Ed. note: This post is part of the Spotlight on Commerce series highlighting members of the Department of Commerce and their contributions to an Economy Built to Last.
Guest blog post by Willie May, Associate Director for Laboratory Programs and Principal Deputy, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)
Sometimes even the most difficult circumstances lay the foundation for very positive outcomes. I grew up in Birmingham, Ala., in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It goes without saying that any aspirations for becoming a scientist and a senior leader of a world class scientific agency with a $1 billion dollar budget and four Nobel Prizes would never have occurred to me.
But like most people I had some advantages hidden among the more visible obstacles to success.Advantage number one: my mother and father. They made sacrifices for me and my two younger sisters and expected us to rise above our surroundings and go to college. I was also expected to get good grades even though in my community it was more important to be a good athlete than it was to be a scholar. I actually was able to do both.
Advantage number two: I had excellent, smart, and very committed teachers. Opportunities were limited for people of color in mid- 20th century Alabama. Most African Americans like me were laborers in the mines and steel mills. Professional jobs were teacher, preacher, lawyer, doctor and undertakers; and their client base was limited to the black community. The best minds of my neighborhood went to college and became teachers. And they came back to teach us everything they possibly could.
In my case that included college-level chemistry in high school. Mr. Frank Cook, my high school chemistry teacher, selected five of us for his own experiment. Starting in 10th grade he taught us the same material he had learned just the summer before at Alabama A&M University. That head start gave me the confidence I needed for college. Besides me and my lifelong friend, Marion Guyton (former Attorney with the Justice Department), others who benefitted from these highly regarded public school teachers include former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, University of Maryland Baltimore County President Freeman Hrabowski, chief of the Census Bureau’s Statistical Research Division, Tommie Wright and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute president, Shirley Jackson.
Advantage number three started with heartbreak. Guyton and I were always competing with each other. As high schoolers, we both applied to Howard University, the Harvard of the black community. Marion got a full scholarship and he was more than happy to flaunt and badger me about it. When no letter came for me, I inquired about my application. It was nowhere to be found. I later learned from my principal, R.C. Johnson (Colin Powell’s father-in-law) that the application had been lost in his office. To make up for the error, he personally arranged for me to get a scholarship to Knoxville College.Had I gone to Howard and the big city, from a no-nonsense family life to anything goes, I’m not sure I would have made it through. At Knoxville College about half the professors were white and half were black, the classes were small, and the distractions were few. It was a place to learn valuable life lessons about getting along with different kinds of people, about accomplishing goals, and about the power of leading with out of the box thinking. It was a place where I could be me.
And that’s really what we all need to be: our best.
I left Knoxville College with a B.S. in chemistry with graduate school fellowship offers to Harvard, Illinois and the University of Tennessee. I also had a draft notice to join the Army. So I accepted a position at the Oak Ridge Gaseous Diffusion Plant because it provided a draft deferment and kept me out of Vietnam where almost everyone else from my neighborhood had already gone or were soon to go.
That job kept me out of the war, but it was just that: a Job; one where I asked myself everyday “Is this what you committed years of specialized study to do with your life”? In three years, on that Job, I averaged more than 10 sick days per year. In my 41 years at NIST, I haven’t taken more than 14 sick days total. I have not had a job at NIST, I’ve had an exciting and rewarding career!
When I left my first job to come to NIST, I found a challenging and rewarding environment, where I was encouraged to pursue my Ph.D. at the University of Maryland while working full-time.
Since then it’s been one challenge and adventure after the other. My research is described in more than 100 peer-reviewed publications and I have given more than 250 invited lectures at U.S. industrial sites, colleges/universities and technical meetings throughout the world. I have managed at every level within the organization, represented NIST as the chairman of committees and boards and never awakened and asked myself “are you sure you really want to go to work today?”
And along the way, I’ve seen how important an encouraging word can be and how essential it is to start any challenge with a positive attitude. Today, as we celebrate Black History Month, I’m sure there are many others like me who didn’t start out with the best prospects. But we quickly learned to avoid a “woe is me” approach. Never assume that the other guy has it easier than you, and that we were never promised that "life would be fair or easy.” Because it’s those hidden advantages—exploited with some hard work, “blessings” (as my mother always reminded me) and determination—that can take us where we’re truly meant to go in life.