Mentor Who Made a Corporation Less Crazy

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My mentor, Bill Blankenship, died last week.  When I first heard, I knew that I couldn’t let it ruin my day – it would have bothered him to know that someone had a bad day because of him.

BillB.  That was his email handle at IBM, where he long worked the oars in the slave galley of corporate communications.  He was a good trooper as far as work went.  Wore a suit.  Showed up on time.  Made deadline on countless corporate reports, speeches and announcements.  But a lot of people do that.  What I really liked about him was that he tried to be good to everyone he encountered, including the first floor receptionist, whom he greeted every time he walked by, and the cleaning woman whom he met almost as often working late at night.  Another person could have easily excused themselves from being polite every time to these people, but not Bill.  I also admired that even though he worked at IBM for decades, he somehow retained a subversive sense of humor about the world and his place in it.  I wonder if he’d come across “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” in early adolescence and decided that this stuff about growing up had gone far enough and he wanted no more of it.

He was a bestselling author, too.  I liked his mystery novel,  “Time of the Wolf,” in particular, but his best stories were the ones he told in person.  On a cold day, he might recall his time in the U.S. Army in Kansas, where he was often told to go “sweep the spade,” the 1st Infantry Division’s insignia laid out in stones on a high, wind-blown hill; or the frequent “free beer nights” on the base, when the hung-over casualties were collected on large trucks, taken to a gymnasium, and put in dozens of rows….

When he was young, his family moved from Chicago to Los Angeles, stopping temporarily at various places — the semi-nomadic life of the working poor – until they came to a Santa Monica motel near a pier.  He could hear a jazz band playing in the distance, mixing with the sounds of the ocean, and thought he had come to a wonderful place.

In time, Los Angeles did seem like a place where wonderful things could happen.  He worked his way through USC, had a job all lined up after graduation, and then was drafted, giving him two years worth of stories.

After the Army,  he joined IBM and near the end of his career was sent to Tokyo, where he mentored me in executive communications.  After he retired to the U.S., he continued to advise me in weekly calls.  Often our conversations concerned his youngest grandson who seemed to have inherited his sense of misbehavior.

One of the first things he told me when I came to IBM was, “This corporation is crazy.  Well, actually, all corporations are crazy.  This one is just crazier than others.”  He made it his duty to instill some sanity into the corporation.  Speechwriting, he felt, was one way of doing this, “It’s your job to show that the executive is intelligent, that he knows what he’s doing.  You also try to make him likable – even if he isn’t.  A lot of them aren’t.”  He always tried to help the corporation become a little better, a little less crazy, a little more likable, for the sake of its employees and customers.  And for me, he did just that.