As he shares with me the details of his extraordinary life, I can’t help but lean toward Steve Bullock ’81 MBA. I’m drawn to his eyes: The creases around them tighten slightly as I ask about the injustices those eyes have witnessed, but they soon soften as a smile accompanies the thought of what blessings they have seen.
To appreciate fully the incredible arc of his 82 years and success, it’s necessary to understand their origins in the intimate tie to one of our nation’s greatest sins: Bullock’s father was born in 1865 in North Carolina, almost assuredly into a state of legal slavery. (His exact birthday isn’t known, but slavery was not abolished in North Carolina until November 1865.) Seventy-one years later in 1936, Bullock himself was born into the relative slavery of sharecropping in the Jim Crow South. To understand his life is to reinforce the short timeline of American history dating back to slavery. Bullock ties together – with the common thread of his lived experiences – the racial injustices of our past to our present.
Bullock lives out his mother’s mantra to always leave things better than you find them. Spanning a career of affecting change, he rose to become interim president of the American Red Cross in 1999. To this day, he remains a celebrated champion of social justice and continues work as a consultant for organizational leaders throughout the country.
“Here is a man born in 1936, the last of 22 children of a man born on a sharecropper's farm, who went on to such great accomplishments,” said David Therkelsen ’85 MBA, who had a 28-year career with the Red Cross after Bullock hired him in 1978. “It’s an amazing story that such a person would be living today. It’s triply amazing that person, from that background, would have risen to become president of the world’s premier humanitarian organization. The drive, the self-confidence that must have taken. That has inspired me all the 40 years now that I’ve known Steve.”
Bullock was born in Enfield, North Carolina, the same as his father, about 100 miles from the Atlantic coast. It was peanut and cotton country, and Bullock’s family was one of many African American families trapped on the treadmill of sharecropping, a system in which white farmers used tactics to ensure a continuous cycle of profitless work.
Soon after Bullock was born, his father became disabled in a farming accident, putting pressure on his wife and their children to provide for themselves. Like his siblings, Bullock began work on “the farm” (a rotating
series of them, actually, that shared the commonality of no electricity nor running water) at age 8. Beyond farming and working in local towns, his mother often worked as a nurse, cook and maid for wealthy families in New York and Connecticut, sending money home and returning as often as she could.
“It was a tough life,” Bullock said. “We had all the other [difficulties] of that day, much of it around being poor and [experiencing] racism. Maybe ra
cism comes first; you faced that every day. Not just, ‘I don’t like you;’ it could be brutal. You had to pay attention to where you were and what you were doing.”
With many children over many years, Bullock’s siblings essentially grew up in generations; most of his childhood was spent with just two older brothers around. His siblings all followed the same pattern of asking permission to head north, where there was opportunity to shape a different kind of life. Many of them were well prepared to go after that goal, as both Bullock’s parents prioritized education and stoked their children’s ambitions in a time when, as Bullock wrote in his autobiography, “White farm owners viewed the children of large black families as a free labor force.”
With many children being forced to quit school at a young age, Bullock’s mother had to fight continuous battles with farmers to allow her children to “miss work” to stay in school.
Bullock relished the opportunity to learn, both at school and by reading the newspapers and magazines his mother would bring home. Having spent years reading stories about them in Life magazine, Bullock became fascinated with the Vanderbilt family.
“I’d read about them, how they lived and how well they were doing, and thought it was just amazing,” Bullock said. “I thought, ‘How can they be there, and I live in a house where my brother and three others are sleeping in one bed, and on rainy nights water comes in, and when the sky is clear we can see inside by the light of the moon?’ These people were living a whole different life in a whole different world. My mother would say, ‘We’re all God’s children.’ If we’re all God’s children, why were they in that place and we in this place?”
No one seemed to have a suitable answer to that question, so as Bullock continued to grow into his own identity and pursue his dreams, he provided his own.
“I came to see that I’m a Bullock, not a Vanderbilt.” He thought, “Somewhere between where I am now and where they are, God must have something for me and my family. It will be up to me to use anything he gives me to see how much I can improve where we are. I wasn’t trying to be a Vanderbilt, but to improve the Bullocks and others who were in similar circumstances.”
Bullock has spent the rest of his life working toward that goal.
Leaving the farm
When Bullock arrived at Virginia Union University in Richmond, Virginia, for fall semester in 1955, he “was probably the most naive person on campus,” he said. While he was the last born, he was the first in his family to attend college. He promptly ran out of money after his first semester, believing he had paid for his entire college career with his initial deposit. The mishap had the serendipitous result of a conversation with the dean, which kick-started an undergraduate career filled with mentorship and support.
“It took me understanding that I was at the beginning of a long process,” Bullock said. “I felt when I was working on the farm I wanted to be a lawyer, so I could go to court against people who abused me. [Many people at Virginia Union] helped me look at life and make a realistic plan about what I wanted to achieve and what it took to get there – how to develop myself, prepare myself and work hard.”
Bullock did all three, working multiple jobs before graduating with a history degree in June 1959. During those years, he met his future wife, Doris, and developed ambitions to travel the world and affect change on a larger scale, beyond a courtroom.
