Sherman Tate looks back on his life’s opportunities and, even when he reflects on the most difficult times, says without cynicism that he’s had it pretty good.
He served in a combat zone in Vietnam and endured racial hostility as a ground-breaking executive for one of Arkansas’ major utility companies, yet the experiences didn’t sour him and Tate has always maintained an appreciation for the breaks he’s gotten and the helping hands extended his way.
“I was in the right place at the right time,” Tate says.
Mentorship looms large in Tate’s career, which actually reads like four careers rolled into one. There is his long-time employment that took him to the upper levels of state government and to leadership positions in both higher education and some of the state’s most notable corporations.
There is his military career, which began with the aforementioned combat assignment as an enlisted draftee and ended with Tate’s retirement as a National Guard colonel.
There are the two consulting firms, The Domino Effect and HT & Associates, that Tate began within the past five years.
And finally, there is the mentoring program, a Little Rock chapter of 100 Black Men of America, that Tate became involved with 10 years ago to help provide African-American boys the kind of adult guidance that served Tate so well when he was growing up in Marvell.
"So many of the little black kids, especially boys, have never had a positive role model, a male role model, in their lives," says Tate, a past president of the greater Little Rock chapter of 100 Black Men, which strives to help through guidance and material assistance.
It may have all started with one of Tate’s first mentors, his mother Annie who made sure he was able to read, write and do multiplication before he ever enrolled in grade school.
“Honestly it was a ‘Leave it to Beaver’ environment growing up,” says Tate, 69, of his near-idyllic youth on the family farm in the “booming metropolis of Marvell.”
Tate describes a mother and father (Rufus) who “were just wonderful,” a friendly community and a bucolic life on the farm where his family raised row crops, mostly cotton, and Tate was in charge of tending to the numerous animals.
“Everybody got along,” Tate says.
Tate, who learned to read at his mother’s feet, the two of them going through old magazines together in evenings after the day’s work, always understood he would be going to college and leaned toward Tennessee State.
Tate announced his intention to his parents over dinner one night. His mother overhead and came out of the kitchen and asked him to repeat himself, and when Tate did, Annie made it clear her son would have other plans.
“Sherman, let me tell you where you’re going to college,” she said.
Raised to honor his parents, Tate accepted that he would be going to Little Rock to attend Philander Smith, his parents’ choice based in part on its status as a Christian institution.
“Unlike kids today, that was the end of the discussion,” Tate says with a chuckle.
Tate considered psychiatry as a career and took on a pre-med curriculum and studied psychology. He was accepted to the University of Pittsburgh’s post-graduate, clinical psychology program.
But Tate had married his first wife, who was not enchanted with the idea of moving to Pittsburgh, so as he finished college he landed a job with Torrance, California-based General Behavorial Systems, which had a contract with the City of Little Rock.
Tate distinguished himself teaching remedial education programs — math, English, “Whatever needed to be done” — to municipal employees seeking to advance their careers, and he reported to the home office in Torrance.
Tate had gotten the job through Little Rock vice mayor (and future mayor) Charles Bussey, the first of an exceptional line of contacts and connections that would lead Tate through the halls of government and the upper echelons of the state’s most notable corporations.
“I thoroughly enjoyed it,” Tate says. “It was a good experience. … It prepared me for my future jobs.”
Trajectory of Firsts
From every career stop, following his stint in Vietnam in 1967-68, Tate can name someone who helped him get a job, created a position for him or imparted unforgettable advice and guidance. Thanks to people like former governor and U.S. senator David Pryor, one-time gubernatorial candidate and former Arkla Gas chairman and CEO Sheffield Nelson and former state senator and Alltel chairman Joe Ford, Tate can attest to the value of people helping people.
“It’s a classic example I always give students,” Tate says. “You never know who’s watching you.”
A personnel analyst and human resources man early in his career, Tate held jobs that hadn’t previously gone to African-Americans. As a budget and personnel analyst at the Bureau of Legislative Research, commonly called the Legislative Council, Tate was also the council’s first African-American employee.
“I didn’t know it until I went to work,” he says. “It wasn’t an issue but you found out real quick.”
Tate was on National Guard duty when he found out Pryor was naming him top administrator of the Arkansas Office of Personnel Management — another first for an African-American in the state.
“Someone came in with a newspaper and said ‘Tate, you’re in the paper.’ I said ‘I didn’t do it,’” jokes Tate, who had met with Pryor but didn’t know the ground-breaking job was coming his way.
