Robert McCormick (1920-83)

[ Robert McCormick making a point ]

"We never close deals, we open accounts." (--RMcC)

Death of a Paint Sales Manager
* > War and Peace > Profits and Persons > The Sorrow and the Pity > The "Net"

The above picture shows my father, Robert McCormick, pointing out something about a demonstration sample of housepaint. I cannot be sure, but the date is around 1958 (the original photograph is a Polaroid, which sets a boundary on how early it can be).

The situation is probably either a sales meeting or customer presentation. At the time, my father worked as a salesman, and then was promoted to Sales Manager, for the H.B. Davis Paint Co., Baltimore, Maryland. Therefore, what my father is doing in the picture is showing, either to some customers and/or potential customers, or to his salesmen, how well Davis paint "covers", by pointing out that one coat of white completely hides the previous dark paint on the board. [I do not know who is the person standing behind my father. Also, some time around 1960, H. Braith Davis, owner of the company, sold out to (merged with...) Seidlitz Paint Co. of Kansas City, Missouri, which sets a boundary on how late the picture can be. "Seidlitz" was owned by 3 brothers who fancied themselves to be like "the -- Jack, Bobby and Teddy -- Kennedies"; we may anticipate that my father would not likely play a starring role in their drama....] [Dec 2011 note: One of my father's former salesmen wrote to me: "You said that in 1960 Mr. Davis sold the company to the Seidlitz Paint Company. When I worked for Colony Paint from 1970 until 1975. The company at that time was part of ConChemCo. ConChemCo was made up of Colony Paint, Masury Paint and a modular trailer company. Mr. Davis was the Chairman and the three companies each had presidents. I have forgotten their names but Mr. Davis was very active in the business during that time. At that time Bob was made V I Sales in his region and soon afterwards the other sales managers were also promoted to Vice Presidents of their regions."[Read more: fn.124[ Go to footnote! ]] --I have no idea of the legalities of what happened to the H.B. Davis Paint Company. By "sold out to", I was expressing my feelings that my father's opportunities diminished when the Kansas City people came in, and "took over". I felt that from that time on, my father was running up a down escalator because he wasn't one of them. My father got a new boss from Kansas City, whose only function I could see was be a colonial overseer. In the final analysis, the merged company (which later became part of Valspar) seems to have treated my father decently, as things go in this business environment. He had a decent salary, and, unlike the protagonist of a movie I mention below, Mon Oncle d'Amerique, I never heard of him being subjected to unbearable conditions from above.]

I find this picture sad, for many reasons.

My father was a very intelligent person (I believe his IQ was at least 120, in circumstances where that "meant something"). But he was born into a poor family that apparently had no "aspirations". Therefore, it is to my father's great credit that, from an early age, he determined to get up and out of his milieu of origin, and to make a better life for himself (and, later, for his wife and child), especially since his own parents did nothing to nurture such aspirations. Indeed, entirely to the contrary: When my father started earning a decent income, his father tried to extort money from him, by showing up at my father's office and telling everybody how poor he was and how his son did nothing to help him (he did the same thing to my father's brother, who, as a child, fell out of a tree, and, had not my father, also a child, taken the brother to the hospital, the brother would possibly have died instead of "only" having to have an arm amputated). The man later sued both brothers in court, where his case was thrown out. --My father was probably as close to a "self-made man" as is possible in society (and, yes, that means he "missed" some key things about life that he was not able enough or lucky enough to discover by himself...).

My father always worked hard, both from innate integrity, and also in hopes of "bettering himself". Even though he was a [successful and effective] salesman ("manufacturer's rep"), he had none of the negative attributes that often go with that appellation. He never tried to advance himself at the expense of those "beneath" him. As he "rose in the office", he continued to relate with genuine concern and respect to the people he'd left behind "in the factory". He was the straightforwardly "decent" kind of person of whom almost everyone who knew him said: "He would give you the shirt off his back."

One of his first jobs was "in the plant" at the Davis company, operating and cleaning big mills and mixing vats in which the paint was made. At the time (ca. 1940), housepaint contained a lot of lead (and probably other toxic chemicals...). Some 40 years later, my father died of liver cancer. Since he did not use tobacco, and had no other indicators for the disease, I think it is likely that the cancer was caused by his early exposure to poisons in the paint factory. Hypothesis: My father's "background" (esp.: lack of same) killed him. I firmly believe that, had he been born into a "better" family, with better opportunities (which he had ample talent and industriousness to make good use of!), my father would not have died prematurely in this painful way.

War and Peace
Death of a Paint Sales Manager > ** > Profits and Persons > The Sorrow and the Pity > The "Net"

[ A B-29 Superfortress bomber ]My father's "career" in the paint factory was interrupted by World War II. Having no "essential skill", and realizing that he would therefore be drafted, my father intelligently decided that he would probably be better off in the air than in the dirt. He applied, and was accepted into the Army Air Corps cadet program. He became a crewman on a B-29 strategic bomber. As a child, I thought he had been an officer: an engineer, and that he had dropped white phosphorous bombs on Tokyo and/or Nagoya (I even wrote this in the guestbook at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, when I visited there in 1983, shortly after his death...). The truth may have been less "glamorous": It appears from his official service record that my father was an "enlisted man", that he was a gunner, that he never saw combat, and that his only period of service outside the continental United States was the month of February, 1945, in Puerto Rico. [See photograph: Robert McCormick and other members of the B-29 crew he was part of.]

