John (Jack) Felton
Interview Segments on Topic: Transition to Corporate World
John (Jack) Felton was vice-president of corporate communications at McCormick Spice Company in Baltimore MD from 1977 to 1994. Following his retirement from McCormick, Felton became The Institute for Public Relations (IPR) chief executive. Prior to his corporate career, he served as a first lieutenant with the U.S.A.F. Strategic Air Command during the Korean War.
Felton joined the University of Florida faculty in 1993 as the Freedom Forum Distinguished Visiting Professor. He is a former two-term president of PRSA and winner of its highest award, the Gold Anvil, in 1992. In 2002, Felton received the Arthur W. Page Society’s Distinguished Service Award in recognition of his contributions to strengthening the role of public relations.
Interviewer: Welcome, very nice to have you with us Mr. Felton.
Felton: Thank you very much. Call me Jack.
Interviewer: All right Jack, why don’t we start with the early years? Go back as far as graduation from the University of Michigan, which was in 1951, and you got a master’s in ’52 and then you entered the Air Force and became a First Lieutenant of the Air Force Strategic Air Command during the Korean War. Now talk about your career path then and how you transitioned from the Korean War and the military to public relations with US Steel and Interstate Finance.
Felton: I’d be happy to. If you go back to that time period the Korean War is on. So I finished a master’s needed to do military service. Went into the Air Force and waited to go through OCS. And when I finished OCS, they assigned me to Strategic Air Command, which was the most active exciting part of the Air Force anyway. And we were stationed in Spokane, Washington. I was sitting in my office, brand new on base and the master sergeant came down and said “Lieutenant, the General wants to see you right away.” And I thought I am going to get cabbed the first day I am here so I made sure my uniform looked at least a little better pressed and walked in and saluted and sat down. He said “Sit down lieutenant. I’ve got a problem.” And I thought you called me in to tell me you had a problem. He said “I have the best officers in the Air Force. The most talented bombers. The most talented of all the talent.” And he said, “I can’t get them promoted because they are not very good at writing reports on how they performed.” And he said, “See these?” And I said, “yes.” He said those are office effectiveness reports. And I said “Yes I know about those.” And he said, “Well I want you to take these. Go back to the reporting officer. And sit down with him. Interview him and find out what he really wants to say about the candidate. And then write it in English, good grammar, spelling.” He said, “I understand you can write. “ And I said, “Well yes, but I don’t think I’ve done many officers’ effectiveness reports.” “Well try.” So I did that and got to meet a lot of people on the base because when you are working for the General right away you get through open doors. Took them back to him and said “Sir I think these are good. And these are what the officers want to say.” And he I didn’t know he had a sense of humor but he kind of grinned when he said “We’ll see, lieutenant.” About three weeks later the master sergeant said “Lieutenant the General wants to see you in his office right this very minute.” And I thought ooh, ooh. So I got there, and the General again grim faced said, “Sit down lieutenant.” He said “I want to tell you something.” He said “Every single report you rewrote got promoted. You now have a permanent job with me and you are going to write any GD thing I want you to write. Do you understand?” And I said, “Yes sir.” So I started the Air Force career in a wonderful position. I’ve been lucky to be at the right place, right time most of my career and I wrote his speeches. Even did his correspondence and when you have a chance that soon in your career to work with a top leader you learn things that you couldn’t. It would take me years in a corporation to learn. When I got out of the Air Force it was ’57. And jobs were easy to come by so I was interviewing cross-country coming back from the assignment in Spokane. And picked up some interesting leads and had some good offers. My parents were hoping that I would stay on the east coast. And by this time we had a little one-year old grandson, and they would like to see him more often. So I interviewed in Pittsburgh with U.S. Steel on a Friday and they said “Can you be in New York on Tuesday morning. We want you to meet the people at the headquarters staff.” And I said sure I’d be glad to. So I went back to, my home was Roanoke, and then flew up on Monday to New York. And the biggest show on Broadway at that time was My Fair Lady. You couldn’t get tickets. Sold out six months, people paying all kinds of dollars to get them. And so I thought well, I want to see My Fair Lady so I am standing in line. It says sold out six months standing room only but there was a young lawyer in back of me. I said “You want to see this show?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “Let’s do what my father’s done in New York lots of time. Let’s watch the doorman because the doorman would open the limousines for people who often had tickets. And often got them at the last moment.” So I walked over and talked to him and said, “Do you have tickets?” And he said, “Have a couple.” And he said, “so what do you want for them?” And he said, “$75 bucks.” And that’s a lot for a Broadway show. Broadway show was $10.80. And so I thought well, that’s too much. And but we watched him. He didn’t sell any tickets. Lights flashed for everybody to be inside. I walked over to him. I told the young lawyer, I said, “Got a $20 bill to see the show.” Walked over handed him a $20 bill. We sat sixth row center critic seats for My Fair Lady. Next morning I am down at 71 Broadway to interview for U.S. Steel, and they are making small talk. Well when did you get to town Jack. Last night. What did you do? Saw a show. Well what show did you see? And I said My Fair Lady. And they said you didn’t even know you were coming to New York until Friday. How did you get a ticket. And I told them the story. Interview was very brief. They thought, I think they thought some dumb kid from Virginia can walk into new York and, you know operate that way. And then they said would I mind starting in San Francisco so that’s the beginning. It’s a crazy way to get a job interview but go to a Broadway show.
Interviewer: After US Steel
Felton: Interstate Brands, I was hired away from US Steel because I’d been doing a lot of product publicity for US Steel and loved that part of it. In those days a lot of public relations was doing product publicity, and the CEO of Interstate Brands which is Wonder Bread, Dolly Madison Cake had just gotten the contract from King Features for the Peanuts characters for the Charlie Brown show on television and so they needed someone that could do that kind of background and if you recall at Michigan, Michigan was one of the few schools in the early days that recognized television was going to be part of journalism and we had the Detroit station right on campus. So as students we got to do shows on television that a lot of people wouldn’t have gotten to do any place else. So that was intriguing because it was an opportunity. It was great fun and you know you can, Charlie Brown and Lucy you can do all kinds of things with and Snoopy can dream he’s anything so you can imagine what you can do with speeches and presentations if you can use the Peanuts characters.
Interviewer: Well let’s move on to McCormick.
Felton: All right.
Interviewer: Now you began there in 1977. You retired in ’95.