Don’t Follow the Leader
The past few weeks, I have been going through more than fifty-five years many years of accumulated narishkeyt (nonsense) that filled sixteen file cabinet drawers.
I attempted to either sort or shred as much hubris as possible, and started by examining the contents of file folders that were connected with my misdirected and my ill-advised choice to become advertising major in college in Michigan. I sank deeper into the business mire after I graduated in 1958, when I made a questionable segue into the real world of advertising and business. I finally escaped with my sanity mainly intact in 1969, when I began a second career as a university professor.
Go East Young Man
Beginning in November 1965 and lasting through June 1969, I served in several capacities for the Lehn & Fink Industrial Products Division of Sterling Drugs, Inc. I started in the L&F manufacturing town of Toledo, Ohio, working in offices in Lynn’s Annex, about a block away from the factory. When I was hired as Advertising & Sales Promotion Manager, it was with the understanding that all of us in the business operations would be transferred the following spring to a new corporate building in Montvale, N. J. I was excited to be living just a short drive from New York City.
When the move was completed, my wife Rochelle, year-old daughter Amy, our dog Troubles, our cat named Woe, and I found a rental in the lower level of an old mansion in the bucolic village of Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey, not far from headquarters.
We Forgot to Tell You
After the physical move was completed and we had settled in, my immediate superior, R. M. Fenner, the marketing director, invited me into his office to share what he considered good news.
Fenner told me that I was to have a new position and exciting new responsibilities as Creative Services Manager of our three industrial products divisions. John C. Johnson, who had no previous experience whatsoever in advertising and sales promotion, would now be my boss, and would inherit my previous title and job responsibilities. Johnson was brought from Toledo not because he had any special talent, but because he had worked for L&F in Toledo for twenty years, and understood how each division functioned. While I was being demoted, Fenner happily announced that the company was giving me a raise in pay.
Our three industrial product divisions sold an extensive line of both building and cleaning products in large quantities, to ensure that all areas within any business were as sanitary as can be. They included toilet bowl cleaners, urinal blocks named Sanidomes, bug sprays and a variety of disinfectants. Lysol was the National Laboratory division’s best selling product, and in 1911, poisoning by drinking Lysol was the most common means of suicide in Australia.
Over the River
Lehn & Fink Products was the strict and all-controlling parent company, with headquarters in New York City. Walter N. Plaut, its President, was constantly checking the goings on of all divisions, especially those in the hinterlands across the Hudson River. Of the 50,000 employees working for L&F at the time, there was only one beard in the company, and it adorned the face of the man in charge of Givenchy Perfume.
In anticipation of possible deviation from the straightforward, clean-shaven norms the company had established, just prior to the 1966 holiday season, President Plaut sent out a warning memo to all Lehn & Fink employees. It read in full, “The pressures of the holiday season have made some of us lax in our personal grooming habits. With our permanent position in the cosmetics field, it is doubly important for Lehn & Fink Management employees to be impeccably groomed at all times.
Idiosyncracies such as moustaches, beards, long sideburns, and unkempt appearances cannot be tolerated. As management of Lehn & Fink, we must be an example at all times to our fellow employees.”
Take My Razor, Too
My wife surprised me just prior to the December 1966 holiday season, which is adamantly known and defended as “Christmas” by conservatives, right-wing Christians, and GOP candidates trying to capture the Evangelical and Tea Party votes. She announced that she had purchased airline tickets for herself and our year-and-one-half-year-old daughter Amy, and was going back for the holidays to visit her Mother in Detroit.
I was clean-shaven at the time, although I had beards before, and decided it was time to grow another one. I started it on the weekend of the 17th, and when I came to work on Monday the 19th, I had a relatively short, barely noticeable stubble. We were given an extended holiday weekend from Thursday afternoon the 22nd through Monday the 26th, and when I returned to work, I avoided meeting with people, and covered my chin whenever I walked down any corridor. After another short workweek and an extended New Years’ weekend off, when I returned to work in early January, I decided against hiding my growth. People who saw me with the start of my now 50-year-old beard, either looked twice or did not notice it at all, but I did hear comments like, “There’s something different about you,” or “Did you lose weight?”
