“Jett, see what you can do with this.” My boss Gene South, or Geno as we all call him, has thrust a layout assignment into my hands. It’s my first week on the job. I have no idea what I’m doing but a quick study, I am rapidly learning the ropes. My two colleagues, Mark Burnett, Kay Wyland and I design print ad layouts for Miller & Rhoads Department Store in Richmond, Virginia. We work in a shared cubicle, one of many, on the seventh floor of the department store. Next week we’ll be moving down to the third floor because our department’s floor space is needed for the store’s new main frame computers, so everyone has told me not to get too settled.
The day is not over, I’ve finished my assignments so Geno grabs an upcoming but not immediate ad to keep me busy. Still so green but not wanting to show my ignorance, I forge ahead and create something I really like using the sparse instructions, showcase the store using a classic suit. Apparently Geno likes what I’ve done too because he tells me that he is going to use it and puts it into production a few days later. Eleanor Link, head fashion artist illustrates my design. I have landed on the back cover of the Richmond Symphony program! Later Geno even steps into my cubicle to show me the finished work. Praise from the normally taciturn boss. I’m legal.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me tell you how I got this job. The year is 1966. I am graduating from Richmond Professional Institute (now VCU) with a Bachelor of Fine Arts. Per mom’s suggestion I have completed courses in teaching, but as much as I love kids, my still fresh student teaching experience has left me with little interest in the field.
And so I try several advertising agencies that have posted on the bulletin board of the graphic arts department, an off limits territory for fine arts students. The unwritten rule is that art students bond with their kind and never cross the invisible barrier. When I attended our college reunion two years ago the drama students that were entertaining us told me that they had a curiosity question and then asked me if students between the disciplines mixed when we were in school. I laughed and assured them that apparently some things never change.
So I ignore the unspoken ban because I love Richard Carlyon and sign up for one of his commercial art lectures. I don’t care, I’m a rebel. I barely manage a C in his class but who cares I’m walking the walk and loving it.
None of the jobs are panning out. It’s evident that I know nothing about commercial art design. I cannot even get a job with Richmond newspapers through Chick Lawson, a good friend of my grandfather’s. And he’s pretty high up in the pecking order. I move on. Miller & Rhoads is a thought. Mom worked in Junior Colony as a young bride and mother. Surely there’ll be some job opening. At this point anything will do. I’m graduating. I need a job. But HR has nothing to offer.
Then a dorm mate tells me about an opening she has heard about in the Advertising Department of Miller & Rhoads. She’s in fashion illustration. I like the idea although I know nothing really about advertising. But that’s not going to stop me. In my mind’s eye I determine that I need to be dressed to impress. Really dressed to impress.
I decide that I need a hat, modest heels, gloves, a subdued sheath, pearls, a handbag, and matching hose. (Forget pantyhose, they are not yet on the horizon.) I borrow most. I’m an art student, this type of outfit is not in my wardrobe. I take the bus downtown to the store. I get dressed in my borrowed finery in the ladies room and head up to the seventh floor where the advertising offices are located.
I have no appointment. I open the door to the department and practically fall into the receptionist’s desk which is right inside the door jammed into a tiny hallway and bumped up against a cubicle. There are no offices. Everyone has a minute cubicle with half walls so that they can shout changes to each other rather than waste time walking. Well, the director, Ashton Mitchell, does have an office but only he. I swoon. It’s an art world made for me. I announce that I am here about the job. In one telling look the receptionist, Cabell Bricker, sizes up both me and my outfit. I immediately realize that I’m on shaky ground.
This outfit which seemed like such a great idea is clearly so far over the top that it’s absurd. But I don’t back down. I look her in the eye, pleading. To her credit she does not blink an eyelash or worse, send me packing. I actually think that I recognize her and she me from campus parties, but we don’t run in the same circles, so neither of us goes there. Still it’s a small notch in my belt.
