At 15 minutes into the break, ballroom music was heard through the open lobby doors, but only a few of the hundreds enjoying coffee, pastry, fruit, and chat began moving back to their seats. The chairman at the moment was laughing within an encirclement of LPGA stars and was displeased with Edwards's attempt to extricate him in order to head backstage.
"W. R., we're supposed to check in backstage now," she politely admonished.
"They're going to start without me?" he replied in a flat voice.
But in a minute she had Howell moving in the right direction. "You're just about on, W. R. And you could tell by the buzz out there, this morning is happening ." She emphasized the moment by handing Howell's speech box to him. Then she continued with comments about how exciting he was going to be. When they arrived backstage, the chairman was almost oblivious to Edwards and the activity around him ”until Kim Lang came forward.
"Mr. Howell, I'm Kim, I worked on the slides." The chairman was not pleased. So? What the hell was this? "Mr. Howell," Lang continued, brazenly holding out her hand, "I need to borrow your speech to mark a few places where you need to wait a sec for the audience to respond. We think they will, and you don't want to be talking over them. I'll be back in a few minutes."
After a cross glance at Edwards, Howell unhappily handed the speech box to Lang as though he could not think of a reason to refuse . But unscheduled intervals like this were strictly taboo with the chairman. That the cause was someone from the ranks did not make the moment any better. As Edwards looked a little sick, all Howell could manage was, "Well, don't get the pages out of order."
"Of course not," replied Lang, covering her annoyance with a pleasant smile.
"And please don't be late," Edwards said in a strained voice.
"Of course not," repeated Lang with another smile ”now adding just the slightest shade of condescension. "Plus, nothing can start until we say it can."
Edwards next spent an uncomfortable minute explaining to Howell that Lang was just reemphasizing the material's kick. That, again, they all thought when he took the stage it would be the beginning of something special. And then she did the reminders.
"Now we should remember what's happening here. There're about 600 women in the audience who are going to be surprised and thrilled with what you're saying. And please remember what Gale said. No ad-libs because of all the screen support, all those pictures playing on the screen reinforcing your words. A hundred and seventy-one slides, one after the other, so it's like a movie backing you. It happens like magic. You never look at the screen or even acknowledge it, everything cued very tightly to every word you say. Which is why we don't want to ad-lib. So Kathleen Sullivan gives your intro ”there's a canned intro for her. We wrote her words, so that'll work, and then you walk up, open your speech box, say ˜Thank you, Kathleen. Then you deliberately slide the title page over and down to the left side, look back at the first page, and then look up and out over the audience like you know they're going to be surprised with what's on that first page. And they are, of course. And this is important, to just look at them before you start. It says this is going to be important, that something's on your mind."
Howell liked Edwards's act. She had an expected function and one had to accept her ingenuous passion. To a point. He grinned and said, "Carol, you do earn your pay, don't you."
Kim Lang returned in less than 10 minutes, having duplicated her new margin notes (like " SHOCKED ") in Howell's script. "Here you go," she said quickly. "Just a couple margin notes, in case they react . And pages are in order. Good luck, sir." She handed over the speech box and departed.
Edwards did not return to the back row with Graham. Instead she paced in back of the ballroom seating. The lights and walk-in music faded and up came the summit logo. Kathleen Sullivan walked into podium lighting after the canned announcer intoned, "And now! Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome television sports personality Kath-leeeen Sullivan!"
"Oh, get on with it," Edwards thought irritably as the introduction began. But actually, Sullivan's words were fairly adroit, dealing out the obligatory praise without being especially cloying and lending a soft air of mystery regarding the content of the keynote coming up.
And then here came W. R. Howell himself. He said, "Thank you, Kathleen," placed his speech box carefully on the podium, opened it ”and seemed to flinch slightly. Probably nobody noticed except Edwards (Lang's and Shoener's eyes were on the script), but she saw enough to make her heart skip.
To remind Howell about upcoming margin notes, Lang had printed two words on the title page in large red-felt-pen letters . The page read:
WOMEN IN GOLF SUMMIT
Keynote Speech by
W. R. HOWELL
Chairman and C.E.O., JCPenney Company
Pebble Beach ”Tuesday, November 16, 1993.
This simple gesture unhinged Howell. He moved the title page to the left lower half of the speech box and, instead of pausing and looking dramatically at the audience, he began speaking right away.
It didn't matter.
There was no warm-up. The speech got right into it, and Howell's words shocked the audience. In four sentences he had cut to the quick of the conference's central issue. He had confessed embarrassment and regret . He had admitted that the position of a Fortune 50 colossus with regard to the inclusion issue simply wasn't smart. He had said things out loud, then and there, that CEOs just didn't say in public. Something now happened that was foreign to the experience of Charlie Mechem, Kerry Graham, the LPGA staffers , Carol Edwards, Kim Lang, and Mark Shoener (who were now looking). An almost palpable hush fell over the audience. An eerie silence, as if everyone was holding their breath .
Howell was not the speaker Mechem was, but as a larger-thanlife personality, he was still a force at any podium. But now he staggered , thoroughly rattled, as if the sudden stillness in the room were an invisible cloud moving in to suffocate him. His voice became thin, reedy, rising in pitch. A cold sweat rose on his brow. He soldiered on in agony.
The funny thing (later) was that the audience didn't realize any of this, seeing and hearing only what they wanted. This was because they were enraptured, captivated, carried along by the most exciting speech they had ever heard. So you had a speaker who thought he was dying a slow, torturous death. And you had an audience that thought they were having the experience of a lifetime. This dichotomy was building to an explosive moment just a few pages away.
