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Steve BullockMythbuster: Steve Bullock

President, The Bullock Group

Date of interview: October 2001

Steve Bullock rose through the ranks of the American Red Cross in a career that spanned nearly 39 years. Beginning as a caseworker in 1962, Mr. Bullock's job took him and his wife, Doris Kelly and their three children to military posts throughout the world. In 1982, he became Chief Executive Officer of the Greater Cleveland Chapter. Mr. Bullock has been active in Cleveland's community, serving on the boards of several corporate and philanthropic organizations. In 1991, he won a battle with cancer.

His Red Cross career culminated in 1999 when he was named acting president of the national agency, headquartered in Washington, D.C., after the resignation of Elizabeth Dole, who recommended him. Mr. Bullock retired from the American Red Cross once the agency hired Dr. Bernadine Healy in late 1999.

More than a year before his 65th birthday in July 2001, Mr. Bullock began a new career. Through The Bullock Group, he provides management consulting to non-profit and public institutions. We recently caught up with this Leadership Cleveland graduate to find out what lessons he learned along a life journey that started in rural North Carolina, circled the globe and landed in Cleveland.

Tell us something about yourself: Who is Steve Bullock?

I am the youngest of 22 children. My father was married three times. My mother was his third and final wife, and she had 14 of those 22 children. My older brothers and sisters, including some of the 14, are more like uncles and aunts. The oldest in my immediate family would be 88, but he passed away. There were five of us at home at one time. My father was 72 years old when I was born, and my mother was 38. My father lived to be 93, and my mother lived to be 91. I think as long as I'm as healthy as I am today I at least want to live that long. As long I have something to offer, I need to be doing something to make a contribution: intellectually, physically, emotionally and spiritually.

Was there anyone who helped shape the person you are today?

My mother was the main influence. My father was too, but he was crippled by a farm accident. One thing he did was every Sunday, my parents would have devotion in our home just for us. My mother would read Scriptures, and my father would always have a sermon, with a message of how we should live. That happened every week. Once we became teenagers we didn't have time, they couldn't corner us [laughs]. Their influence had a lot to do with who I am in terms of my values. If you live on a farm, you work hard. My mother used to tell us, "Work never killed anyone." In later years I told her she was wrong [laughs]. By the way, my father died when I was in college. My mother died in 1984.

We lived in Enfield, North Carolina, on I-95 south about 100 miles south of Richmond, Virginia. My siblings went to New York City when they left the house. My brother closest to my age and I were the only ones who didn't go. My brother went into the Army, and I went to college. My mother was a practical nurse. She actually provided for the family. My mother and father stressed education. It was a real struggle growing up in the South. You had to work year 'round on the farm. I was the first person in the family to get a college degree. My brothers and sister eventually went back to school.

Were they inspired by you?

Well, I think to some degree. But my mother was a real strong person and could pressure you to do things. I mean I was never considered myself to be an academic superstar. But I graduated fourth in my high school class, out of 38. My mother said, "Well, Stevie, that's what happens when you do just enough to get by." [laughs] And she was serious. So I went off to college with that pressure.

Where did you go to college?

I went to a small black university, Virginia Union University. I got a scholarship. The tuition was $1,200. But I couldn't afford it. I'm on the board there now. Tuition is now $19,000.

I need to tell you about another person who was an influence to me. My high school teacher, Willa Mae Johnson. She had graduated from Hampton College. She really encouraged me to go to college, which is where I met my wife. A lot of my peers went into the Army; I wanted to do something to get off the farm. She helped me to get my applications in to colleges. There I met a man by the name of Sam Proctor. He was also a mentor to Rev. Marvin McMickle. Dr. Proctor was president of Virginia Union. His message was, "You have to think about who you are, and think about what it is you want to do. Don't become brutal, but stay glued to your goal."

I used to travel with him, since college presidents had to do fundraising. They'd often bring along a student, and I'd go along. One day we'd left Richmond at 3 p..m. and had to get to a meeting in North Carolina at 7:30 p.m. He looked down the road and said, "I'm not going to let anyone to get in my way." And he'd make sure there were no big trucks in the way. Then he added, "Steve, you have to do that in life as well. You have to look ahead and see where the barriers are and prepare yourself." He was very important.

After college, I was drafted into the Army in 1959. I was supposed to get out in 1961, but the Berlin wall went up and they had to lift the Americans out of Berlin. I then went to training in Ft. Niagara in New York, which is now a state park. They were building missile sites along the Great Lakes. So I didn't get out until February of 1962.

I wanted to travel, but couldn't. When I got out, I knew I wanted to do some aspect of human services. Sam Proctor wanted me to get a master's degree in social work; but I really didn't want that. I wanted to get a business degree. The Army did an exit interview, and one of the civilian counselors worked for the Red Cross. He told me if I wanted to get into human services and travel I should get in with the Red Cross. All I knew about the Red Cross is that you give blood to them [laughs]. They offered me a position. I understood I was going to Japan, but I never got an assignment in my 38 years to go to Japan. But I have lived and worked all over the world.

Did you have a favorite place?

