James Cunniff '66: Learning the value of being a good communicator

A personal account of realizing the importance of his academic experience

James Cunniff '66

I earned a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering from UMassD in 1966, back when it was Southeastern Massachusetts Technical Institute. I later earned an MBA from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1978. 

The story I tell expresses an only recent appreciation for a course taken at UMassD in 1963 or 1964. My message goes out to students and graduates that true appreciation of lessons and courses often comes much later, if at all.

Like many engineering students, English courses were mostly tolerated, not really appreciated. Professor Earl Diaz taught a class based on "All the King's Men" by Robert Penn Warren. The novel was based on a fictitious governor in the recession era in the Deep South; many believed it was actually based on Huey Long's life. The course curriculum was based on assigned readings, with following classes covering the history of that time as well as implied messages in the text. I know that I really enjoyed the class without understanding why, but I had not expressed my admiration for it. Professor Diaz also wrote for the New Bedford
newspaper, and was a syndicated columnist for national newspapers. 

In my career, I developed a real appreciation for people who could speak well, with a very good command of the English language, clear diction and staying on point while speaking. In 1973, I was out playing golf, teamed up with a placement agent. While talking he asked me about my present job and education. He then told me about a position that he had been trying to fill for two years. I told him that I wasn't interested because I had only been with my present employer for one year.

I phoned him four days later, telling him that I had developed an interest. About two weeks later, I was meeting with the vice president of engineering there, who was about five years older than me. We spoke about engineering assignments, the about the current job opening assignments. When he asked if I had any concerns about taking the position, I told him that I was concerned about the current economy. He replied that there was only one layoff in the young company's history; it was considered a management error, because they didn't know if the company lagged or led the national economy. He went on to tell me about efforts to seek out counter cyclical customers to balance their future. The most surprising thing about this discussion to me was that he was treating me as an equal, not as a young job applicant. Two weeks later, I met the vice president of personnel about two weeks later. He was an exceptional communicator also. I quickly realized that this was the kind of company that I wanted to work for.

We quickly came to an agreement on employment. I spent the last 28 years of my employment there. Fifteen years later I was on the staff consulting with company-owned affiliates in Canada, Mexico, and Finland. The last nine years of employment was seeking out and developing material suppliers in China and Asia. Nearly 90% of my travels were alone.

My work history far exceeded any and all expectations. And at this late stage I finally realize that Professor Earl Diaz had a significant influence on me. I wish I had communicated that to him years ago.

Submitted by James Cunniff '66

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