Building a career in Winston-Salem
Barrentine describes Winston-Salem, North Carolina, a relatively small city with a wealth of cultural and business opportunities. His admiration for the city prepared him well for a job with the Chamber of Commerce, where he cultivated business relationships between the public and private sectors.
Citing this Excerpt
Oral History Interview with Richard Barentine, January 28, 1999. Interview I-0068. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Full Text of the Excerpt
JM: What did the employment landscape look to you like in '69 when you were coming out of your Public Health Service job?
RB: I was fascinated by Winston-Salem. I had moved from Memphis. Memphis in the '60s had a million people. [It was] a very large metropolitan area. It certainly had all the cultural and social and shopping opportunities that cities of that size have. I moved to North Carolina [and went] first to Raleigh -- and didn't stay there very long --with the Public Health Service. Then they moved me to Winston-Salem. I was absolutely fascinated with Winston-Salem because it was a microcosm of a big city only it was a small city. I started off a little frightened because the opportunities for shopping were fewer. Then I realized the same things I could get in Memphis, I can get here. That's not always true when you move from a city of a million people to a city then of probably 135,000. It was sort of a shock. I was fascinated by Winston-Salem. It's an extremely sophisticated, very cultured city, and very wealthy city. I was able to be befriended by and become a friend of James A. Gray. James A. Gray, Jr. served as a mentor of mine for a number of years. Jim Gray is descended from a very prominent Winston family. His father was a founder and president of Wachovia Bank and president of the tobacco company. Jim, at that point, was president of Old Salem and also was the vice president of the Chamber of Commerce. When Jim realized in our conversations that I was not going to go to New Mexico and was not going to go to Pittsburgh, he helped me get a job at the Chamber of Commerce. It was in tourist promotion. My job was was to put together the Convention and Visitor's Bureau effort for that city. There was a gentleman there who had done a wonderful job of bringing that effort forward, and he was ready to retire. My job was to come in and to take it into the modern day. I stayed there for eight years. I had a wonderful career with the Chamber of Commerce, and was not particularly interested in leaving the Chamber of Commerce. Though after eight years, I had recovered from the seven-year itch and had decided that no, this I like. I got the opportunity to travel all over the world. Winston was a leader at that time -- in the '69 to'77 period of time. We propelled Winston-Salem into a leadership role in convention and visitor promotion. If you look at it from that basis, it was not a hard job. You had Reynolda House and Old Salem and Tanglewood and RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company and the SECCA (the Southeast Center for Contemporary Art). All of those wonderful things were there. You just needed to package them. Winston had that air of sophistication that visitors liked. Everything was credible. It wasn't make believe in the attractions area. We went all over the world promoting Winston-Salem. We certainly led the state and all of the growth. Winston built a magnificent convention center in the late '60s, early '70s. It's still there today, virtually unchanged. We were the only members of the International Association of Convention and Visitor's Bureaus in North or South Carolina.
RB: For a number of years. Winston had the kind of things I liked. It was forward thinking and I liked the Chamber of Commerce. A number of very fine business people contributed to my success. I felt very fortunate [about that]. [Despite] not being from there -- being newly from North Carolina, from Tennessee -- I felt accepted. I was fascinated by that city and my job.
JM: Let me draw you out a little bit more on the networks of business leaders into which you were drawn in that role.
RB: I have a degree in history. So, history--. There's a thread of it through everything that I do. Winston-Salem was one of the most fascinating towns because at the Chamber of Commerce you were able to sit at the arm of the power structure. You weren't part of it, but you were there to implement the wishes of the people who ran the town. Many of them were kin to each other. You had to understand the dynamics, or you couldn't survive. That served me well in the furniture industry, as well. I stick to these sort of nepotistic industries. There was no lack of money to do what we needed to do. If you needed a special project, either the tobacco company or the bank would provide the funding. Winston-Salem was very well placed in the state political arena. There was plenty of money for projects. Those big businesses were perhaps paternalistic, but that sure wasn't all bad because Winston excelled in the state. It had the first Arts Council in the nation. It has a long history of doing things. I was fascinated by it. I was fascinated by the genealogy. I was fascinated by the Moravian heritage -- an old, old heritage. All of that played into the love of history that I have. It was wonderful to see enlightened people getting something done. Politics was civilized. You could see the private sector and the public sector working together to make Winston-Salem a better place. It really remains a better place for all of that.
JM: You've anticipated another question, which is the extent to which you had contact with that realm of leadership, which is expressly political in those years. Were you drawn into political circles, working with government officials to a great extent and so forth?
RB: The Chamber of Commerce works with all levels. It's a business organization, obviously, but business is there to use the government services or influence government services. In the tourism sector, that's what I did. I ran the Convention and Visitor's Bureau. We needed the help of the city. The city owned the Convention Center, so there was a built in partnership. Tax money had built that facility, so we were charged with promoting the city to bring the conventions in. The federal government had provided a variety of grants to help clear some land and build some hotels and things. So, we were dealing with the federal people. The mayor and the city manager -- all of those people – we worked with very closely because we were bringing visitors to the city who needed to be served and protected. One of the things that we accomplished, very early on, was great alliances with the state of North Carolina. The state's Travel and Tourism Division, for whatever reason, had paid most of their promotional attention to the mountains and to the coast. This “heartland” is what they called where we are now -- but it was the Piedmont -- sort of got left out. They would say, “Well, you know, y'all are so strong, you don’t need the promotion and it's not a recognizable--. It's not mountains and ocean.” We said, “We're what keeps the mountains from falling in the ocean. You need to pay attention to the middle of the state.” We fostered that relationship and traveled all over the world with the state of North Carolina promoting the state.