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History, pride, progress after WorldCom

Musings

Pride is a funny thing. Too little pride, and you`ll find yourself wallowing in the mud. Too much, and you`ll end up losing everything just to save face. The worst thing about pride is its ability to cloud our vision and color our judgment.

WorldCom has emerged from bankruptcy, shedding its name, its colorful CEO and its Southern roots along the way. The new MCI will forge ahead as we all sit amid the broken pieces and wonder what went wrong. While the media tried to paint a picture of corporate greed, I knew the real culprit was pride.

For those of us in Clinton, WorldCom`s demise was especially painful… not because of a grand economic impact but because of our damaged pride. We all knew of Bernie and his great success with a high-tech tiger. We had seen him at football games at Mississippi College, witnessed his generosity as new buildings on the campus sprang to life and knew the story of the rise of the basketball coach to the top of corporate America.

When the first whispers of the company`s planned relocation to Clinton started circulating, you could feel the excitement in the air. And when the announcement was made official, we strutted and crowed, our pride on display for all to see. A Fortune 500 company was locating in our midst. Others looked at us differently, and we looked at ourselves differently, because we knew we were in for a grand ride.

But we didn`t know we had a tiger by the tail and that the ride would be so short-lived.

For Clintonians and all Mississippians, the story of WorldCom has been told, but the story of our own shattered dreams and bruised pride remains hidden. We don`t crow and strut any longer. Some simply hang their heads, while others pretend it didn`t happen.

Three WorldCom employees worked together, often secretly, to uncover the massive fraud at the company. Their names are Gene Morse, Cynthia Cooper and Glyn Smith. They did not create the problems of a declining business in a declining industry. They did not commit the fraud which was perpetrated on investors. They did nothing wrong.

In fact, they did everything right. They upheld the values we claim to hold so dear… values taught to them by strong families and a strong community, and they paid a heavy price.

Two of those three, Cooper and Smith, grew up in Clinton and were educated in Clinton public schools. Both took accounting at Clinton High School from Glyn`s mom. I went through Leadership Clinton with Glyn. We all know them and know their families. But we don`t talk about it now.

When I read the two-page article in The Wall Street Journal detailing how they worked to uncover the fraud, I cheered. What courage and integrity they displayed! They stood up to giants in the business world. They put their principles into practice. What could make us more proud?

But there was no ticker tape parade. No key to the city. No full-page ad hawking their connection to Clinton or to Mississippi. No awards from the governor. While Cynthia showed up on the cover of TIME as one of the magazine`s three women of the year, from us, there was just silence, a cold shoulder and a wounded pride.

The unspoken words hang over the company, the town and the state. If only they had kept their mouths shut. If only they had let things slide. If only…

And most don`t recognize that their silence would not have changed the fate of WorldCom. It would only have delayed it. And that delay, surely, would have meant no possibility for emerging from bankruptcy. No possibility of preserving the company intact and no possibility of preserving the jobs of Mississippians.

Recently, I received a call from a fellow Rotarian, Kay Steed. Kay serves as the district governor for Rotary for Central Mississippi. She had been impressed by Cynthia Cooper`s courage and integrity and wanted to present her with a very special award. So, at our recent banquet, District 6820 of Rotary International presented Cynthia with a four way test award, which is a guide for ethical practices in business and in our personal lives. It was my privilege to give her a plaque, bestowing honorary membership in the Clinton club.

That evening, Cynthia spoke of being in the middle of a firestorm. She called the events surrounding WorldCom a tragedy, and she claimed they really had no choice. But I know better.

In every action or inaction, there is a choice. We can choose to do what is right, or we can choose to keep silent. Honestly, I don`t know if I would have made the same choice, given the circumstances. And that thought is quite humbling.

I met Cynthia`s dad that night, shook his hand, and told him that he must be very proud of his daughter. He nodded and grinned from ear to ear.

Yes, pride is a funny thing.

Nancy Lottridge Anderson, CFA, is president of New Perspectives Inc. in Clinton. Her e-mail address is nanderson@newper.com, and she`s online at www.newper.com.

About Chris Elkins

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