EARNING SUCCESS, GAINING AWARENESS: THE ZENITH YEARS
Speaking about his first wife, Bob said, “The biggest issue for us was that she wanted me to be ordinary. It was alright for me to be ordinary, so I took a job at the post office as a substitute. Besides, it paid more than Michael Reese.” Because he was a sub, the Post Office could call him into work at any time of the day or night, which ruled out finishing college. Subs, he said, were treated like dog sh__. That, it seems, was also how he felt.
Then, in 1963, he got a break similar to the one he had gotten at Michael Reese. With only two and a half years of college under his belt, he was hired as a special technician in the chemistry department by the Zenith Corp. at their plant at Knox and Montrose on the far north side of Chicago.
In that job he supervised a small group of men who were responsible for certifying the purity of the chemicals used in manufacturing TV sets and for mixing the chemicals to meet exacting standards. As a supervisor he not only worked nine to five but was on call 24 hours a day.
Bob explained the responsibility he carried on his young shoulders, “If anything went wrong with the chemicals we had mixed, causing defects to appear on the picture tubes, the whole assembly line in the plant would have to be shut down. If anything went wrong, my little team got hell for it.”
A new role model named Charles Lowery appeared in Bob’s life during his time at Zenith. Having just graduated as valedictorian from Cornell with a degree in electrical engineering, Zenith had hired him sight unseen for a high management position, assuming that he had to be of Irish descent. When an African American walked into the human resources office at Zenith and introduced himself as Charles Lowery, management responded by saying in effect, “Oops, there must be some misunderstanding here.” Lowery just smiled and said that there was no mistake and moved into his new job as if there was no problem. This was in a plant in which three blacks were employed along with 1000 other workers.
“I was in awe of him,” Bob recalled. “He was sharp as a tack. If you’d ask him to calculate how fast the electrons in a picture tube were going and what their impact rate was, he would sit down and just do it. He was the first black guy I had met in my life who was technically sharp and so focused.”
At first Bob thought of Lowery as an Uncle Tom. At this point, Dr. King was on the scene and what John Hope Franklin called The Negro Revolution had begun, but Lowery seemed to just float above it. Then one day the two of them were sitting together and Lowery told Bob the story of how he had been hired and added, “You know, they don’t want too many of us black guys, so you have to figure out how to act around here.
“This is a game, Bob, and you have to understand how to play. You can’t come in here powering and being for the people. You have to play this game.”
“Slowly, I was gaining awareness, beginning to get understanding,” Bob said. When a white coworker made a joke which included a racial slur and a woman was called an obscenity to her face, it began to dawn on him that “this was standard fare around here.”
The incident that opened Bob’s eyes the widest happened on the day Kennedy was assassinated. After management announced what had happened and that the plant was being closed for the rest of the day, Bob went about his responsibility of making sure all the chemicals were locked up and secure, making him the last salaried person to leave the building.
As he walked through the plant which was like a long cave, the employees from Kentucky were packing up to leave as well and noticed him. “These hill billy guys started whistling ‘Dixie,’ and the whistling was picked up by the men in each new section I walked through,” Bob said. “I got in my little Chevy Corvair and cried. I think that was the first time I really understood the extent of race hatred.”
When he arrived home, his wife had heard about what had happened, and the two of them began to try to figure out what it meant. “He tried to do too much,” his wife concluded.
“Later on it hit me,” Bob said, “that what she was really saying was that I was trying to do too much. I think that’s when I actually fell out of love with her, the real beginning of the end.”
Bob had always known what he didn’t want to be: a mop swinger, a failure, just an ordinary worker. And, at Zenith he was proving to himself as well as management that he could handle the responsibilities which had been given him. He was gaining the reputation of being a trouble shooter, a go to guy.
And, he was learning how to play the game. For example, the morning after 500 picture tubes had to be scrapped during the night shift because of contaminated chemicals, Bob was not only aware of what happened but was also able to show that the fault lay with another department. “If I’m going to bear the responsibility for things going wrong,” Bob said, “then I have to have more control.”
Joe Kanavan, a big Irish guy, shot back, “You can’t take control of my department.”
To which the chief engineer replied, “We have to have someone be responsible, and since you can’t handle it, Joe, we’re going to have Bob take over some of this responsibility.”
“All Joe could do was grimace,” Bob remembered with a grin. “They were looking at me as they looked at Charles Lowery. Respect. I wanted to emulate Charles Lowery, to excel, to have a parking space with my name on it. I was learning to play the game.”
“My life’s work at that time was making a statement,” said the son of Robert Sherrell Sr. “I was trying to say that you gave me the responsibility, and it was not a mistake, that I was the real deal. You can’t say that I f___ed up. I won’t let you say that if I have to spend my whole life in that plant.”