My favorite assignment was in Africa. But the only drawback was I couldn't take my family. But we lived in Europe. The experience in Africa was amazing. We were headquartered in Ghana. We worked with all the English-speaking Red Crosses in the area. It was a very important experience. Even though it was a different way of life, it was very similar in a lot of ways to what I experienced in working with the Red Cross in the rural South. I was working specifically on health issues through the Red Cross. We were encountering in Ghana some of the same issues I'd seen in the South. For example, midwivery. We were working with the University of Mississippi to step up to the use of midwives because there weren't many hospitals in the South. In Africa, the only hospitals they had were owned by American corporations. The hospitals were for the employees of these corporations.

Why wouldn't they let your family live with you in Africa?

Because it was considered a "hardship" assignment, in the African bush. I also spent 10 months in Vietnam. That too was a hardship assignment. I was offered through the International Red Cross the position of Desk Officer, in which I'd be responsible for several countries. My office would be in Geneva, but I'd be on a plane commuting to Ghana. I didn't take it.

How did this traveling shape your philosophy toward life?

It confirmed over and over human nature and humanity. I was saying to someone after this September 11 attack that it allows us to see the worst of humanity, but right away on the heels of that, you see the best of humanity. I was in Kosovo and Macedonia when I was Acting President. There I saw the worst of it. People wanting to cross the border being shot at, some family members being killed. But they were being received by the world. We were there with a plane load of supplies and money, about $36 million-a lot of it raised right here in Cleveland.

Whenever I have the opportunity to speak to young people, I tell them: I was fortunate enough to be able choose a career with an organization whose values were aligned and very compatible with my own in mission and purpose. I've said it to my kids that's what made it easy to get up every day. Professionally and personally it's what I wanted to do.

I started with the Red Cross at probably the lowest level, and ended as president. There were a lot of bumps along the way. But I felt very satisfied with my career. Then I decided I wanted to use these years to help other folks. To help not people in crisis, but to help organizations be more successful. I was an executive for a long time, and I don't want to do that any more. I don't want to be involved with operations. I want to do consulting at an executive level and move on.

How did your family react to their little brother being named president of the Red Cross?

They were very excited about it. I didn't get a chance to reach everyone to tell them. My brother saw it on CNN and called my brother in Arizona. My nephew was working out at a gym and saw it on the T.V. He said, "That's my uncle!"

How did your bout with cancer impact your attitude toward life?

Another important thing in my life is my faith in God. I turned to my faith when that happened. It turned out I had been walking around with that for about a year. They were treating me for ulcers. It didn't show up on any X-Rays, probably because it was all soft-tissue. They finally found it with an ultrasound. They were able to cure it with surgery; they took my gall bladder out because it had engulfed my gall bladder. The sad thing is I was on the Cleveland Heights School Board at that time. Another board member and the Superintendent were diagnosed about the same time. They're not here today. I think about that often.

There's a poem that inspires me; Invictus, it has atheistic tones. When I use it, my wife yells at me; my pastor does, too (laughs). But its message is so strong:
Out of the night, that covers me, black as pit from pole to pole, I think whatever gods may be from my incomparable soul. It matters not how straight the gate, nor how charged with punishment the scroll, for I am the master of my fate and I am the captain of my soul.

But because my wife and my and my pastor reminded me how atheistic it was, I later changed it for me to: "With the help of God, I am the master of my fate and I am the captain of my soul."

I actually believe it. I told my friend Ron when I was in the hospital, "I know I'm going to be o.k., God saved me. Now I've got some more work to do."

What are your plans now that you're 65?

My plan is to build up this company. I spent the last six months identifying and recruiting my team. In addition to myself, I have Jennifer Baker, Jean McAndrews Koehler, Clare Corrigan Woidke, Barbara Galloway and Kenneth Kurtz. They have decades of non-profit management expertise.

There is tremendous potential for non-profits; The Bullock Group's objective is to help them reach that potential, mainly through professional development. Our management areas are in governing, mentoring coaching and performance measuring. Right now we're doing some work with MetroHealth, doing disaster planning in case we face a situation like New York City did. We are also helping to strengthen the identity of Neighborhood Centers Association, and we're doing some work with the Greater Cleveland Roundtable.

What do you do in your free time?

I try to play golf. As I got close to retirement, I thought I'd take advantage of how some of the private golf clubs have senior citizen discounts and packages. I'm going to look into those. I sometimes think about it and jokingly bring it up when we check into a hotel and ask, "What kind of 'old folks' plan do you have?" And they tell me, "Oh sure, you get a discount."

Do you see your grandchildren very often?

We have three grandchildren in Maryland and one here in Cleveland with another one on the way. We go down to Maryland and they come here. I look forward to when they come here.

What is your attitude toward aging?

Aging? I don't think about it. Once in a while I have a problem with bursitis. And I think I'm starting to get gout, which can be painful, crippling. It's funny ... I just got my first Social Security check, and I now have a Medicare card. I hadn't even considered those when I did my retirement planning, so they're like icing on the cake.

I did a Men's Day speech at our church last year. I tried to share with them something I learned from my mother. God gave us all gifts: some people can hit a baseball, some people can make beautiful music. The bible expects us to use them—to develop them and use them. And that's what my prayer to God is: Use me up. And that's what I'm doing. I'm not used up!