Walter Massey (Courtesy Photo)
By Ralph E. Moore Jr.
Special to the AFRO
Sept. 12-14, 2008, was once described as “the weekend from hell” by a man born years earlier in the Hattiesburg, Mississippi of 1938. Walter Massey grew up to be a “go to man for all reasons.” After completing his study of theoretical physics at Morehouse College in Atlanta, a rare choice of major for an African-American student, he began his professional career as a faculty member at the University of Illinois. Then Massey spent 10 years at Brown University, starting as a tenured associate professor of physics who became dean of the college in Providence, Rhode Island. He next became director of the Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago (where he had once worked as a researcher). He was appointed Provost of the University of California System before returning to his alma mater, Morehouse College, as its president. He retired in 2007 but remained on some boards of directors. One such board seat was with Bank of America and eventually, suddenly and surprisingly, Massey, a theoretical physicist, became the chairman of the board. And that is when the weekend from hell happened.
Dr. Massey writes about his fascinatingly adventure-filled life in a memoir entitled, “In the Eye of the Storm.” He is an obviously gifted man, who has lived quite a varied, demanding, never-a-dull-moment life, giving of himself. And so, when voted by his fellow board members to the leadership of one of the most highly respected banks in the nation, he accepted the challenge. Massey tells the story of the near collapse of the country’s financial world with names, quotes and suspense. Those who can remember it recall the tension reported on the broadcast news and the feeling in the air of impending doom.
It fell to a scientist-professor-administrator to chair the board of a major player bank in the national and potential global crisis. He was not a banker.
The bad news of investment firm Merrill Lynch’s actual financial circumstances unfolded after the Bank of America acquired it. Then on Oct. 3, 2008, President George Bush created TARP (The Troubled Asset Relief Program) signed into effect and thus began the bailout of the banking industry including the housing market. Events, actions and circumstances moved quickly and impacted other pieces like solving a Rubik’s cube. As a very new board chairman, Massey made phone calls for hurried meetings, faced unmerciful deadlines and worked with an inside face while struggling to steady the financial ship of state. His leadership of the board had implications for the whole banking fleet and his outside face had to keep things calm. He learned about credit default swaps, bad debt and the details of the housing market.
Then Lehman Brothers, the fourth largest investment bank in the world went bankrupt, dropping the stock market 504 points in one day.
Eventually the stock market collapsed but to learn how Massey helped Bank of America through the nation’s worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, reading his memoir is a must.
Massey’s life story is woven around that fateful weekend of September 2008. His growing up in the South, his love of physics, his teaching and administrative posts are told in such a way that you want to know more. His wife, Shirley Anne, his sons, Keith and Eric, their two dogs and their two cats made for a fine, supportive and loving family that dutifully accompanied Dr. Massey on his professional journeys to new places of employment.
Massey’s trip to the eye of the storm will rivet your attention until the calm comes after the storm as he tells it.