Spring has come, and not a moment too soon. It is time for the renewal that a new season brings. This was a tough winter on many fronts. But most notably, we marked the passing of two business legends, giants of the so-called “greatest generation.” Percy Ellis Sutton died on Dec. 26, 2009 at the age of 89 and retired Lt. Col. Lee Archer Jr. died one month later at the age of 90.
Both were men of high ideals and a tireless work ethic. Both were born into a segregated reality that limited their opportunities but somehow fueled their aspirations. Both were decorated members of the storied Tuskegee Airmen. Both were mentors, role models, and friends of mine.
Sutton, founder and chairman of BE100s company Inner City Broadcasting (ICBC, No. 80 on the BE Industrial/Service Companies list with $50 million in revenues), was raised to work hard, do right, and stand firmly on the sides of justice, excellence, and service to others. He believed, said his obituary, that “giving back is as important as gaining.”
Sutton’s long life was a consistent testament to those values. After serving as an intelligence officer in World War II, he moved to New York and attended Brooklyn Law School while holding down three jobs. As a civil rights lawyer, he famously defended and befriended Malcolm X at a time when the Muslim leader was generally regarded as a pariah.
Every decade of Sutton’s life was marked by his passionate pursuit of some new venture that managed to grow personal wealth for his family while also elevating and serving the African American community he loved. Whether serving in the New York State legislature or single-handedly saving the Apollo Theater, Sutton’s life and work were inseparably linked to the defense and advancement of our people.
No less can be said of Archer. This native son of New York joined a segregated U.S. military in 1941 and retired as a lieutenant colonel nearly 30 years later, having distinguished himself mightily. He flew an astonishing 169 combat missions and became the nation’s unofficial first black ace pilot. Joining General Foods Corp. in a second career, this military pioneer became one of the first black executives of a major corporation. He went on to found Archer Asset Management, a venture capital firm, in 1987, and in 2007, he won a Congressional Gold Medal.
These men achieved much in the course of their lives and they benefited greatly—but not nearly as much as those whose lives they touched. Sutton’s son, Pierre, continues to run Inner City Broadcasting and other business ventures. But Sutton’s direct
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