An Unusual Pecking Order
While Plaut detested facial hair, I learned that the head of our industrial products group had an opposite viewpoint, which he discussed with me in a session over adjoining urinals in Montvale. Jim Peck was a sixty-two-year-old, well dressed, well groomed, but not that well-informed leader, who wanted to survive at L&F until he was able to receive a full retirement package in three years.
As I was watering a Sanidome, I felt the presence of someone to my left, who said in a quiet voice, “Don’t get rid of it.” Since I was holding on to my urinary organ at the time, I told him that I had no intention of doing so. He finished his effort, zipped up, and then looked under the door to the commode to be sure no one was there.
“No, I mean the beard,” and then he sadly confessed that he relished his vacation each year aboard his yacht, for he could grow a beard without any worry about being caught doing so.
“I’d shave it completely off before I left the yacht, but how I would have loved to keep it, but couldn’t.” He knew that he could at least be reprimanded or disciplined if he kept it, and didn’t want to do anything that might jeopardize his retirement.
Let’s Wrap It Up
At 90 Park Avenue, Walter N. Plaut may have been the head of Lehn & Fink, however above him on the organization chart sat Glenn Johnston, the President of Sterling Drugs, Inc. Glenn was a genial gentlemen, whom I met when I won a corporation-wide photo contest in 1966. In 1967, while on a business trip, he noticed that his hotel’s toilet seat was wrapped with a paper band that listed a cleaning product that was in competition with our Lysol Liquid Toilet Bowl Cleaner.
He sent a seemingly innocuous, typed memo to Jim Peck, wondering if any of his divisions were doing anything similar to promote their products. It bore Glenn Johnston’s firm signature. Peck attached a typed cover note to Johnston’s memo, and sent it to Fenner, suggesting that he look into it as soon as possible. Fenner, in turn, scrawled his concern on this vital subject, and passed it on to my boss, John C. Johnson.
This activity had all occurred late in the previous day, and when I came in the next morning, I found the pleading package on my desk. I instantly noticed it, since John had written on the top page, “Hot! Hot! Handle Immediately!” and done so in bright red ink.
I went next door to John’s office clutching the memos, and told him that I was working on three projects that had important deadlines approaching. With a stone cold look, he replied, “It came from Park Avenue,” and dismissed me as he turned to other hot items on his desk.
I reluctantly decided to follow through, and knew that there were many motels nearby along Highway 17. I left my office to search for a solution to this penetrating problem. After an hour of driving up and down the highway, and stopping at a dozen or so motels, I had captured five toilet bowl bands, and called my wife. I told her to pack a lunch for the three of us, and that we’re going out on a picnic. She worried that I may have lost my job, but I assured her it was part of a research project I had been entrusted with by higher authority.
We had a glorious day together, enjoying a picnic, hiking and just relaxing. It stimulated my love for research. When I came into work the next morning, John C. Johnson was apoplectic, and asked what had happened to me. I proudly held up the enemy’s toilet bowl bands that I had captured, and said that I knew the importance of following through on Glenn Johnston’s memo, and spent all of the previous day doing so.
He apologized profusely for his furor, told me that I had done an excellent job, and thanked me for my efforts. I went back to my own office, put all the bands I had gathered along with the memos into a file folder, opened up a file drawer, and placed the folder in the very back. When I left L & F for academia two years later, no one had ever asked about my research endeavor and its results.
There’s More to Come
The experience back east came during the Vietnam War years, and while corporations were fighting for greater profits, other battles raged. We became volunteers for the Eugene McCarthy campaign for President in 1968, attended rallies and marches against the war in New York City, and wrote letters to newspapers in protest of our country’s ill-advised actions. The lack of interest within my company, inspired me to go west in 1969, and I began teaching at San Jose State, hoping to make a bigger difference in our society, other than extolling the virtues of a toilet bowl cleaner.