This post is part of a Black History Month series on SUNY Broome alumni of color, who have been a valued part of the campus community since the college’s founding in 1946.
John Hightower’s first plan was to make it big on the radio. He enjoyed when he and his friends did broadcasts through the PA system from the basement of the Binghamton Washington Street Boys Club. “It was set-up just like a radio-station,” he remembered. “But I found out, unfortunately, as it was back in the late 50s and early 60s, that while some kids were getting jobs as weekend DJs — and even though we didn’t have cameras on the radio — I didn’t look the right way.”
His next career plan was, perhaps, even more ambitious: he planned on making it rich in showbiz. “I had the idea at the time, that if I got into showbiz with my saxophone, I needed to be able to manage all that money,” he explained. So, very practically, he took an entry-level accounting course at Binghamton Central High School to be ready for his future success as a saxophonist or clarinetist.
Yet, as graduation approached, he began to think that he might need something else — a back-up plan — just in case he didn’t become a star. His parents agreed. After all, they had already advised his older sister, Janice, to dual major in performance in piano/organ and in music education…just in case.
Like all parents, they wanted their children established in successful careers. John remembers that, in Binghamton in the early 1960s, black parents were “very much behind my generation” — they supported their children while lacking some opportunities for themselves. He recalls that most of the attendees of Trinity Zion Church — where his family attended for many years — were domestic workers, including his mother and father. His mother was employed as a maid for 30 years while, for 47 years, his father faithfully worked six nights a week as a janitor and watchman at the Gotham Shoe factory. He also worked four additional hours six days a week, cleaning houses for middle-to-upper income white families. “His minimum work week was 70 some hours,” John said.
“My parents didn’t point any of us four kids in a direction,” he remembers. “We kind of found our own direction. Mine wound up to be going to what was then Broome Technical Community College which is now under the nice name of SUNY Broome.”
Balancing school, work and the sax
By the time that John arrived at Broome Tech in the fall of 1960, he had decided that — if he did not become a famous saxophone player — he would be an accountant. Enrolling in the business technology program, he found it to be a tough curriculum. The accounting courses were considered to be on par with the vigor of accounting classes from a four-year college. He recalls influential instructors that had the required education but also came from careers in business and industry. He found one accounting professor to be quite interesting. “He was able to tell some good stories about problems he would have had in actual business. The practical experience that he imparted to the class was really great. It was phenomenal.”
While there were a few people of color on campus, John was the only one in his degree program. “When it came to the financial area — and this would be on more of a national basis — companies [were not very interested] in hiring black people to be involved with their money or possibly have face to face contact with their customers.” Instead, he remembers that most of the other black students such as William Geder (ET ’61) and John Scanks (ET ’63), were mechanical or electrical engineering majors. At the time, jobs in those fields were viewed to be “more available or more accessible to black people,” he explained.
Still, many black students that attended Broome Tech did not complete their degrees. “That was just part of the times,” John said, adding that they likely dropped out due to financial difficulties. He felt fortunate to be able to live at home and work at Binghamton Country Club, a summer camp, and other various jobs during the summer. He also stayed busy as a musician.
“Because I was busy playing the sax at some of the local bars, and also proms, bar mitzvahs, record hops and other stuff, I wound up — between doing my homework and studying — not really spending a lot of social time on campus.” He remembers spending good times with good friends when he was on campus and then spending time “with a completely different set of folks” for activities in his community and at his church.
A career of numbers and people in many different industries
Graduating in 1962, John’s first job was in accounting at a stock exchange and brokerage firm on the first floor of the Security Mutual Building in downtown Binghamton. Three months later, he was starting a four year stint at IBM. He worked accounts receivable and handled the expense accounts of service people and sales staff who repaired and promoted typewriters, computers and other IBM products. Eventually, he thought that he should try something else — preferably something that allowed some travel and more interaction with others.
John spent some time in a position at Endicott-Johnson, focusing on business to business credit, before joining the New Holland Farming Company in 1969. During his time, he was assigned various territories in New York, Pennsylvania and New England and was responsible for extending credit to farmers and New Holland Farming equipment dealers. “It brought into play a lot of my accounting background from Broome along with just general life skills of learning to deal with people. When there is bad winter weather, I think of those days…going up to someplace near Lake Placid to see a dealer, audit their inventory and make sure that all the stuff that it showed them owing us for was still there, and addressing whatever we had to address,” John said.
Then he worked at a business that sold auto parts to distributors and retailers. Guaranteed Parts, owned by the conglomerate Gulf and Western, had contests to see who among their staff could bring in the most cash. John says that it was a balancing act “between trying to bring in as much receivables and cash each month and to keep good relationships with ongoing customers. It was kind of like being on a teeter totter, just trying to keep it in balance.”
His next job was for a large industrial supply company called Carborundum that specialized in various products to sand and smooth things down, while also creating air-pollution, insulation and other products for manufacturers. After that, he worked as a credit manager at Revere Copper Products, Inc. While other divisions sold pots and pans, his division sold copper and brass flare and flashings for architectural domes on impressive looking buildings.
From there, he moved to East Aurora, NY to accept a position as a Fisher-Price credit manager. He said that while the company’s slogan is that ‘their work is child’s play’, it was work.
He remembers that at Fisher-Price, and some of the other companies he’d worked for, the basic requirement for positions such as his was a four-year degree. “I stopped after two years mainly because I was kind of working real hard… but because of my background and that couple of years I had at Broome, I was able to get in. But no way, no how, do I say to folks ‘just go two years and jump off’. That would be great if that fulfills what you need to do but nowadays people who have a four-year or master’s can obtain, perhaps, way above the mark that I was at. But I still say to everybody, don’t let the gold that is in SUNY Broome run though your fingers. Especially if you are saying… ‘that [community college two-year degree] or nothing’ because nothing just don’t make it.”
John’s final job, working for a student loan collection agency under the Department of Education, often gave him encounters with students who had accumulated debt from private business schools that were unaccredited for-profit businesses. While these debt-ridden students took out loans easily, they found paying them back to be much harder, especially if they’d dropped out and never sought or found a career in their major.
“Through the years, I have always promoted the idea — wherever I have been — of people attending whatever community college was available in that area,” John said. “For my experience at Broome and being able to get a good education — tough teachers, tough curriculum, wasn’t easy all the time with working and playing my horn to get through this thing — but it was a treasure. I mean, I paid $600 bucks [in total tuition]! Even converted into today’s money, it would be something like a reasonable used car. Maybe that’s more reason for someone to not buy a car — get a ride or whatever — and to put those bucks together and go to school.”
In all of his career changes, John did find time to start a family. John and his wife had three children, two sons and a daughter. He says that his daughter’s career path in particular has somewhat followed his, in that she has adapted to a multitude of different industries over the years.
His wife passed on several years ago. John, who retired nine years ago at the age of 70, now lives with “my lovely Celeste, who had also worked at Fisher-Price” in the beautiful smalltown of East Aurora, NY.
Looking back one more time to his days at Broome Tech, John notes, “For the most part, and not to put down today’s generation, we were more nerdy. We did our homework. Many of us worked part-time jobs. We had our load to carry. So, there wasn’t much talk on campus, at least that I was aware of, regarding politics. Never a word of race. I have to honestly say that as far as I can remember, there was never a word about race. I was just another kid there that had to do his work and pass his tests.”
Submitted by: Office of Alumni Affairs