The Mission May/June 2008 Spotlight on Alums Spurlock Works Hard to Keep Americans Employed By Jim Ryan, OCLA
Delbert Spurlock has had a venerable career for nearly half a century in government, including a stint with the EEOC. He has also held a variety of high level positions in business and academia, helping people at one of the most fundamental life activities finding and keeping a job.
Spurlock grew up in Oberlin, Ohio. He said his Oberlin boyhood "gave meaning and resonance to (my) life," helping him gravitate to public service and human rights. Oberlin is home to Oberlin College — the nation's first co-educational college and one of the first to admit African American students when it was not only unfashionable, but unheard-of. In the pre-Civil War era, the town was also a hotbed of abolitionism. "I found my ethic" in Oberlin, he said. "My Weekly Reader and Current Events [magazines] inspired me and took me into the wider world," he said. "I wanted to be in government from fourth grade."
Spuriock's Oberlin youth also included manual labor - he worked as a dishwasher in the Oberlin Inn and as a hod carrier (a laborer who carries bricks and mortar to brick layers and stonemasons) for a mason contractor.
After attending Hamilton College and graduating from Oberlin in 1963, he worked on a small newspaper, the Mississippi Free Press in Jackson, Miss., before entering Howard University's law school. In the summer of 1965, while a law student, Spurlock joined a summer program run by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund that placed people in the south to educate citizens about Title VII, which would become operational on July 2.
As part of the program, Spurlock was mentored by the Nashvjle Law Firm of Zephaniah Alexander Looby and Avon Williams, a cousin of future Justice Thurgood Marshall. Spurlock assisted the lawyers in spreading the message to NAACP chapters and churches throughout Tennessee about the meaning of Title VII. Soon after the effective date of the Act, a man named Robert Hall came into Spurlock's office asking to file a Title VII complaint. Spurlock assisted him in drafting his EEOC charge.
The resulting case, Hall v. Worthen Bag, was the first-ever reported case under Title VII. In an interlocutory order, the U.S. District Court for Tennessee held that "... race discrimination was inherent), class discrimination." Spurlock said, "This case established our presence."
Spurlock got started on his childhood dream of working for the government when he joined the Nashville Area office of the Department of Labor, where he enforced federal wage and hour laws in the coal mining areas of Tennessee and Kentucky.
Getting suspicious Tennesseans to trust the government to help them was no piece of cornbread. "Most people in eastern Tennessee and Kentucky thought of government as a bunch of 'revenuers,'" Spurlock said.
It was there he heard about an opening for special assistant to EEOC Commissioner Elizabeth Kuck, and thus Del Spurlock came to the Commission. Kuck, who served from 1968 to 1970, wrote a large portion of the EEOC 's sex discrimination and pregnancy regulations, and Spurlock took part helping to ensure that the regulations comported with Kuck's vision of breaking the barriers to full participation for women in the work force.
"It was a real team effort lead by extraordinary staff people," Spurlock recalled. "There were at that time a significant number of extraordinary women in government who all understood the need for and fought for such regulations." After Kuck's departure, Spurlock went to work for Commissioner Colston "Choke" Lewis. Spurlock's principal memories of the EEOC are his high regard for his colleagues. "People at EEOC are really on a mission, working tremendously hard, being challenged to get the law correct and advance equal employment opportunity across the country," he recalled. "True believing people. Their party didn't matter. People were more 'ecumenical' then — the parties weren't as segregated as they are now."
After the EEOC, Spurlock moved to California and a new job at the UC Davis law school. He served on the admissions committee, setting up admissions procedures and formulas that attracted more minority and female students while standing up to legal scrutiny. By contrast, admissions procedures at Davis's medical school were challenged in the famous Bakke case.
While at Davis, Spurlock was appointed by Gov. Ronald Reagan to the state commission charged with distributing the governor's discretionary funds for a federal manpower development program.
In 1981, Spurlock received an appointment from then-President Reagan to be general counsel of the U.S. Army. In 1 983, he became assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs. In that position, he pursued a "whole-person approach" to recruitment and retention, leading to ''an environment where the soldiers blossomed." The first Gulf War, Spurlock added, was fought by the enlisted soldiers nurtured under the system the Army promoted in that era.
Spurlock was tapped by another president to help with manpower – the first President Bush appointed him deputy secretary of labor. Spurlock created a structure to help prepare youth for work using retired military people to help augment after-school programs. "You could call them boot camps," Spurlock said, '' but they were really institutions of preparation for learning for kids who needed them."
At a major White House Cabinet Domestic Council meeting on urban problems convened by President George H.W. Bush after the Rodney King riots in 1992, the talk turned to employment. HUE) Secretary Jack Kemp gave Spurlock the floor, saying, "Jobs are Del's thing, Mr. President."
In the early 1990s, publisher Mort Zuckerman recruited Spurlock to come to New York to help with labor problems at the Daily News. He's been there ever since, as associate publisher and executive vice president. Spurlock works a great deal with community affairs, especially the community boards which are so important in the nation's biggest city.
No, he doesn't write those entertaining headlines, but he's pleased to be where he is. "The Daiiy News is an extraordinary place to be because of what the paper represents and the people who are dedicated to ifs excellence," he said. "It's the best tabloid in the country."
Throughout all his posts in government and academia, Spurlock made signal contributions to the never-ending challenge of keeping Americans employed. He's been white-collar nearly all his life, but he's never forgotten his job as a hod carrier, and the fact that many of his childhood friends wound up blue-collar, happy and fulfilled.
"I've always had a great appreciation for what labor means," Spurlock said. "Laboring together is a tremendous integrative and conflict-ameliorating force. You're going to get through a lot of stuff with your coworkers its like the army."