Remembering Warren Wiggins
OUR COMPANY WAS called “TransCentury,” inspired by a James Reston column in The New York Times, January 1, 1967, which talked about the necessity in the last third of the 20th Century of focusing not on the problems of the industrial North but the impoverishment of the South, of speaking to the dreams of the young rather than succoring the memories of the old.
TranCentury’s first headquarters was on 7th Street in the ghetto of Washington, D.C., housed in an abandoned used-furniture store. The idea was for us to work in a poor community and catch something of the flavor of poverty and at the same time project a picture far different than the royal edifices that today house the World Bank and other so-called anti-poverty agencies.
Wiggins had clear ideas of how he wanted his company to run; some of them were:
- Open office space. We had no cubicles: Staff worked at long tables. Enthusiasm was epidemic and morale soared off the charts. Those doing analytical work were encouraged to work at home. Our shop looked and sounded much like a storefront political campaign headquarters.
- Furniture was old and decrepit. Fancy chairs, wall-to-wall carpeting, and poor abstract art hanging on the walls was eschewed.
- Personnel standards did not exist. In the strictest sense, age, education, previous experience, and the rest of the “Human Resource” folderol were trashed. What we looked for in staff was drive, accomplishment, and ability. TransCentury was for people who cared and sought to help.
- No such thing as a permanent job existed at TransCentury except maybe Warren’s. We brought in business and/or worked it . . . or left. Indeed, everyone was encouraged to do his own thing and then leave and take what they learned with them. In 1968, for example, a third of the staff left to work for Gene McCarthy we all came back and another third left to work for Bobby Kennedy they came back, too.
- Scheduled meetings were unheard of. If something needed to be discussed, spontaneous interchanges would break out around the office.
- WWW was front and center. He sat in the middle of the traffic, usually next to the Xerox machine. He could be approached at anytime by anyone, including job seekers and the homeless off the street . . . and often was.
- Extracurricular behavior was encouraged. During slow periods, for example, I often played darts.
- TransCentury welcomed babies, children, and dogs B.J. Warren, RPCV Peru, even brought her St. Bernard to work; the beast routinely chased the mail carrier from the office.
- Warren imposed no sales “quotas” on us. People worked hard, because they wanted to, while having fun doing it.
- Youth was no impediment to employment. I once talked about a prospective job seeker to Warren; I described him as “awfully young.”
“What does that have to do with anything?” he shot back.
- The Black, Brown, Peace, Sexual and Feminist revolutions we missed the “Green” thing took place at TransCentury six months to one year ahead of becoming national news.
- Nothing was sacrosanct. When we reasoned together during those spontaneous sessions around someone’s workspace, the only rule was never to laugh at someone’s suggestion.
Warren’s kind of brainstorming.
- All the same, laughter was omnipresent, especially laughing with, at, or because of the Boss. My part-time job was giving Warren the needle; he gave it right break I have the scars.
WARREN WAS A FATHER arren was a father (six kids), an airman (he flew the hump in WW II), a Harvard-trained economist (he was bored to death in Cambridge), one of the youngest GS-15’s in the history of the government, a Marshall Plan administrator (Bolivia, Norway, the Philippines), author of “The Towering Task,” the seminal paper for the invention of the Peace Corps, a pretty good poet, a cunning cartoonist, a master gardener, and an entrepreneur extraordinary.
His greatest legacy was managing, nay, leading people as if they mattered. He unleashed me and dozens of others to be the people we and they were meant to be.
With Warren Wiggins, the glass was never half-filled or half empty: it was always overflowing.