In most cases, continuing a relationship is easy. In fact, mentoring can, and often does, become a lifelong endeavor. Occasionally, however, there is an exception that tests one’s loyalty and allegiance.
In my life, the exception was the one who did more than anyone else to launch my rise to the top. As the early frontrunner in a campaign for governor of our state in 1970, a charismatic Democrat by the name of John Jay Hooker tapped me, a twenty-nine-year- old political novice, to be his press secretary.
Hooker was a rising star in the nation’s political arena. Many observers were viewing his election as a foregone conclusion and predicting it would be a first step toward a viable run for the presidency. He had all the right stuff to be a big winner – intelligence, good looks, charisma, ability to shape an effective message, and money.
But it was not to be. A few months before the formal start of the campaign, a politically motivated, ultimately unfounded U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission investigation of accounting practices shook the confidence of investors and caused in large measure the collapse of Hooker’s fried chicken chain. Predictably, the investigation also had a significant impact on the political campaign, and Hooker lost the general election, despite getting more votes than any other Democrat in the history of the state at that time.
It was a loss from which he never recovered. His life began a downward spiral that continued to the day he died. The dream he had pursued aggressively and relentlessly since childhood was shattered at the age of forty. He lost his family. He lost his wealth. And most of his friends, many of whom he had made millionaires, turned their backs on him.
Hooker tried several more times to win election, but each successive time he did worse than before. He became more and more embittered and reclusive. His eccentricities came to symbolize him.
Ironically, as Hooker’s career deteriorated, mine advanced. It was increasingly painful for me to see what was happening to his life. Ever present in my mind was the reality that he had put my career on a launching pad. Had it not been for Hooker’s fateful decision to put an untried twenty-nine-year-old into a key role in his campaign for governor, I probably would still be director of public relations at the University of Tennessee.
Prior to the Hooker campaign, my ambition had been rather limited. When the university promoted me to public relations director, I thought I had already made it to the top. I was comfortable and content.
However, the fast-paced education that one gains from a major political campaign was intoxicating. It broadened my perspective on life, uplifted my level of confidence in myself, and whetted my appetite for new challenges and opportunities. My personal definition of ambition changed dramatically.
I learned a lot from Hooker the candidate in 1970. He was an inspiration. As a mentor, he possessed and shared great wisdom. But more than anything else, he was a profile in courage, keeping his head high as both his business and his campaign tumbled over the cliff and into oblivion.
As the years passed and my career ascended, I was often chided about my association with Hooker. Even some of my closest friends and advisers urged me to turn away from him for fear that my image might be tarnished by some type of guilt by association.
Consistently, I ignored the advice. I shall never forget that Hooker played a key role in shaping my career. He gave me an opportunity. He provided me with a lifetime experience. He was my friend at a significant time in my life and a turning point in his.
However, loyalty to a friendship does not necessarily translate into blind allegiance to the friend’s lifestyle, philosophy, or actions. While the Hooker of the latter years of his life became eccentric and controversial, the Hooker of yesterday befriended me. He was my friend to the day he died, and my gratitude to him shall endure forever. I firmly believe you stand by those who brought you to the dance.
-adapted from Journal of a Fast Track Life © 2018 Charles E. Smith. All rights reserved. Top photo courtesy of ArtTower from Pixabay.com