This obituary is written by J. T. (Ted) Childs, Jr., a Ted Childs LLC Principal. In August 2006, Ted Childs retired from IBM after 39 years. He spent the last 15 years as the executive of the company’s Global Workforce Diversity office.
Dr. John Slaughter was a champion for IBM and for its people, particularly, those of us who were young, Black, and identified as having potential.
I know there are people on the distribution of this letter who experienced John’s hands-on caring and development, and I hope some of those stories can be shared with our Black employees. My memorable “John” experiences are as follows:
John was a deep product of his childhood. He grew up in Topeka, Kansas, and his family was a member of the NAACP Branch that brought the Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court case. The Brown girls from that family were friends of the young girls in the Slaughter family.
John dreamed of being an engineer, and a guidance counselor told him: “Your people don’t do that. You can be a radio technician.”
Two years at a local college to get his basic math courses led to Kansas State University. The day he graduated, he went from the commencement to the men’s room, and “I looked in the mirror and introduced myself to the first Black engineer I ever met.”
The journey to that point fueled the rest of his life. John is the first person I heard give context to the concept “You can’t be what you can’t see.”
Allen Krowe, the second executive vice president in IBM history, was a graduate of the University of Maryland. Allen introduced John, the then Chancellor of his alma mater to IBM, and that led to his appointment to the IBM Board.
In 1987, Tyrone Taborn, the Carter G. Woodson of our generation, launched Career Communications Group and announced the initial Black Engineer of the Year, Dr. John Brooks Slaughter. John, until the end, was proud of being the initial honoree, of the company that Tyrone built, and of seeing the companies with which he was associated, support the annual BEYA and Women of Color in Technology events.
I know from our last discussions that he was prepared to support and encourage his network of companies to support STEM City USA, Tyrone’s project to introduce the Black Community to the Metaverse. John’s family have decided that they want to develop a scholarship in his name to be given out at BEYA each year and to be funded by his corporate and personal friends. Tyrone will be communicating with us shortly about the plans for John.
I met John when, as an IBM BOD member, he was asked to give a presentation by an outside group on talent matters, and he asked Tom Bouchard for IBM assistance. Tom said that assistance would come from Ted Childs, and a partnership was born, of course, my being the junior partner.
Some years later I was preparing for a critical BOD Presentation. I told John about the issues to be addressed, and rehearsed with him, including the questions I anticipated, and the messages I hoped to deliver. I emphasized there was information I wanted to say, but could not do so unless I was responding to a specific question. John asked about those questions, the answers, and if I knew who might ask them.
He then said a typical John, tough love thing: “Ted, my committee meets at the same time as your presentation. I am going to tell Sam that I am not going to that meeting. I am coming to yours. The questions you want to be asked will be asked. Make sure you are on your game.” It was a great discussion.
After, we created the task forces, and approved employee resource groups, a memorable incident took place. Dan O’Donnell was the deputy general counsel and corporate secretary. Dan was also my official mentor in the IBM Executive Mentor Program. Dan called me to share that in the prep for the upcoming BOD meeting, they were discussing with each BOD member their post-meeting travel which generally involved getting them to the airport.
In talking to John, he informed them he was not departing right away. He was meeting with a group of Black employees for lunch. As you might expect, alarm bells went off in Armonk.
Dan shared this story with me, and asked, “Do you know Michael Littlejohn? He invited John to this meeting.”
I said I knew Michael and would reach out to him.
Michael’s response was an immediate “No. Ted you know me, I wouldn’t contact a BOD member without permission.”
In our Equal Opportunity Department, Drew Valentine had a man, John Martin, who was our data guy.
I went to John and said, “Tell me how many people, race code Black, are named Michael Littlejohn.”
Within an hour, John said, “Ted, there are two, one an executive.” I said, “Please give me the full profile on the other guy, everything you know I want to know, and his phone number.”
When Michael answered his phone, and I said Ted Childs, he did not say hello. His immediate response was “Are we going to get fired?”
I knew right away we had the right person. I asked him “Are you involved in something that would cause you to be fired?”
Michael got silent, and I asked “Are we talking about John Slaughter?”
Michael said “Yes, but I can explain. A group of us met with John W. Thompson.
We had a really good meeting and John told us to find senior Black leaders and ask them to share their career journey with you. We looked at the available Black leaders at IBM, and the most senior person was Dr. Slaughter.
We thought the worst that could happen would be he would say ‘No.’ But he said ‘Yes.’ I had a momentary feeling that I might be the dog who caught the car, and then you show up.”
I told Michael that “BOD relationships belong to Mr. Gerstner. This has to be explained to him, and now the goal is to make sure that neither of us gets fired. You have to know that we have discussed possible worst-case scenarios — if you have him captive, you could do him harm, or serve him with a legal document as a BOD member. I am going to tell Dan O’Donnell that you and your crew are honorable people, but we are going to execute as follows: I will pick John up in Armonk, and he will never be alone with these folks; I will attend the luncheon, and you are encouraged to ask him whatever you want, but if I am uncomfortable with any discussion, I will manage away from the topic. And know that we will provide Dr. Slaughter with a briefing on each of you. We are not going to let him sit down with folks who know more about him than he knows about them.”
I reported back to Dan. He approved our plan and said he would manage the discussion with Lou.
When I called John to share with him the drama his luncheon caused, he laughed. John was a soft smile, polite laugh kind of guy. This was a genuine laugh with heartfelt emotion. Our luncheon was superb. The conversation was rich. Nothing came up requiring my intervention, the young people had a wonderful experience, but I think the best outcome was how John enjoyed the interaction. He served on the IBM, Northrop Grumman, and Monsanto Boards. I don’t think he had ever had access to a group of employees.
The luncheon reinforced his feeling that “You can’t be what you can’t see.”
When John retired from the Occidental College Presidency, our third executive vice president, Nick Donofrio, and NACME Chair installed John as the NACME CEO. John told me this was a crowning point of his career, although he would later tell me another experience was that level of opportunity.
What was significant was that he viewed the NACME and USC roles as the opportunity to dedicate himself to his long-held feeling of “You can’t be what you can’t see.”
The opportunity to watch the partnership of Slaughter and Donofrio was, for me, almost a religious experience—it was special—two of the greats, together and of single mind and purpose.
John’s experience at USC, a role he performed in his 80s was an extraordinary picture of one of our elders doing everything he could to help us, as individuals, and as a people, survive and advance. In his final act, he was able to spend most of his time dedicated to getting senior Black leaders into his USC classrooms.
He wanted to do whatever he could to address “You can’t be what you can’t see.”
He was a man obsessed with Black retention in engineering classrooms. I think that regarding us, it was different. I felt like Drew and I were his hands-on work in process.
I think that Rod, Al, Colin, and Mark, were his “Technology Sons” and taking his dreams to the next level, particularly Rod. Tyrone, our Carter G. Woodson master of the message, was John’s “Technology Soulmate” and all of these were as they should be. None of us had “enough” time with him, but all treasured what we got. We are all fortunate to have had John Brooks Slaughter as part of our life’s journey.