The Letter

The decade of the ’60s was a nostalgic time for many. For me, they were the worse years of my life. Almost the entire decade was spent in prison. Sheridan Reformatory, Ashland, KY, FCI; El Reno, Oklahoma Reformatory, Marion, Il – Penitentiary, Cook County Jail, Joliet (old joint), Stateville – prison, Menard, Il prison, and Vandalia, prison farm. The 60s were not only the worst years but also the years I was at my worst. Before my release in 1967 from Marion, I was advised by my caseworker that the Illinois Division of Rehabilitation had determined that prisoners were socially handicapped in reintegrating back into society, therefore, making me eligible to go to college upon my release. I didn’t think this was for me, but I said, “Sure.” When weeks passed before hearing anything, I called the DVR and asked them what was happening. They assured me that as soon as my application arrived from my parole officer, someone would come and take me to the university of my choice. I almost laughed at them as I said, “Sure, I want to go to Northwestern University.” Knowing full well that I wasn’t. After 55 days of leaving Marion, I was arrested for several crimes that would return me to prison. I had been labeled as a “doubtful improvable offender” The die was cast.

I could probably write an entire book about my experiences finding a job. I was handicapped with a prison record. I think that’s a problematic approach to looking for a job. Better to look for a career.
I also needed to gain marketable skills. I was 13 when I was first arrested, and I would be 33 when I was last released from prison (19 years). I had spent 17 ½ years in confinement. I wasn’t skilled and disciplined, nor did I have the wherewithal to conduct a successful job search. I was dependent on the skills and advice of others. What would I have learned that was transferrable to the job market?

At the time of our marriage in April of 1980, I had been working for Scandinavian Design in Evanston. I was hired as the shipping and receiving clerk. In this particular instance, I had received some familiarity with the position while in the Metropolitan Correctional Center before my release. As time went on, I also delivered furniture while at the same time learning to drive the trucks, locate products, unload containers and even assemble the furniture. Interacting with the customers was a skill set to be noticed.

The company announced they moved the warehouse to Elk Grove Village just before getting married. Given the condition of my car, I wasn’t going to be able to transfer with the company, so I gave two weeks’ notice. Mike Barfield, the warehouse manager, said, “not so fast. I need a man capable of managing this warehouse during the transition. I was their choice. It wasn’t lost on me that they were putting a lot of trust in me, giving me the keys to the warehouse and password for setting the alarms at night of a warehouse that contained inventory valued at over several million dollars! It was a trust that came with a lot of pressure and anxiety.
When we returned from our honeymoon, I learned that the company had taken a different direction from the warehouse. They wouldn’t shut it down but keep the showroom open. An excellent craftsman had returned to the company, and he was now going to be the warehouse manager, and I could be, as they suggested, his right-hand man.

I had only recently read our church announcements that one of our members who owned a publishing company needed a bookkeeper. I called them immediately and stated that I had gone to commercial school while inside and had the rudimentary skills of a bookkeeper. They hired me directly, so I made the transition without any loss of pay in between.

It was only a short time before the company had taken on debt in some of its transactions in acquisitions of certain publications. Six months later, we were advised that staff would have to be let go. Bill Berry, the owner of D. Wm. Berry & Associates, called me in and gave me the news. He also gave me a handsome check to cover us for a few weeks. Bill had rented a Thunderbird for our honeymoon and $50 for gas. Bill would be a valuable friend and mentor over the years that followed.

I had read several books on job hunting. While I learned how to prepare a resume, I lacked the job experience to put on it. I walked out of D. Wm Berry and Associate to the newspaper stand on Chicago, and Main St. A Crain’s Business Report headline grabbed my attention. “The Top 100 Privately Owned Companies in Chicago.” An idea slowly developed in my head, and I purchased the magazine.

I would write a letter and address it to the CEOs and presidents of companies and bypass the Human Resources Department. At first, I thought I would test my plan and contact the bottom of the 100 lists, but why would they hire me any more than the top ones? I would start by contacting the top 20 on the list and include several large local companies in Evanston, such as Northwestern University, Evanston Hospital, Washington National, and American Hospital Supply.

