As Chairman, President, and CEO of one of the world’s leading financial management and advisory firms, Stan O’Neal is one of Wall Street’s most influential executives, and the first African-American to hold a top position on the Street. He is known not simply for turning around the trillion-dollar Merrill Lynch, but also for his extraordinary leadership and integrity --qualities in great demand and short supply these days.
O’Neal's route to the top has been a steady but steep climb, from picking corn and cotton in the fields of Alabama, to working as foreman on the graveyard shift at a General Motors plant, to the top position at Merrill Lynch. He credits his success to his education, which has led him to advocate aggressively for better education for all young people.
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My Grandfather, James Isom
by Stan O'Neal
Some people are born with a spark. My grandfather, James Isom, not only had that spark, but also the ability to fan it into flames. If he had been born in a different time, I feel confident that my grandfather would have been widely known for his accomplishments. As it is, his memory is cherished by my family and the people in the community where he lived.
My grandfather was born a slave. When he was three years old, President Lincoln passed the Emancipation Proclamation, and in short time, my grandfather and his family were set free. But they had no education, no land, and no tools with which to make a living. My grandfather figured out a way to overcome these formidable obstacles. It was rare in those days for a black man to start his own business, but he did, and became the only black man in the area to own a cotton gin. Whites in the area refused to sell land to him because he was black, but he ultimately became a significant landowner in Wedowee, Alabama, amassing more than 360 acres. He worked his land himself. Each day, he would clear an acre with a mule and a plow, and each night he would plant the freshly plowed field. The next day, he would start all over again.
It's an amazing honor to have a man of this caliber and character as part of my heritage. I like to think that my grandfather left his genetic imprint on me, but it’s his legacy in the form of the many stories that were told about him that I try to pass on to my own children. No one knows if these stories are accurate or not, but they’re consistent with the person my family knew him to be. For instance, there is a story about my grandfather and the Klu Klux Klan. Someone told him that they would be coming to his home, so he stood vigil all night, alone with a gun, and when they showed up he ran them off. That's the kind of man he was.
My grandfather was self-educated, but he had the vision and foresight to donate part of the land for the founding of The Woodville School, which I would later attend. It was a one-room structure with a wood-burning stove, and it offered an education for kindergarten through sixth grade. There weren't a lot of students, and it lacked facilities and support systems that other, larger schools had, but it offered the first formal education that anyone in the community had experienced. Before it, the black kids in this rural, segregated area had no school at all.
I've gotten to go a lot of places in my life. The other people in my family didn’t have the same opportunities that I had, and I know that if I had been born thirty years earlier, I wouldn’t have had them either. Many of the people I grew up with never left the small rural community in which I spent my childhood. My father moved our family to Atlanta when I was about thirteen, and it was incredibly fortunate that we were able to leave. As important as my grandfather's school was to the community, it would not have given me the opportunities that the schools in Atlanta gave me.
Some of what I have achieved is the result of luck and circumstance. But some of it comes from the hard work and determination that I saw were part of my grandfather’s daily life. He had to be smart, and he had to work very hard. From him, I learned that it is possible to beat the odds. He knew that he faced certain disadvantages, but he accepted them, not as a limitation, but as something to overcome. He taught me that you have to be willing to take responsibility for your situation and not make excuses for yourself. With those principles in place, he made truly amazing things happen by sheer force of will.
Grandfather used to tell me that I could grow up to be somebody great. Whether he truly believed it or was just saying it to instill a sense of confidence in me, I'll never know, but I took him at his word, and his encouragement made an indelible impression on me. In large part, I attribute who I have become to him. I credit him with instilling in me a strong work ethic, a sense of integrity, and a sense of responsibility to always do my best.
Page created on 6/4/2008 12:00:00 AM
Last edited 8/28/2018 2:14:51 AM
The beliefs, viewpoints and opinions expressed in this hero submission on the website are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the beliefs, viewpoints and opinions of The MY HERO Project and its staff.
Copyright 2005 by The MY HERO Project
MY HERO thanks Stan O'Neal for contributing this essay to My Hero: Extraordinary People on the Heroes Who Inspire Them.
Thanks to Free Press for reprint rights of the above material.