Eli’s Award.

 

Sanford Ink Company was housed in a single building in theChicagosuburb ofBellwood,Illinoiswhen I joinedSanfordin 1965. They had been forced to relocate there from their inner city location when their building had to be demolished to make room for a new freeway.   Charlie kept a picture in his office of the original building that had to be sacrificed in the name of progress. More than once he pointed to the picture that hung on his wall and told me about the old days. For a man who was a genius at looking into the future for business opportunities, Charlie also had a sentimental side to him that allowed him to look back from time to time.

 

The move happened long before I joined the company, but there were still a number of employees working forSanfordwhen I started who had worked in the old building. Charlie Lofgren, Francis Gilbert and Walt DeGroft were veterans of those early days, of course, but there were a number of blue collar workers who made the transition also. Some of them were blacks who continued to live in the city and commuted to white, suburbanBellwoodto continue their employment. One was a janitor named Eli Wooten.

 

Eli was an easy-going, laid back person. He simply showed up for work, did his job with a slow, easy pace, and never seemed to get excited about anything. Through no fault of his own, however, he was at the heart of one of the more significant controversies that took place atSanford. It happened shortly before I came to work there.

 

Charlie Lofgren lived inOak Park,Illinois. At the time of this eventOak Parkwas an all white suburb and the home of some of theChicagoarea’s most wealthy families. The noted architect Frank Lloyd Wright built or designed a number of the homes in that community. If you lived inOak Park, you lived in high society. This was at a time in our history when white neighborhoods inChicagoand other cities feared an influx of blacks into their communities because when blacks started moving in, whites started moving out, and the result to the homeowners was a sudden and significant loss of property value. The process was known as white flight.Oak Parkwas determined not to let this happen to their community.

 

There was a hotel in downtownOak Parknamed the Oak Park Arms. The Arms, like the community, was totally segregated. They did not rent rooms to blacks, nor did they serve them in any other way. It was here that Charlie Lofgren decided to have his employee awards banquet for the year that I am here recalling. Employees who had been with the company for 5, 10, 15, 20 and so forth years were given awards, and the employees with their families were invited to a banquet held to honor them

 

Somehow it came to the attention of the manager of the Arms that the list of attendees scheduled to receive an award included Eli Wooten, a black man. So the manager of the Oak Park Arms contacted Charlie and informed him that it was required that Eli Wooten’s name be removed from the guest list. If not, the entire event must be moved elsewhere. Knowing Charlie as well as I did, I can just imagine the result of such a confrontation. Eli had served Charlie’s company faithfully and, in his own way, professionally for a number of years. It would have been totally unlike Charlie to give Eli less that his share of respect and support. Nor would Charlie allow himself to be bullied into something he didn’t want to do. It was the irresistible force and the immovable object. It was the cowboy that couldn’t be throwed and the horse that couldn’t be rode. Something was going to happen that hadn’t happened before.

 

The way the story was preserved and repeated to me upon my arrival in the company, Charlie and the Arms manager went nose to nose. It was one of those battles to see which one would blink first. And Charlie never did do the blinking. On awards night Eli enjoyed a banquet at the Oak Park Arms. And when his name was called he marched proudly to the front and received Charlie’s handshake, personal congratulation, and a token award. I can only imagine the cheers and applause Eli received from theSanfordfamily.

 

This all took place long before Dr. King marched in near byCicero. Dr. King’s dream speech was itself only a dream when the Arms received their first black guest. Many years later the Arms was converted to a senior’s retirement facility, and no doubt a number of African Americans have resided there.Oak Parkitself finally decided to embrace integration as the way of the future, and initiated an aggressive plan that would eliminate discrimination while preserving the community’s home values and its quality of live. It has achieved status as a model of how good management can overcome the problems of racial desegregation.  

 

Charlie was ahead of his time on the handling of racial issues. For all of the years I knew him and worked in his company, I always knew him to give respect to and receive respect from the black workers. And he had my respect in this matter too.

 

Perhaps Charles Wesley Lofgren was a pretty good Methodist after all.