Steve Jemison ’75 understands the pressures facing many of the high school students in the Law and Leadership Institute.
“Although I came from a very poor background I learned early on that failure was not an option. For me there was no going back if college didn’t work out,” Jemison said.
And, work out it did. After graduating from Moritz, Jemison headed to the National Labor Relations Board for a few years before joining Procter & Gamble. He moved up the ranks, working his way up to general counsel for Central and Eastern Europe, Middle East and Africa, corporate secretary then deputy general counsel before being named chief legal officer in 2008. He retired a few years later, satisfied with a stellar career and ready to soak up the good life.
Steve always made volunteering and charity work a part of his life. When then-Dean Nancy Rogers called to invite him to serve on the board of the newly formed Law and Leadership Institute, it was an easy decision. He has watched the organization grow and the students move through the program and on to college with pride. Last year, when the Board was searching for a replacement for Executive Director Hope Sharett ’03, the pressure was on. It is a pivotal time for LLI – student lives have been impacted, the program is building, but funding remains unstable. At a board meeting, Jemison stood up and said he would take on the position of executive director if a permanent replacement couldn’t be found right away. He didn’t want the decision rushed. Oh, and he would do it for free. The LLI board did find what it was looking for in Heather Creed, who was working for Legal Outreach, a pipeline program in New York that LLI has looked to for inspiration. But, there was a move to be made, networking to be done and contacts to be built.
“I was enjoying retirement, but I stayed involved because we are talking about our kids,” Jemison said. “When you take one kid at a time, expose them to what is possible and give them the skills to make it happen, the results can be amazing. That is what is special about LLI. I can’t imagine a better use of my retirement time than supporting this wonderful program.”
Jemison is currently serving as chief executive officer and board president and Creed is working as chief operations officer. Jemison’s unpaid service will end in the spring of 2015.
Growing up on the far south side of Chicago, Jemison knows the struggles of being the first generation to be college-bound. His parents dropped out of high school and started a family immediately. The family grew to five kids in a short time and to say things were tight would be an understatement. Steve’s father Willie Jemison, however, was not a typical man. He worked as a laborer during the day and on the weekends to put food on the table. At night he went to school. First earning his GED and then class by class, credit hour by credit hour, earning a bachelor’s degree from Moody Bible Institute.
“My dad set an example by the way he lived his life,” Jemison said. “He did not accept what his life should have been according to statistics; he wanted more. Then he went about doing what was necessary to get him there.”
As a child, Jemison was busy. There was football, a paper route, and a part-time job selling shoes. With his dad gone most of the time working or at school, his mother Bessie was the one making sure homework was done and commitments were met. And, of course, as the son of minister, there was a lot of time spent in church.
“There were a lot of people in the church who were looking out for us,” Jemison said. “I didn’t have a program like LLI, but I had a series of smaller interventions that helped me. If someone believes in you and decides you are worth it, it can really change your life.”
While he did what he needed to do, initially academics were not his strong suit. He went to Elmhurst College in suburban Chicago. After heading back home for holiday break, his first semester grades came back as Cs.
“The bell didn’t ring for me until after that first semester,” Jemison said. “Then I realized that if I worked hard enough, I could compete with anyone. I then simply made up my mind that was exactly what I was going to do. Not only was I not going to fail, I was determined to be the best I could be. From that point on both in college and law school, that is what I did. If I had to read a case five times and my classmates only had to read it once or twice, that is what I did. If I had to read it ten times, that is what I did. I just couldn’t fail.”
He earned nearly all As after that first semester in college, which led to a scholarship offer from Moritz. He claims his career success has a lot less to do with smarts than it does with finding a way to get things done.
“My simple definition of a leader is someone who knows how to work with other people to get things done,” Jemison said. “I have always tried to mirror people who are known for getting things done. My dad was that way.”
The elder Jemison stepped into the pastor role at Oakdale Covenant Church when there were barely 50 members. By the time he retired, it had grown to a congregation of more than 1,500. The Reverend saw education as the way out of the old neighborhood, founding a K-8 school in the church. He was well known in the community for using every available resource to help local kids continue their education in college. In addition to Steve, the other Jemison siblings hold several doctorates and other advanced degrees.
“If I wouldn’t have gone to law school, I would have been a teacher,” Jemison said. “What I am always trying to do is help people get through the problems they face, whether they are a big corporation or a child. That is what I am trying to do. I am so grateful that my success has allowed me to give back to our kids. It is truly a blessing.”