Tate moved on to work as a human resources manager for Nelson at Arkla’s Arkansas Division and soon saw the ugliness that often comes with breaking racial barriers.
As Arkla’s HR man, Tate traveled to some of Arkansas’ more rustic corners, where he endured less than civil confrontations with local managers who had no prior experience with African-Americans giving orders.
“They’d never seen someone like me with the authority to get things done,” Tate says.
He’d been warned by Nelson such confrontations could happen, but it didn’t make them any easier to take.
“Man was he right,” Tate said. “I heard it all.”
Tate called his father to express his doubts about the position.
“I said ‘I’m tired of hearing the N-word and being talked to like I’m being talked to,’” Tate remembers.
“Has anybody put their hands on you?” Rufus asked. “Then you’re dealing with words. … If you walk away from that job it’s going to be a long time before anybody that looks like you and me is going to have this kind of opportunity.”
Emboldened, Tate stayed at Arkla, and two years later was a vice president, staying until the company was sold to Houston Industries (now CenterPoint) in 1998. He joined Alltel at Ford’s invitation and stayed until bought by Verizon in 2011.
“Little Rock has been very good to me,” Tate says.
After Verizon, Tate formed his two consulting operations.
The Domino Effect helps clients identify problems and improve performance in all aspects of their business. HT & Associates aims to advise professional athletes or those with pro aspirations, on long-term business plans.
Tate was alarmed when his HT partners Corbin Cobb and Scott Hamilton pointed out that close to 75 percent of pro athletes are broke within two to three years after retirement.
Tate’s firm has picked the brains of sports legends like Kareem Abdul Jabbar, as well as huddling with NBA star Derek Fisher’s mother, who is involved with the Mothers of Professional Basketball Players (MPBP).
“We don’t want to manage their money, we want to teach them to manage their money,” Tate says.
There is a different level of teaching going on in Tate’s mentoring efforts with 100 Black Men. While working with kids at Washington Elementary, he noted the student population was about 50-50 boys and girls, but by eighth grade or so, close to 50 percent of the boys had fallen out.
“Kids don’t really care how much you know, but they always know how much you care,” Tate says. “Once they know you care, then they start to listen, then grades and behavior improve.”
Tate and his fellow mentors have helped implement reading programs, brought fruit and vegetables to school to emphasize nutrition, and even bought a school a washer and dryer after learning many students were wearing the same clothes day-to-day.
100 Black Men of America was founded in New York City in 1963, when concerned business and industry leaders joined forces to improve the quality of life for African-Americans and other minorities, with an emphasis on youth development.
David Dinkins, later to become the city’s mayor, was one of the principles involved in forming the organization, which carries the motto: “What they see is what they’ll be.”
“He literally called 100 of his friends and associates and they answered the call,” Tate says.
Today, more than 10,000 men across the country are bringing whatever professional expertise they possess to mentoring at K-12 schools and other institutions.
“Its main pillars focus on four things,” Tate says of the organization. “Mentoring is at the top of the list. Education, health and wellness and economic development.”
Tate tells of working with a boy who showed great aptitude which wasn’t being reflected in his grades and test scores.
“We were in our coats and ties and this little boy comes up and says ‘Who died?’” Tate says. “What he was saying to us is the only time he ever saw a black man in a coat and tie, they were going to a funeral.”
Tate learned the boy was in charge of getting his sisters up in the morning, that he was one of those wearing the same clothes each day, that he ate breakfast at school. But with mentoring the boy’s performance improved.
“It was so foreign,” Tate says, recalling the nurturing he received in his own childhood.
The mentors continue to track the progress of the kids after they move on to junior and senior high, and the Little Rock chapter of 100 Black Men has gone on to form a mentoring academy, which has an enrollment of more than 20 boys ages 13-17. The program is designed to improve the self-esteem and self-efficacy of mentees by granting them access to chapter members and their life experiences. One of the chapter’s mottos is “real men giving real time,” and the chapter strives to do just that.
Tate recalls last year’s 100 Academy holiday gala, which was attended by Gov. Asa Hutchinson, and Congressman French Hill, among others. The chapter bought those in need coats and ties, and the 22 boys were recognized at the event.
“Those young men, they are motivated,” Tate says. “And that’s what the mentoring does.”
To learn more about 100 Black Men and its programs and how you can get involved, visit LittleRock100.wix.com/BlackMen.