Gary Michelson, a retired businessman and 1966 graduate of Lincoln University, where he was captain of the baseball team and wrestled.
Michelson, 65, donated $100,000 to his alma mater earlier this fall to start the Gary Michelson Executive Lecture Series. Valerie Morris, a former anchor for CNN and a financial consultant, and her husband, Robert, an entrepreneur, were the first speakers in the series when they visited Lincoln in October.
An 18-year veteran of IBM, Michelson eventually started Liberty Wire & Cable, which manufactured and distributed cable and accessory products for the audiovisual industry. The company was bringing in $40 million in annual sales when Michelson sold it in 2004. The former Kennett Square resident is now investing in the wine business, and just closed on a tract of land in Walla Walla, Wash., (which Michelson says "is like Napa Valley in 1976") with two other investors.
Michelson, who splits his time between Scottsdale, Ariz., and Jackson Hole, Wyo., will return to Lincoln on Jan. 11 to discuss an entrepreneurial mentoring program that he would like to start at the university.
What spurred you to fund the lecture series? What are your hopes for it?
What we're trying to do is bring in significant business people who would give a real-world assessment of what it's like when you graduate, what to do. We want to give these kids an idea of what business is like. What Robert [Morris] says is that you don't have to be an entrepreneur, you can be an "inter-preneur," in a large corporation you can be an entrepreneur within the corporation.
There's no job in a corporation you're not capable of, or you should be afraid of doing.
Is there any person in particular you really want to make an appearance at Lincoln?
There's a lot of people, from all genres. [Jon] Bon Jovi, for example, what he's doing with his wealth. We want you to be successful when you get out of college, and then we expect you to give back to your community and your college. Now he came from the music industry, but he was told he would never be successful. Whenever a kid gets into music, or business, or sports, and is told he can't succeed but does; I think that's extremely important to tell the kids.
So a white boy from Kennett decided to attend a black college in the middle of the 1960s. What went into that decision?
At that time, integrating was important and they were really pushing for local kids to attend the college. I wasn't a great student in high school, and I wasn't a great student at Lincoln. The administration, because I assimilated well, they worked with me one-on-one, the professors, to help me learn how to study. I had opportunities to leave Lincoln through wrestling, and what it came down to was loyalty. I think loyalty is extremely important, and I took that into the business world.
Did you ever feel alienated at Lincoln because of your race?
Sure, absolutely. Then I was voted as vice president of the class, and the president of the class my freshman year was from Nigeria, and he was nonviolent. There was a tradition at Lincoln called Wood Night. All week long freshman would collect wood, and one night you all lock together in a chain and you snake through campus. The upperclassmen try to break the line. It got pretty rough, and the Nigerian considered it violent, so he didn't get involved, and I had to lead the line. I had fun, knocking heads with the upperclassmen. I had a lot of mushroom-growers from Kennett truck wood up there for the bonfire. Here's the first white guy to have ever led the line, and it was the biggest fire they ever had.