The first time Gregory R. Spencer donned a suit for work, he topped his new executive look with the steel-toed shoes he had used in the more than 20 years it took to move up the ladder.
"I got teased a lot that day," he said.
Today, despite a lifelong learning disability, the Oakland man owns and operates a chemical manufacturing company, sits on several corporate boards, engages in community volunteer service and mentors troubled, young African American men who want to be successful.
"I've been successful myself, and have a responsibility and obligation to give back," he said.
On May 4, Mr. Spencer, 63, will be honored with this year's Human Rights Award from the NAACP Washington at its 52nd annual banquet at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Pittsburgh -- Meadow Lands.
"It's really nice to get an award from your hometown since I was once a knucklehead," he said of his turbulent years during his early 20s.
Mr. Spencer attributes his drive to his hardworking, blue-collar father, the late William H. Spencer Jr., and his personality to his mother, Anna Mae Spencer.
"She can look at anyone and find good in them," he said, and that's how he strives to be.
Growing up in the Lincoln Terrace housing project in the shadow of Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, he said that as a teenager he liked to retreat to a quiet place on campus to contemplate his future.
"I did not know what success was, except that I wanted my parents to be proud of me," Mr. Spencer recalled. "But it was difficult to identify business role models where I lived."
After graduating from Washington High School in 1966, Mr. Spencer took a few classes at W&J, then enrolled Wilberforce University in Ohio, the nation's oldest private, historically black university.
He dropped out he said, because he was ill-prepared for the rigors of higher education.
Besides having a word decoding problem which makes him a slow, one-word-at-a-time reader, his development had been stunted, he said, by his segregated elementary school in which three black teachers taught two grades apiece.
After Wilberforce, he spent the next three and a half years in the Air Force, during which his hard work landed him stripes -- while his nightlife of drinking and fighting landed him in hot water.
"It was a terrible time in my life," he said.
After his honorable discharge, and determined to set his life on track, he took classes at the University of Pittsburgh at night and on weekends while working weekdays in the warehouse of U.S. Steel Irvin Works in West Mifflin.
During his 22-year ascent to becoming general manager of human resources for U.S. Steel, Mr. Spencer became involved in mentoring when the Pittsburgh Public Schools approached the corporation for help in its mentoring program.
In 1994, he was recruited to Equitable Resources as vice president of human resources, and later, senior vice president and chief administrative officer.
Then at age 55, he quit.
"I wanted to spend more time with my family, and I wanted to do something different," he said.
In 2005, he and his wife, Janet, reopened and managed the Martin Luther King Jr. Reading and Cultural Center that acts as a safe haven for children in the Hill District.
In 2006, Mr. Spencer purchased Space Chemical Inc. and changed the name to Randall Industries, which serves the natural gas, cleaning and industrial industries, and is one of the largest minority-owned chemical manufacturing companies in the nation.
Three years ago, he moved the administrative offices of the 17-employee company to the Lower Hill District across from UPMC Mercy.
Randall Industries also operates a manufacturing plant in Cherry Tree, Indiana County.
He hopes to build a second plant in the Pittsburgh inner-city to create job opportunities and foster a work ethic with mentored youth.
Mr. Spencer is a board member of Chester Engineers and Fifth Third Bank of Western Pennsylvania and is on the executive committee of the Board of Trustees of Robert Morris University.
He is past chairman of the African American Chamber of Commerce of Western Pennsylvania and of the Education Committee of the Sigma Pi Phi fraternity of professional black men.
As a mentor, Mr. Spencer does whatever it takes to help guide young men, from working out in gyms together to accompanying them on college visits, to reiterating his favorite piece of advice:
"Don't ever let anyone tell you you can't have a dream."
Margaret Smykla, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.