Now for the letter. I needed something to impress the companies on the list. So I altered my approach. It was entirely opposite from what anyone else would do. In the body of the letter, I told them three things. 1) I had recently been released from prison, and 2) I had accepted Christ as my Saviour and had turned my life around and was starting a new life. 3) I had the rudimentary skills of a bookkeeper. I closed the letter with a question. “Based on your expertise and experience, what would you suggest I do.?

After writing the letter, I passed it to 3 English majors and my wife. I asked them to edit the letter for grammatical perfection but keep it the same. We prayed and then mailed the letter.

Three weeks passed by with no response. I was losing hope that any response would be forthcoming. CEOs are busy people. I hadn’t asked them for a job, just their advice. Would the letter even get read by them and not ambushed by a secretary and thrown in the trash?

Monday morning, the phone rang, and the voice on the other end of the line was saying that they didn’t have much at this time, the job was in the Billing Department, and it only paid $8500 a year. I didn’t care what department it was, nor that they were paying much, I was elated that I had a job… or did I? I didn’t know what to say, so I asked him what I needed to do. He said to report on Monday, and I was hired. Are you kidding me? Hired over the phone, sight unseen, by Leo Burnett, Chicago’s largest ad agency! Oh my! Praise God!

Mary, in the meanwhile, was working for Reba Place Day Nursery and making $500 a month. I, too, was making $500 a month. We were young and in love. We could make it just splendid. Then in August, reality hit. Mary was pregnant with our first child and would not continue at Reba Place Day Nursery the following year. We could not make it on my salary alone. I knew I would have to get back on the bricks and find a new job. What? The phone rang as I sat at my desk, pondering this burdensome situation. The voice on the other end said, “My name is Jackie.” I have had your letter sitting on my desk for six months and am still trying to figure out what to do with it. However, I didn’t have any positions at the time, but I have several that will open up in September. However, they only pay $11,300 a year.” I wanted to jump on my desk and shout to the Lord…unbelievable! I couldn’t help but wonder how closely what she said sounded similar to what the Leo Burnett man had said. She asked me if I could come in for an interview. I had only been at Leo Burnett for 6 months and had no personal days. Jackie, “Couldn’t you tell them you have a doctor’s appointment?” She had said she was the Director of Human Resources. I’m sure she had often heard that excuse in her experience. The following words out of my mouth were not entirely mine. “I’m not going to lie,” I said. I held my breath: “Can you come in on a Saturday morning?” She said. Come on! In all likelihood, she didn’t work on Saturdays, nor was it her position to do the individual interviews. Completely blown away by now, I assured her there were no hindrances to me coming in on Saturday. At that interview, she lined me up with interviews at three separate departments that all needed accounting clerks. As cloud nine carried me out of her office and back home, I realized I had to tell Leo Burnett that I was, of necessity, having to look for another job. Over the next 10 days, I interviewed at the three other departments. One particular department showed interest in me. They wanted someone who could come in and formulate and implement a chargeback system (using a Zero Based Budgeting approach) to cover and report the costs for all the publications produced by the university. SAY WHAT?! After the initial interview, I went to the library and looked for a book describing Zero Based Budgeting. I prayed for God’s wisdom and assurance that this job was for me and that I would need plenty of grace and patience. I couldn’t believe what was happening because so many variables were working out. I couldn’t believe God would carry me this far only to have it end because I had not remotely ever done anything close to what they wanted. (Hahaha)

The days since my second interview passed slowly as I awaited their response. The phone rang. It was Jackie. “John,” she said, “Yes,” I replied. “They want you to start yesterday.” I was silent momentarily, choked to tears, “They might want two weeks’ notice.” I said. “Well, I don’t know if they can wait that long. I’ll have to ask them. I know they have interviewed others for this position.” I said I would get back to her as soon as I talked to my supervisor. They wanted two weeks’ notice. I called Jackie back and told her. She, in turn, would get back to me with their answer. “R’rrnng” “They said they would wait.” I could barely contain myself. I called Mary. “Mary, I’ve got the job! I start on September 17th,” at NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY.

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