Four months after graduating, Bullock’s desire for travel was delayed by Uncle Sam: He was drafted in November and served until February 1961. He spent most of that time in Niagara, New York, serving on missile sites along the Canadian border.
“We had those there to stop the Russians from coming into the United States through Canada,” Bullock said with a smile, “and they didn’t, so I like to think I had a successful military career.”
In June 1961, Bullock and Doris were married, and soon afterward the Red Cross solidified itself in Bullock’s mind as the place to start his career.
Rising through challenges
Bullock’s early years in the Red Cross were a mix of excitement (he worked in Europe for three years and Vietnam for 11 months) and frustration. He was told by his superiors that, as an African American professional, communities wouldn’t accept him as a chapter leader, someone in charge of setting policy. Bullock refused to accept that and, as he garnered promotions in his young career, began seeking partnerships with people who didn’t see race as a deterrent for his continued leadership growth.
“At one point, I was on the management staff and in a meeting, and we were talking about health and safety programs,” Bullock recalled. “This guy said, ‘Maybe it would help if we wrote some of our programs in black English so they could understand it.’ My whole body felt like it would explode. Before I could speak, a white guy from Tennessee said, ‘It’s not black English; it’s Southern English. We’re all English. We’re not going to stoop to that.’ He made a speech to his white colleagues; I was the only black person in the room. I was emboldened by that. I needed to figure out where people like this guy were and partner with them.”
His career continued unfolding, and, in 1976, he was named executive director of the St. Paul Area Chapter and manager of the Minnesota-Wisconsin Division, making him the first African American to rise to such a position. He was at a place where he could seriously affect change, but he felt he needed more preparation to progress to the next level.
So, Bullock enrolled in the St. Thomas MBA program in 1978, with three children at home and a demanding schedule that included frequent travel.
“Everybody I encountered helped me proceed through the program and did the same thing: They helped me to create my own plan, to get into a stream I could manage and then succeed,” Bullock said. “I was covered, ‘like mama covered Moses.’”
Bullock’s studies at St. Thomas resonated with the work he was trying to do in the world every day.
“St. Thomas supported who I am and who I wanted to be in terms of building my own character and improving the human condition. It brought a lot more humanity to business than other programs,” he said. “The work that the Red Cross and I were [doing was] on the same page in terms of our purpose, and I think the same thing is true with St. Thomas.”
Therkelsen was one of several of Bullock’s Red Cross employees in Minnesota inspired to pursue their MBA at St. Thomas after his example. “To this day, I value earning a graduate degree that has inculcation in values,” Therkelsen said. “That was the big difference of an MBA at St. Thomas as opposed to other places: You were forced to confront important issues in society, and I was certainly inclined to do that, but you were forced to do that.”
Armed with the graduate degree he earned in 1981, Bullock was named chief executive officer of the Greater Cleveland Chapter in 1982. Over the next 17 years there he helped expand the Red Cross’ services in that area from solely CPR training and disaster relief, to a range of services and public aid, all the while fulfilling his promise to improve people’s lives.
“The Red Cross had a similar purpose, but it didn’t point itself in my early years to the total community,” Bullock said. “I spent a lot of time trying to get the Red Cross to improve the condition of the total community. We made some progress with that.”
People noticed: In January 1999, Bullock was named interim president of the American Red Cross, taking over as Elizabeth Dole ran for the Republican nomination in the U.S. presidential election. It was, as Bullock described, “a weighty and exhilarating moment” as he took over leadership of an organization with 31,000 employees, 1.3 million volunteers and a $2.1 billion budget. Despite not knowing whether he would be president for a month, a year, or indefinitely, Bullock did everything he could to help the Red Cross and those it serves.
“He wasn’t going to be a caretaker,” said Therkelsen, who joined Bullock as his co-chief of staff in Washington. “He was going to use every ounce of his smarts and ingenuity to move the organization forward. … He said, ‘I’m going to pursue four initiatives aggressively, have a first 100 days plan and execute against that.’ That says so much to me that it’s not within his DNA to coast.”
As it turned out, Bullock would serve as president until August, when Bernadine Healy was named the permanent successor. Over the course of his presidency, Bullock helped lead many efforts, including relief to survivors of Hurricane Mitch in Honduras and Bosnian refugees in Macedonia.
“Steve served as interim president like no other,” said Harold Brooks, senior vice president of the Red Cross. “His tireless effort invigorated the organization at a time when the Red Cross needed it.”
The Bullock Group is formed
Bullock’s presidency was his final service with the Red Cross. After an extended period of strategizing for the best way to continue helping others, Bullock developed The Bullock Group in 2000 to provide executive coaching and leadership consulting services to nonprofits and public institutions. Bullock continues that work today, even as he and Doris relocated from their longtime home in Cleveland to Annapolis, Maryland, closer to many members of the extended Bullock family, which now includes six grandchildren.
At 82, Bullock said he refuses to feel old. He isn’t done looking at the world around him, and what his eyes take in now is different than what they saw before. He has, undoubtedly, heeded his mother’s words and left things better than he found them, both for himself and for everyone whose lives he has touched.
“I do feel a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction in knowing [America is] in a way better place now than we were 70 years ago,” Bullock said.
Forget the Vanderbilts. That’s the legacy of Steve Bullock.