Local university professor and public servant Joseph Greene has chronicled his victory over poverty and hardship in a book he hopes will inspire others to pursue their dreams and contribute to their communities.
Dr. Greene's book, From Cotton Fields to Board Rooms, discusses events in his life starting in the fields of rural Emanuel County where he toiled as a child and ending with his work as chairman of the Board of Regents of the University System in Georgia.
Dr. Joseph Greene
"I just hope someone will be inspired, especially the young fellows who give up on themselves," said Dr. Greene, the Cree Walker Professor of Business Administration at Augusta State University who makes his home in Thomson.
Dr. Greene decided to write his book after keeping a log of all major decisions he and the board or regents made over a seven year period.
"As time passed, I thought, 'Why not expand that to include other boards?" he said. Eventually, he decided to share his life story in the hopes it would be a motivating force to someone who had given up on their dreams and aspirations.
Dr. Greene should know the temptation to give up: as an African American from a rural family, he clearly remembers walking the cotton fields wondering "what if?" Although in the 1940s the fields seemed endless, the temperatures seemed unbearably hot and it seemed as though there was no way to escape the grueling job of picking cotton from sunup until sundown, he managed to keep those dreams that seemed so far from his reach.
"To my parents' credit, they did not dash my dreams. Perhaps they were their dreams, too," he said.
He left the fields fortified with 35 hard earned dollars saved from picking cotton, a high school diploma, and some good advice from his uncle: "There is no T in can't -- only can."
That philosophy stayed with him including his time in McDuffie County where he worked as a salesman and "just fell in love with Thomson." Over the years, his uncle's sage advice would guide him to the inner sanctums of a dozen boardrooms across the state.
He accumulated several "firsts" along the way including being among the first African Americans to graduate from a predominantly white college and later join its faculty, the first African American elected to public office in McDuffie County (school board 1970), the first to sit on the boards of at least a dozen organizations, the first to lead the board of regents, and among the first in his family to survive cancer.
Despite numerous obstacles because of his race, including having to take a literacy test in order to vote and sitting in the back of the bus en route to military training after being drafted during the Vietnam War, Dr. Greene maintains a positive outlook.
"Despite all its flaws, this is still the greatest country in the world," he said.
"Joe Greene is an example of how a person in a family can work hard, pull themselves up by their boot straps and become successful in life," said Bob Knox, a friend.
"It's not only a credit to his family, but a credit to him individually. He's got character and integrity, and when you combine that with hard work, awfully good things happen, and they have definitely happened with him," he said.
Dr. Greene's ability to keep dreams thriving is remarkable, said Peggy Willis, a McDuffie County teacher who chose her profession after becoming inspired by Dr. Greene. He has visited her classroom several times to offer motivation to the students, helping them focus their dreams and ambitions, she said.
Ms. Willis remembers a visit in 2000 where Dr. Greene told students how much he loved people.
"He said he was blessed by God to share an important message with important people (students!). He said he felt that people should share experiences so that we can help others learn to improve themselves. He said we should all be good students in life," according to Ms. Willis.
"Dr. Greene's best advice to students was to love their jobs," she said. "He told them they need to be enthusiastic about their work because they will spend so much time doing it."
In addition to teaching, Dr. Greene conducts workshops on financial planning, publishes articles on finance and economics, and is a motivational speaker. He authored Money Matters, serves as director of the Georgia Council on Economic Education and is president elect of the Rotary Club in Augusta.
Dr. Greene, who served as executive vice president of chief marketing officer for the Pilgrim Life Insurance Company, sits on the boards of First Bank of Georgia, Healthcare Georgia Foundation, St. Joseph Hospital, the CSRA Community Foundation and the National Science Center Discovery.
Excerpts from From Cotton Fields to Board Rooms
When I was tempted to quit, I reflected on my rich heritage. A heritage uprooted from the soil of the African continent and planted in the soil of this great country. My ancestors' roots are deeply planted in the soil of this nation's past, present, and future. By the sweat of the brow, the shedding of blood, my ancestors carved a place in American history. A rich heritage that helped this nation rise to unparalleled power and greatness. So quitting was not an option for me because I had the presence of God and my ancestors pointing the way through the treacherous journey of life.
"As I left the Cross-Greene community at the age of 18 to strike out on my own, with $35 that I had saved from picking cotton, along with millions of dollars in aspirations, I always knew that I was not alone. God's presence directed my path as I traveled the road of uncertainly."
Borders book store (Augusta Exchange) May 5, 11 a.m.-1 p.m.
Waldenbooks (Augusta Mall) May 12, noon-1 p.m.