Did he "embellish" his wartime experiences? Or did I, as a child, indulge in wishful thinking? (I would have liked to have a commissioned officer for a father.) It seems hard to imagine that, as a child, I could have invented my father telling me that, after the war ended, the military had a hard time keeping men in the service, and therefore he had been offered a promotion from 2nd to 1st Lieutenant, but that he, like many others, had rejected it, because he wanted to return to civilian life. I seem to remember him telling me these things, but I have been unable to verify any of them. (As noted above, his official military service record, which I acquired after much effort and which is signed in his handwriting, seems to say these things never happened.)

The point of the memory is that, if my father had been an officer, I would always regret his having left the service, since I hypothesize he, and my mother and myself, would have had a better life had he "stayed in". If, on the other hand, my father was (as appears to be the case) an enlisted man, then perhaps he did make the better choice in returning to civilian life and the opportunities he hoped it would provide.

Profits and Persons
Death of a Paint Sales Manager > War and Peace > *** > The Sorrow and the Pity > The "Net"

In any case, shortly after the end of the war, my father returned to the Davis company, and began working his way up, from order-desk clerk, to local salesman, to travelling salesman, to Sales Manager, and then to Vice-President of Sales. (This "sacrifice for betterment" entailed his being away from home, "on the road", Monday thru Friday, almost every week -- it likely resulted, among other things, in my mother's death (1964), as she sought consolation in Virginia Gentleman bourbon while my father was away working in Virginia....) Concurrently, however, the Davis company began going through a series of "mergers", each of which made my father a smaller fish in a larger pond (somewhat like the situation of the textile manager played by Gerard Despardieu in Alain Resnais' film, Mon Oncle d'Amerique). As soon as he reached Vice-President level, my father found his position inexorably eroding, while his responsibilities remained the same or increased.

The following may be another false memory (which would not necessarily impugn its "symbolic truth"!): I seem to recall that, when the company was still owned by Mr. Davis (and it provided him with a 90+ foot yacht: "Mimosa" out of Annapolis Maryland, a twin-engine Grumman sea plane, etc.), my father's manager, Thomas M. Gminder, was a member of H.L. Mencken's Saturday (Sunday?) night dinner group. Mr. Gminder was "grooming" my father to be his successor. Had the company remained privately held, I believe my father might have risen to President; instead, I believe his last title before he died was Marketing Manager (no longer any kind of [Vice-]President!), and, 10 years later, the company -- Valspar -- which by that time had absorbed the residue of what originally had been the H.B. Davis Paint Co., told me they no longer had any records about my father's 35+ years' employment.

This is the second tragedy the picture represents to me: That my father, for all his hard work and accomplishments, ended up having his aspirations in life not exactly "dashed", but, over a long period gradually eroded, by corporate mergers, long before "downsizing" became fashionable in the early 1990s. (I find one of the names the company assumed in this trajectory ironic: "Old Colony" -- both because America was supposedly founded in an anti-colonial revolution, and also because these successive mergers were, in effect, colonizations of the originally independent H.B. Davis Paint Co....)

The Sorrow and the Pity
Death of a Paint Sales Manager > War and Peace > Profits and Persons > **** > The "Net"

What I see is the greatest tragedy of the picture (top), however, is something else. Antoine de Saint Exupéry wrote (Wind, Sand and Stars, Conclusion) that the tragedy of the children of poverty is not primarily their material deprivation (even some of the nobility in the early European Middle Ages, and "primitive tribes" in all times, have lived in material conditions that would give "poor people" today little cause for envy...). Rather: the essential tragedy of the children of poverty is the waste of their human potential -- "the sight, a little bit in all these men, of Mozart murdered" (p. 243).

Looking closely at my father's pointing finger in the photograph, I seem to see a highly intelligent person's intent dedication to how opaque a certain brand of housepaint is. This same intelligence could plausibly have been dedicated to "the law", or to teaching, or even to commanding a strategic bomber squadron -- and, more speculatively, it could have been dedicated to philosophical reflection on the structure of pointing (Husserl's "intentionality").

