Posted on September 16, 2018


Years ago, I had an opportunity to work in NYC or Washington, D.C. for the new administration of the old movie actor, Ronald Reagan, elected president, Nov. 1979. I think I voted for him since I thought his predecessor and Democratic candidate, Jimmy Carter, had failed rather signally as president, although I admired him as a man and a Christian man to boot.

I was living in New York City 1979-1980 writing a book about a company, W. R. Grace & Co. and how it showed the vitality, strength and inventiveness of a corporation founded by an immigrant to the U. S., William Russell Grace (1831-1904). Grace emigrated from Ireland to Peru in 1854 and created the bases for a company based on trade that over time evolved into a multinational with interests and investments across Latin America. He moved his headquarters from Peru to New York City in the 1860s. A gregarious and political person, he was also elected twice mayor of the city, the first foreign-born mayor of New York City.

In 1923, a chemist from Demopolis, Gaston Lipscomb, working for W. R. Grace & Co. hired a young chemistry major who had just finished his degree at the University of South Carolina. They needed a chemist in the nitrate fields of Chile where Grace was mining nitrates and so William Harold Clayton, my father, set off for Chile on the grand adventure of his life, heretofore limited to living in South Carolina with one short vacation trip out of state to Savannah, barely out of the state. I’m not sure my father knew where Chile was. He told me later he just wanted to get away from South Carolina and was thinking about Alaska when his old chemistry professor at South Carolina, Guy Fleming Lipscomb, the brother of Gaston Lipscomb, recommended him to his brother.

My curiosity about my father’s lifelong association with W. R. Grace & Co., with Latin America in general where I grew up, my mother’s Chilean background, and the immense changes wrought in our world by the processes of modernization in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries brought me eventually to the headquarters of the company in 1979, the Grace Building, on 42nd St., across the street from the grounds of the New York Public Library.

I was engaged writing a history of the company eventually published as Grace, W. R. Grace & Co., The Early Years, 1850-1930 (1985) and I developed a nice relationship with the corporate communications executives, principally Richard Moore and Antonio Navarro. They both had known my father and treated me as part of the “Grace family” of longtime and loyal employees and execs. We eventually became good friends built on trust and good will, and, while a professional historian with my own set of principles and rules, I came to understand and admire much of what modern corporate communications was all about.

I even got decked out occasionally in one of Dick Moore’s old tuxedos he loaned me to attend a few gala celebrations or speeches in swank midtown hotels like the Plaza where Grace and other corporations supported big time activities featuring speakers like Presidential cabinet members and the like. It was a pleasant break from my rather humdrum existence in a small apartment in north Greenwich Village not far from Union Square for those familiar with the city. I’d put on my black-tie threads, hop the subway at Union Square, and head uptown for the life of doormen, tuxedoes, and rub shoulders with men and women of power and influence. Then, when done, back to the train, back to Union Square, and back into the Village street and my little digs where I was at work on my novel.

Later that year, after I was back home in Alabama in June 1980, Dick Moore asked a question.

“President Reagan is going to appoint Peter (J. Peter Grace, CEO, and William R. Grace’s grandson) to head a major federal commission to root out waste and inefficiency in the federal government.”

“So, that’s good I guess,” I answered Dick kind of tentatively.

“Want to join us?’

I was dumfounded. My crossroads popped up when least expected.

“You think about it Larry, you won’t get any poorer,” he joked as we went our separate ways.

And that’s what I finally decided to do. I was flattered to be asked to join the company in a presidential commission. The Grace Commission was eventually appointed in 1982 and made sweeping recommendations in 1984 to Congress to reduce government expenditures dramatically get rid of the alligators in Trump-speak. Congress ignored the Commission’s recomendations, and the alligators continued to graze, or whatever alligators do in swamps

The offer was, I suppose in some ways, my big break. Big bucks, big responsibilities, the big city, jetting with the heavies like Peter Grace to Grace’s multitudinous global enterprises while through the Grace Commission we would help President Reagan bring fiscal responsibility to big government.

But I knew myself. I would try to be as good or better than my peers, all high-flying achievers in corporate and public life. I would probably burn out soon.

I stayed in Tuscaloosa, an associate professor of history at the University of Alabama.

The University had been good to me, as it would continue to be for the rest of my forty+ years on the faculty. I was free to teach what I wanted, to research and write what I wanted, and I had enough resources to travel and research, to live in a nice home in T-town, and had what I probably cherished as much as anything in my life, my liberty to choose and decide what to think and do.

I really think my decision was guided by Providence rather than the normal course of secular events. My thoughts on the matter came from several sources, including experience, but the wisdom to make the right decision came from God, who continued to watch over me and made the decision for me remarkably easy, even with all the glitter and glamour on the other side.

Published as “We all come to a Crossroads at some point,” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday, June 24, 2018.