MY grandfather was a Methodist minister. When I was growing up in Washington, his sermons at the Park Road Community Church, which he helped to found, had a powerful impact on me. He made sure I understood that I had a responsibility to give back and help make life better for others.
My mother had a master's degree and was a teacher, a principal and then an administrator in the local school system. My father, also a college graduate, worked at the Postal Service.
I attended public schools, which were segregated at the time. I later transferred to an all-boys Catholic high school, where I played basketball and football. I was awarded a scholarship to Rutgers in 1963, but I had a few distractions and lost my scholarship. My father made it plain that I had to make my own way, so I returned to Washington and enrolled at American University. To pay the bills, I worked selling clothes in downtown department stores.
After I received my marketing degree in 1968, I applied to the Xerox Corporation three times but had no luck. So I went to a job fair to make my case in person, and the company hired me. I quickly became Xerox's top salesperson in the mid-Atlantic area. It awarded me a trophy for my success, and when I showed it to my dad, his very practical reaction was: "Where is the money?"
After two years, I moved to the company headquarters in Rochester, and then enrolled at Stanford for an M.B.A. I loved California, but when I graduated in 1972, Xerox expected me to return to Rochester -- which I did. Years later, I met my wife, Donna, at a sales conference in California. We have two adult children.
I spent 31 years at Xerox, and throughout my career there I pushed to hire high-achieving women and members of minority groups. My last job there was as executive vice president of its worldwide operations.
In 1999, I became chief executive of Avis Group Holdings. We revitalized the company and sold it to the Cendant Corporation two years later. In 2003, I joined Equitant, a provider of outsourced management services. I.B.M. bought the company in 2005.
As part of my travels, I have enjoyed learning about different cultures. I have also had what my wife calls my daredevil adventures, including swimming with sharks in Bora Bora and traveling to the Alborz Mountains of Iran in 2006 with an expedition searching for Noah's Ark. This year, I spent time in Tanzania with the Hadza, an ancient hunter-gatherer tribe that uses click sounds to communicate.
I know that education set me on the right life path, so in 2006, as a way to give back, I became the chairman of Howard University's board of trustees. I also set up a scholarship there, named for my mother, for students who want to teach in urban schools.
Four years ago I became chief executive of AARP, the nonprofit group that focuses on helping people 50 and older. We are tackling many crucial issues, including improving health care and bolstering financial security for retirees.
The importance of secure final years was underscored for me because my father lived with us for the last eight years of his life. The toughest moment was asking for his car keys. I tried to soften the blow by telling him that at his stage of life -- he lived to be 82 -- he deserved to be chauffeured. To my surprise, he agreed.
I came full circle by moving back to Washington, and I feel that AARP can help millions who are worried about their retirement. This is a mission that takes over your heart and soul.
As told to Elizabeth Olson.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.