Howell had glanced at the margin notes with further irritation, not really wanting to take them in. His galloping discomfort made the first words of the speech itself seem abstract and meaningless as they sputtered out of his mouth and were boomed from the great speakers . But the chairman had a keen mind and, as an executive expedient years ago, had taught himself to speed-read with excellent retention. Hence, he was not able to totally ignore the notes, and the sight of them, the insolence of them made his blood boil ”or would have, had time allowed. Instead, a half-second sting of fury interrupted his main suffering, and he continued to read.
"And, yes, we say that JCPenney is committed to breaking the glass ceiling. But it will be obvious to you, as it is to me, that we still have work to do."
Now he was desperately afraid that they might shout him down! He was encouraging it! If he had been the superb extemporaneous speaker that Mechem was, he would have abandoned his text right then and there, backpedaling to back and fill and rebuild the company's power and integrity. But despite his IQ, this was something he could not do. He was inextricably tied to his text.
"Not too long ago at the Penney Home Office, we had a meeting of our 100 top executives ”only nine of whom at the moment are women. This featured a report on the ˜Expo women's conferences that we pioneered as an exclusive joint sponsor. You may have attended one of these trade fairs that draw well over a million women across the country."
Only Howell's innate courage and years of summoning whatever it took for appearance's sake kept him from collapsing on the spot. And his trouble was now beginning to make him sound angry . This, of course, made the audience even happier with what they were experiencing. And the stillness began to dissolve into a low, appreciative murmur ”sounding now to the speaker like the precursor to a building tenor of insurrection! Soon the commune to the barricades!
"Now it happened that the Dallas Expo had been held the previous weekend . And so when I went to the podium to wrap up the meeting, I said, ˜By the way, how many of you attended the women's Expo at the Info Mart last weekend. I raised my own hand and added, ˜Hands? "
An insolent, goddamn red margin note was coming up!
"Remember how many of our top 100 executives at that meeting were women? The number is nine ”which, incidentally, is nine more than it used to be not too long ago, and we have a number of very talented women who will be added to our top management in the near future." [PAUSE]
He took a breath, glaring at them.
"Anyway, can you guess how many hands went up?"
He looked at the margin note, seeing it clearly now. " WAIT!! THEY MAY ANSWER! "
And it happened! A massive shout came from the audience! It sounded like a World War II Japanese death charge! Ban zai! He could see the women in the first rows clearly as they shouted. They were beaming, eyes shining, faces spread with wide smiles!
Then what they were shouting became clear. " Nine! "
He had elicited a thunderously positive response from his audience. Oh! Sonofabitch! This wasn't just good, this was wonderful!
Something else now happened that was foreign to the experience of Charlie Mechem, Kerry Graham, the LPGA staffers, Carol Edwards, Kim Lang, and Mark Shoener. Before their very eyes, Howell turned into a speaker as good as Ronald Reagan. He read his next lines exactly right, holding up a forefinger and unforgettably extracting drama from the story.
"Counting mine, actually 11 hands went up. Besides me, only one other man had bothered to go. One. I looked at them and said, ˜Only two men? Just two of us? [SHORT PAUSE] Fellas, have we forgotten who our customer is? "
Howell ad-libbed. He leaned into the mike and repeated in a low voice, "Forgotten who our customer is?" It was a dicey moment for Lang and Shoener, with a slide cue coming up a few words later. They didn't breathe until he was back solidly on text and the cue came and went. It was, they would later admit, an inspired transgression.
"Then I said, ˜And who is the only other one besides me? Why, he happens to be head of women's merchandise! He had to be there! [PAUSE] Then I surprised them, saying, ˜But now I have a confession to make. I was there to receive an award. If that hadn't been the case, I probably would have been out playing golf myself ! [SHORT PAUSE] ˜Fellas, I concluded, ˜this is a lesson we don't want to learn twice . "
It is no exaggeration to say that not since Vince Lombardi gave his landmark motivational speech at the Waldorf had a business audience been more moved. Howell had them totally. He soared when speaking of sponsoring women's sports events. He agonized about the restrictions to women's play still in force on too many golf courses. He thrilled at the progress made since Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in the Astrodome and Title IX was enacted in Washington. And again and again his audience responded out loud in all the right places.
Howell built to his climax by shaking his fist and ad-libbing once more (Lang and Shoener now relaxed completely):
He added, "And by God ," continuing with, "one day soon, I know that women will be teeing off at any course that is compatible with their game and income. And they will be teeing off at any time on any day of their choosing that is compatible with their schedule."
A lump was actually in his throat as he concluded:
"And, ironically, when they do, these women golfers will be doing so with the very sensitivity, caring, and tolerance that was so unjustly denied them for so many years."
Lang tapped the last cue and the jail bars animated down over the lone woman golfer with the red sweater.
Howell hesitated, then again leaned into the mike and spoke in a voice approaching a whisper:
One-two-three The Penney people held their breath. And then the ballroom erupted, the audience rising en masse with cheers and applause.
Edwards stood by as the radiant chairman accepted joyous handshakes and high fives from Mechem, Graham, and other wellwishers. The press was also hovering nearby, the Morning News writer catching Edwards's eye and giving her a two-handed OK sign.
At length, Howell turned for her. But he simply handed over his speech box, pointed to the rear of the ballroom, and said, "Something to do." Edwards tagged along as Howell marched back to the booth and surprised Lang, shaking her hand and uttering the most sincere "Thank you" either woman had ever heard.
The moment the ballroom had emptied, Lang and Shoener began busily packing up their equipment. They left Pebble Beach without fanfare, typical of the staffers who, far below the executive suite, keep corporate America going. Managing to check their cases at San Francisco International in time for the four o'clock flight to Dallas/Fort Worth, they arrived at their respective homes just before midnight. Both would spend short, restless nights before awakening in time to report for work at 8 A.M.