Sunday, June 21, 2020

Highway to Heaven

Cal Darden was my first sale.

For those of you who know me, I was one of the first to sell "car phones" in the USA, when the NYNEX system went live in the 80's. Back in the day, making phone calls from the car was expensive. The phones themselves were expensive, but so was the cellular phone service. There was a monthly service fee, and calls were around $0.50 per minute. Ah, plus taxes and fees.

I think I had my first cellular phone in my car for around five hours, and I was looking for "excuses" to make phone calls from the car. Who could I call? I did make a few calls, to home, to friends. I was just itching to make some "real" phone calls from the car.  And there it was.....

I saw a sweet lady broken down on the side of the road. Busy highway (Rt. 80, Northwest New Jersey) there she was with her hood up and no one was stopping. I pulled up behind her car on the shoulder with my hot little sports car, top down.

Hello, looks like you can use some help.  "Can you take me to a telephone? I need to call my son. I've been here for so long, and no one will stop to help me."

Sure, hop in. OK, who would you like to call?

Oh my goodness! Is that a phone? You have a phone in your car? Oh, my, oh my...

She called her son, Cal, who lived in Budd Lake, New Jersey, just a little further west.

The first few minutes of the call (at around $0.50 per minute mind you) was Momma Darden trying to explain that she was in MY CAR, calling from MY CAR, parked behind HER CAR broken down on the highway. She said that no one was stopping to help her, but now "her Highway Angel" (Ala the TV show Highway to Heaven) showed up. My name was now officially Michael Landon. "Michael Landon saved me! I'm in Michael Landon's sports car" she said with a wink and a smile.

I stayed with Mrs. Darden until her son showed up in a pickup truck. Boy she was a chatterbox. Cal was doing yard work just minutes before, and he looked like it. The folks from AAA were on the way to tow her car, and he would now drive his Mom back to his home which was just a few miles away.

I did not even have business cards yet. But Cal had a business card. He said "Call me on Monday." Cal worked for UPS.

In 1971, Cal Darden was earning $3 an hour as a part-time package handler for UPS in Buffalo. He became SVP of the company's U.S. operation, and according to Fortune magazine, one of the most powerful Black Executives in the nation. At the time, Cal Darden ranked 8th on Fortune's list of 50 most powerful Black Executives, above former White House adviser Vernon Jordan (No. 9) and TV talk show host and businesswoman Oprah Winfrey (No. 10).

Cal Darden ran UPS entire U.S. operation, which included 320,000 employees and almost all of the company's more than $30 billion in annual revenue. He would drive from Budd Lake, New Jersey to Secaucus, New Jersey every day.

Cal needed a car phone. Ah, MANY people at UPS needed car phones. THE DRIVERS needed phones. 

I became friends with Cal. Over the years, he told me how he had worked hard since he was 15. He clerked at a neighborhood drugstore, washed cars and drove a taxi. Working was necessary in his family of seven children. His father earned about $100 per week as a core maker for American Standard (NYSE: ASD) and his mother stayed at home with the children.

Over the course of his career, Cal moved ten times. In 1995 he moved to HQ in Atlanta. He was always aware of his position as a role model for aspiring Black Executives and he volunteered his time to mentor them. He started a chapter of the Black Executive Exchange Program at UPS and he traveled around the nation to colleges and universities talking to students.

Because of Cal, my first sale in the cellular phone business was: UPS. I was profitable from day one, and never looked back. Over the years, we would joke about how I owed his mother millions.

"If it were not for an elderly Black woman you would never have won the UPS account!"

"OMG, you guys are Black? I never noticed!"

Lessons from my father:  you make your own luck in this world.

And, Dad taught me to be color blind.

Happy Father's Day everyone.

Calvin Darden


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