Friday, February 19, 2016

The Common Ground of Peyton T. Hairston Jr. (1955-2016)

In November of 1994, I was assigned to profile a new senior vice president of labor relations. The idea was to show some twenty unions that this guy knew his stuff: he had worked for the National Labor Relations Board, a big firm in Indianapolis, and two major international companies with employees all over the world, from longshoremen and meatpackers to plantation workers in South and Central America. “So many unions. So many issues. So many needs,” as he put it. 
    Soon after meeting this new SVP, I realized that we were only a year apart in age. He mentioned his undergraduate alma mater, NC State. I asked, “Did you know David Thompson?” He answered yes, Thompson, the great college hoops player, had been a fraternity brother. In a brief discussion about Thompson and his tragic drug problems, I got the feeling that we shared a certain generational outlook on many things. Over the next fifteen years or so, as I helped him with many speeches to many groups, that feeling was borne out in what I consider a very productive, pleasant way.
     As part of its goal to demonstrate that this person was tough enough to tangle with hard-nosed negotiations, the profile from that first day led with some violent realities of a strike:

Peyton T. Hairston Jr. was just a few months out of Wake Forest Law School—working as a Field Attorney for the National Labor Relations Board in Cincinnati—when he found himself examining bullet holes, shattered windows and mangled machinery amid a coal miners’ strike in West Virginia.
   Hairston’s job was to investigate management charges of unfair labor practices—namely, that strikers had been shooting at security guards, threatening other workers, and sabotaging mining equipment.
     “This kid had never seen anything like that,” says Hairston. “Coming from Winston-Salem, where we didn’t have any unions, I’d never seen the kind of passion that’s involved in a strike. And I learned a great deal from the experience.
     “I learned there are always two sides to every story. And I learned that the process of negotiation depends on being able to find common ground between two parties. If there’s no ground, you can’t get anywhere.

     Peyton always empathized with workers in what they are up against and understood the emotions and violence that are sparked when livelihoods are threatened. He was of a new breed when it came to sitting down and listening to work out contracts.
    As a speechwriter, I often typed words to union groups like, “We can’t promise job security forever. But together we can work on the items that are important to you.”
    Peyton spoke often to bar associations and other lawyer groups about the importance of diversity as a marketing tool. Firm can’t afford to cut themselves off from growing markets, and so it behooves them to foster young lawyers of new genders and hues, providing them not only a shot, but also mentoring and guidance. He spent time as head of diversity, and always used practical, business language in making the case for diversity being beneficial to the bottom line.
     Peyton was a good writer himself. Like many executives who are good writers, he saw the value in the extra perspective a speechwriter can provide. In conversation he often emitted an infectious chuckle that lilted softly toward higher registers. He was always kind, collegial, and appreciative. I think I had a special advantage from the get-go in understanding how he might want to approach a speech.
    In doing that first profile, I learned that he had come from a large, extended family in Winston-Salem. His father, Peyton Sr., had been an elementary school principal. His mother, Jannie, taught math. In working with people, he emulated his grandfather, Braxton Hairston. “He never met a stranger,” Peyton told me. “He was a part-time Baptist preacher and a lifetime employee at an R.J. Reynolds cigarette factory. He always taught me the value of work—that no matter what people do, you should respect what they’re doing, because everybody who works is adding to society.”
     Peyton was an intellectual and a sensitive person. His flexibility of mind enabled him to take on many different administrative roles over the years. As his obituaries have noted, he also played an active role in our Knoxville community. He was often asked to deliver speeches at Martin Luther King Day celebrations. I was proud to assist in preparing for these, and doubly proud when I heard that Peyton had received a standing ovation.
     Like so many colleagues, I join with Peyton’s family in feeling the loss of a truly great guy. And I again invoke that generational bond in saying that sixty is way too young. As he said, we can’t guarantee certain things when we negotiate. But I can’t help but wish that he’d gotten a chance to find a little common ground and craft just one more of those win-win contracts. I already miss that mirthful chuckle.