Growing up, my family felt unusual empathy with black people. Because my mother worked as a public health nurse's aide, we got to know her black professional nursing friends. I also grew watching incomprehensible brutality against well-behaved black people in the South on TV.
My parents had been direct victims of discrimination when they were younger. Even in my generation, attending schools dominated by members of other ethnic groups, I experienced more subtle forms of discrimination, including degrading ethnic jokes from some classmates.
I spent 30 years at Pitney Bowes, 11 as CEO, because Pitney Bowes welcomed all kinds of people. Walter Wheeler, its longest serving CEO, had been a National Urban League board member, because, like Pitney Bowes, the NUL invited everyone, black, white, young, old, male, female, Democrat or Republican, to aspire to the American dream. I accepted the NUL's invitation to join its Board in 1997, became its chairman for five years, and served for 13 years. Both organizations created and celebrated success stories for women and people of color.
In 2004, I discovered such a story. My younger son's white Swedish chess coach told me he had secured a golf scholarship to Tennessee State University, a historically black college. The coach was a black woman, Dr. Catana Starks. When she began coaching in 1988, she fielded a black golf team, but she was forced to recruit mostly or all white non-U.S. golfers after the mid-1990's.
Two insights came together to make me passionate, even obsessive, about making a film about her story:
- Golf had evolved from a relatively inexpensive sport open for elite competitive access to most young people of most income levels to an extremely expensive sport which required a great deal of wealth. Young black people did not have access to private country clubs, although I encountered some of them on the public course on which I played, but they found a way to excel at golf. Becoming a caddy was how young black people got access to golf instruction, equipment and facilities to achieve elite performance levels. Country clubs phased out caddies, because they saw more profit potential renting golf carts. Coach Starks recruited abroad, because middle-income young people were more likely to learn golf through caddying or government-subsidized golf academies.
- Although Title IX had opened up big opportunities for girl athletes, the financial and competitive pressures of coaching had shrunk the number of women coaches. Coach Starks, who had grown up in the Jim Crow era in Alabama, and whom I met in 2006, reminded me of my late mother: short and soft-spoken, but very tenacious, inspirational, caring, competitive and visionary woman. She coached golf successfully for 18 years, although the financial wear and tear of coaching and travel caused her to retire from coaching at age 60 in 2006. Her most famous golfer was Sean Foley, who has recently coached Tiger Woods, but she developed other golfers, like San Puryear, Michigan State University's golf coach, and Robert Dunwiddie, who is a European tour player.
I was determined to make a film about her life to prove that women like my mother and Coach Starks deserved to prove their ability to succeed in a man's world. Why a film? Entertainment is the most powerful medium for changing minds. After all, I was inspired to be a lawyer because I watched Perry Mason when growing up.
In November, 2009, I asked my son Mike, who had graduated from the University of Southern California in 2008, to write a screenplay about the Coach Starks story. In March, 2010, I contacted Pierre Bagley, an African-American filmmaker, whom I met when serving as the Chairman of the National Urban League Board of Trustees. We decided to form Gyre Entertainment, a firm with a mission to create film and other entertainment content of strong interest to contemporary urban audiences, with the Coach Starks film as our first project.
The film, called From the Rough, stars Taraji P. Henson, an Academy Award nominee for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, as Coach Starks. Tom Felton, from the Harry Potter series, Michael Clarke Duncan, an Academy Award for The Green Mile, are other members of an outstanding cast. We are targeting a Fall 2011, theatrical release.
Our Gyre team is attending the PGA of America merchandise show in Orlando, Florida. We share an interest in expanding access to golf for African Americans with the PGA and the merchandisers attending the show. However, I will also think about my mother, Coach Starks, and countless other heroic women.