Given where my father started from, some persons might wish me to say that he was fortunate to have a "white collar" job, and even to become a manager, and to be able to send his son to Yale, where the son could study Husserl (in many "cultures" this would not have been possible). The same or different persons might also say that my father may have derived as much creative satisfaction from pointing out the covering properties of that sample of housepaint as another person (or the same person in different circumstances...) could derive from pointing out how to cure an epidemic or how to double the stockholders' equity in a multinational corporation. Regarding the second point, I would point out the hypocrisy that, in other contexts, the same persons clearly distinguish substantive accomplishment from mere "sensation", and, in pursuit of ascertaining what things are which, and obtaining for themselves and other persons the one and not the other, they demand that balance sheets be audited and "mind altering" chemicals be prohibited. Regarding the first point, the issue is that my father could have started from a different place (and/or these secular theodicists could have started from where he came from...). If my father didn't clearly sense how narrow his "life horizon" was, or that in ways he was living an "imitation of life", I would argue that obliviousness of injustice was, per se, a key part of his tragedy.

Could my father have done better had he been more self-confident, instead of staying with "what he knew" (the slowly "devoluting" paint company)? Perhaps. (Item: at one point, a few years after my mother died, my father had an opportunity -- actually arranged by Mr. Davis -- now no longer active in the paint company -- and Mr. Davis's wife, Ramelle, to marry one of Ramelle's best friends, who owned the Schenley liquor distributorship in Savannah, Georgia -- this match would, obviously, have put my father in Mr. Davis's "social circle".) On the other hand, had "free enterprise" meant more than sellouts and mergers, my father, even with his "limitations", would have done better, even in the paint company -- not just in dollars, but in terms of the dignity and intrinsic meaningfulness (autochthony) of the work.

The "Net"
Death of a Paint Sales Manager > War and Peace > Profits and Persons > The Sorrow and the Pity > *****

[ Bing Crosby, crooning :: Learn more about American 1940's symbolic world! ]In the final analysis, my father's life was a tragedy of what I have come to call "human nature": the anthropoid part of the fortuitously given environment ("empirical nature") which has not been transformed into thoroughgoing caring for persons (what is honorifically "human"). Perhaps America could not have done better at the time (could the most powerful nation in history -- which had just conquered both The Atom and global Fascism, which was the home of freedom, from Thomas Paine to John Dewey, etc. -- really have been that "dense"? So it seems, from the advertisements etc. -- the media-generated symbol space [Example at right[ See image from 1940's middle-class America! ]] -- which defined my father and mother's positive aspirations in life...). In any case, we cannot raise the dead. But, we definitely know now [ipse dixit!] what may or may not have been known then, and, therefore, we should be able see the problem, even if we (those of us who are not in positions of power...) lack the means do what needs to be done.

What justification can there be for what calls itself a: "society" (from: "socius", meaning: companion...), which is not effectively committed to the good of all its citizens? And how can "technology" (etc.) be progress if it does not lead, for everyone and always, to the ever higher flowering of intelligence and greater satisfaction in life? Just as my father's intelligence was wasted on the covering properties of housepaint, so too, today, are other intelligences wasted on difficult but ultimately inconsequential computer bugs. And, just as my father found himself running up a down escalator in the merger devolution of H.B. Davis Paint Co., so too, today, we find the Internet ("Maslow's hierarchy", in reverse and perverse...) producing overwork and job insecurity ("offshoring", etc.), instead of (to quote the title of Josef Pieper's masterful essay:) "Leisure [which is] the basis of culture".

Ultimately, we cannot control what nature does to persons (beyond committing ourselves to the advancement of knowledge and industry, and to programs of social welfare to cope with the consequences of the harms knowledge and industry cannot prevent). But the social world is different: it is nothing other than the sum of our human relations, and, therefore, it is ultimately controlled by human volition (or lack of same, in such forms as: "laissez-faire" -- what I call: free-fall capitalism). Let "the human world" (i.e., our "society", esp.: those persons who shape its policies) prove itself (themselves) worthy of the efforts of its citizens (would-be: "companions" -- peer, fellow breakers-of-bread...), who, like my father, work so hard to prove their worth to it!

My father had a small amount of power over a few persons: his salesmen.[fn.124a[ Go to footnote! ]] In his relations with them (and with his customers), I saw that he generally acted in a way to which all persons in positons of power ought to commit themselves: He exercised power as stewardship, with the aim of raising the objects of power, to the greatest extent possible, from their tutelage, and enabling them to become [his] peers, in relations of cooperative productivity. (I contrast this, for example, with the story my father told me of the Seidlitz salesman who was promoted to Sales Manager because he was earning more in base pay plus commissions than his boss's total compensation: by "promoting" the man, the company was able -- by raising his base pay but taking away his commissions -- to reduce the man's total compensation to be less than his boss.)

Death of a Paint Sales Manager > War and Peace > Profits and Persons > The Sorrow and the Pity > The "Net"
Learn  important engineering contribution my maternal uncle, Isadore Znamirowski, made to WWII: How the Star acquired Bars and saved lives.
See  photograph of Robert McCormick and other members of the B-29 crew he was part of (1945).
Return to page describing my childhood.
Find out what my name ("Bradford") means.
Why/how  do I (BMcC) differ from performance artist Laurie Anderson?
[ Learn how the Star acquired Bars and saved lives! ]

Learn more about Americans' 1940's hopes and dreams....
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19 December 2011CE (2011-12-19 ISO 8601)
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