepted their offer. Thus, we moved to the Twin Cities.

My sales district would encompass Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Dakotas. I would have eight sales representatives under my management. Kay would be at home on the mend. My new job gave me a lot of free time to look after Kay as she slowly recuperated.

We asked our attorneys in Detroit to help us find a new doctor in Minneapolis for Kay’s back. We chose one from the internet and asked them to do due diligence on the guy. They informed us that we had just chosen the second best back surgeon in the world. What luck! The doctor informed us that our doctors in Detroit “had it all wrong.” Kay needed “fusion” back surgery. This would ensure a healthy future. It also meant six months of limited activity.

There was just one big problem. The fusion surgery would cost about $20,000 and it was considered a pre-existing condition. Therefore, Aetna Insurance would not cover the cost.  The Sara Lee corporation had a great answer to that. The class action lawsuit from the MGM Fire was in the works. When that got settled, I could reimburse Sara Lee for the cost of the operation.  They were so nice! It all worked out.

Our love for each other strengthened during Kay’s rehabilitation. We decided to finalize our relationship with a good old traditional marriage. This was in the Spring of 1981. We chose the last Saturday in the upcoming October. We did not realize it until later that it would be October 31, 1981 – Halloween!

“Trick or treat,” I always say with a smile.

Black smoke was billowing into our room. Harry was brushing his teeth. Our balcony was blocked due to construction. We exited our room and the hotel room door slammed behind us. The stairwell was filled with smoke. The hallway was filled with smoke. The hallway was filled with people going back and forth. We crawled on the floor looking for an exit.We came upon an open door. Harry called out to the firemen who signaled “we’ll be there” not understanding the presence of the black ever billowing, suffocating smoke.

Harry tore the locks off the window with his bare hands. It didn’t seem too far to the garden below. I stepped on the ledge and jumped. Harry was more strategic. He lowered himself by his arms first and then jumped.

My spine swelled and formed a “tire” around the back side of my body. But we had to get up and move. People above us were throwing lamps and chairs through the locked windows looking for escape. We later learned that fire equipment could only reach nine stories of the 26-story hotel.

We had to shout for and then walk toward the ambulance. The first responders did not comprehend the incapacitating smoke. Flames were fueled by flammable furnishings, moldings and construction materials found in the casino. Once in the ambulance we stated we wanted to go to the nearest hospital, which caused us to be transferred to a second private ambulance. And we were rushed to the hospital of the “angels of death.”

Fast forward. In a body cast, left leg in a cast and in a wheelchair. Harry was my knight in shining armor, my Black Panther hero T’Challa, my Marvel hero Luke Cage. He ripped the cast off from his leg. And pushed me forward.

Mr. Alford is the Co-Founder, President/CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce. Ms. DeBow is the Co-Founder, Executive Vice President of the Chamber. Website:www.nationalbccorg.Emails:halford@nationalbcc.org kdebow@nationalbcc.org.

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