She’s intrigued enough that she yells for the art director. He appears, takes one look at me, inhales and glances at Cabell. She’s stifling a laugh. He looks me up and down. I hold my breath. He makes his decision and invites me to step into his cubicle. I breath a sigh of relief and quickly follow, not daring to look at Cabell lest she burst out laughing and break the spell. Geno browses through my portfolio. It’s all fine art work; etchings, lithographs, drawings. There are no designs, no advertising, no fashion illustrations. Expecting a rejection, I am elated when he tells me to go home, design six full page fashion spreads and bring them in for him to review.
I practically dance my way back to the dorm. And then panic hits. I don’t know anything useful for this assignment. I draft Gail, the friend who told me about the job. She’s as clueless as I am. She’s in illustration not advertising layout. I plunge ahead, borrow some swipes (fashion art by other artists to be used as prompts or figure placement when creating) from Gail and create my designs. I have actually taken a night school course in advertising but the most I learn from that is that our professor drives his Aston Martin to school and is willing to break for beer at Andy’s to end class early.
I turn in the completed designs to Cabell. This time I am dressed more like my real self. She’s says they’ll be in touch. Days go by. I hear nothing. I’m getting worried. We, the twentysome girls that I live with, share a common phone. Anyone within range answers it and takes a message if need be. I pester everyone. Maybe I got a call and the message did not get logged into the book. I want this job. I need this job. It’s mine. I draw up another series of ads and take them in. I explain to Geno that I redo the work because I figure that I can do better than the first set and hand him the papers. These are big 18×24 sketches. He rifles through them and probably figures that he is never going to get rid of me. He gives me the job.
Epilogue: Miller & Rhoads Advertising Roll Call 60’s Era
Ashton Mitchell “Mitch”, director. Hard to find a nicer guy. And the staff party he and his lovely wife threw every year at their waterfront home in Powhatan was not to be missed.
Gene “Geno” South, art director. A talented man and could carry a joke but you best toe the line on the clock.
My later immediate boss when I became the solo regional ad layout department, Jasper, or Jack to us, Horne, regional director.
Cabell Bricker, receptionist. She later becomes a great friend.
Mark Burnett, Kay Wyland, Eileen Talley (replaced me when I became regional staff of one layout artist), Bobbie Hicks (brought on when they needed even more staff) layout artists. Grouped as one because unlike everyone else who had their own, save production, we shared a cubicle. I did get my own cubicle when I was shifted to regional ads.
Pat Cully, illustrator. Our cubicles were next to each other, across the arms length hallway. I bought my first car from Pat & her husband Don (that’s a future blog post).
Sandy Crews (Rhodes), illustrator. I introduce her to Hank and they later marry. Hank and I date briefly but, as nice as he is, the vibes aren’t there. So one Saturday when he shows up at my apartment unannounced to encourage me to go on a day outing to Williamsburg I defer. But rather than send him off dejected I suggest that he take Sandy, who lives nearby. I call her and she agrees. They hit it off and become a couple. I’m a matchmaker.
Eleanor Link, high fashion illustrator. She would get sent by train to NYC at the store’s expense, probably for fashion week. As beautiful and timeless as her illustrations were you will never see a navel on an exposed abdomen. Not allowed. I asked her about that once. She told me that the edict came from the 6th floor executive offices.
Bertha Morrissey, fashion illustrator.
Charlotte Saunders, head copywriter and a brilliant woman.
Sarah Gayle Hunter, copy writer who was fuller than life, you always heard her coming.
Bobbie Lynch, copywriter.
Betsy Drake (Allred), copy writer and good friend who matched up with a Latter Day Saints missionary from out west and followed him home to become his wife.
Tuppy Giasi, copywriter. Hank Rhodes was in the army with her husband Billy. I was Hank’s first blind date in our crowd.
Lester Woody, copywriter.
Jackie Blair, regional copy writer either St Catherine’s or St Mary’s background.
Lynn Weakley and Len White, production.
Sherrie Edwards Oliva, proof runner. I got her this job when prior runner, Becky, got married. Sherrie and I share many live adventure stories including the wedding dress one. It was always exciting to tag along with Sherrie to the executive offices. They were so solemn looking and we never saw anyone around.