Remembering a Powerful Mentor Pearlie S. Reed

I read Don Richardson’s post on Facebook: Pearlie S. Reed died. Funeral arrangements were made. As I numbly read about the hotel with a room block in West Memphis a wave of sadness mixed with gratitude overwhelmed me.

Pearlie official
Pearlie S. Reed’s official USDA photo

I was a 28 year extremely green Executive Director of the California Association of Resource Conservation Districts and Pearlie was the State Conservationist for the USDA Soil Conservation Service. He had to be Senior Executive Service to get the job in the nation’s biggest agricultural state. I just had to be willing to accept the woefully small salary.

He was infinitely patient and immediately began coaching me in every way I was willing to learn. I already had many terrific role models as teachers and employers. Pearlie towered over all of them in many ways. Without a doubt, he has had the biggest impact on me as a leader.

He taught me empathy before Brene Brown coined the phrase. I remember when I first started as Executive Director I was attending all of the Area Meetings and meeting all of the Directors. The current President and Vice President of the Board were also participating in these meetings. At one particular meeting I was seated at the head table with the President and with Pearlie but the Vice President Helen was not. Helen was a hard working officer who had a particularly fragile pride in her position. She was clearly hurt by the oversight. I felt awkward but I did not know how to handle it. Afterward I mentioned to Pearlie that Helen’s nose was bent out of shape and she was angry with me. He gently suggested I look at it from her point of view and then helped me think of several other ways I could have handled it. He did not make the case that it was her due, he just matter of factly calculated that a little effort would avoid a tempest that was a waste of everyone’s energy.

Watching Pearlie in action was a Master’s Degree in leadership. He had the superpower of listening. He could not speak even when the silence was very uncomfortable. I realized that he did this because unlike me he rarely spoke unless his thoughts were fully formed. Silence also worked to his advantage. Others in the meeting, in their nervousness, would often babble and share all kinds of information, which was especially useful in negotiations.

Pearlie talking
This is more how I remember Pearlie–sharing an idea with a little smile.

Some people found Pearlie intimidating. He was the hardest working, most ethical, wisest person in the room. I believe that his integrity often triggered the gremlins in others–like being around a priest and suddenly you start to think of all the times you cut corners or left early. And of course, there were still plenty of people who resented his talent because he was a black man.

He was the first person I had known from the South. Pearlie grew up in rural Arkansas before school desegregation. He was one of 18 children and his parents instilled a work ethic in him. He told me once that he could either work or study when he got home from school, so he studied as much as possible. He and his siblings more than succeeded in their fields because they had a drive for a better life and the discipline to make it so.

Pearlie was not a person who shared a lot about his personal life. He did not ask about your personal life either. This made the good ol’ boys in the USDA who liked to chew up half of every meeting with small talk about sports and family crazy. I loved it because I had  a lot of shame around my dysfunctional family. It was lovely to just concentrate on work issues. I learned over time to temper this somewhat as a manager. Because Pearlie shared so little about his personal life, everything he shared I scooped up and treasured like it was a pearl of wisdom.

Working alongside Pearlie I observed prejudice in action. This was also an important education. I experienced some additional obstacles as a woman, but nothing like the vitriol I saw aimed at Pearlie. He may have been angry in private, but I believe he was usually able to turn it to his advantage and put his energies toward his vision of a more inclusive USDA. He achieved his vision of transforming the Soil Conservation Service into the Natural Resources Conservation Service when he was Chief and he tackled the systemic discrimination in farm policy while serving as Assistant Secretary of the USDA.

I could go on because the memories are rolling back to me. Adversity makes people stronger. As a parent I am torn between wanting my children to gain strength through overcoming challenges AND protecting them from any unnecessary pain. Pearlie’s example reminds me that leadership is 20% perspiration and 80% the attitudes we choose. Circumstances do not necessarily make as big a difference as we think. Strength of character matters more.

Pearlie S. Reed was an extraordinary human being and leader. Some people make ripples; Pearlie made waves.

Rest in peace Pearlie.

The family has asked that donations be made to the Pearlie S. Reed Scholarship fund in lieu of flowers. If you are interested: send donations to University of Arkansas, Pine Bluff Alumni Scholarship Endowment Fund, Office of Alumni Affairs, 1200 N. University Drive, Mail Slot 4929, Pine Bluff, AR 71601.

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