In the Spotlight: Gerard Olexson '63, Bs in Chemistry
Gerard Olexson may have enrolled at St. Francis College more than 60 years ago, but the lessons he learned here linger to this day. The very capable staff at the college provided Olexson with foresight to develop many of his life-changing plans.
Olexson pursued two passions during his collegiate career: science (as a chemistry major) and politics, as a Young Republican and active participant in student government. Both formed his long, successful professional life, first as a professional chemist, then as a businessman, and later as government official holding senior positions in federal agencies in Washington, DC.
Fueled by innate curiosity and a passion for learning, Olexson found himself working around the globe after earning an MBA in 1970 from New York University. His skills were periodically updated via sabbaticals to Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Administration at Princeton University. He eventually made his way to our nation's capital, where he remains today.
The proud father of three, grandfather of five and great-grandfather to three recently reflected on his St. Francis years and his life after graduation.
You're Brooklyn born and bred. Tell me about your upbringing.
I grew up in the Brownsville/East New York section of Brooklyn. It was an assimilation of different immigrants and people of different colors and [economic] status, well before the "diversification" term came into social view. I lived it before even knowing about it. I attended local public schools and then went on to Most Holy Trinity located on Montrose Avenue in the heart of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. That meant learning how to travel on the subway systems, relate to many folks and thrive in the exciting environment of New York City where I grew up. So one became pretty self-sufficient in pursuit of an education. Part-time work during high school and college years allowed me to earn my tuition without resorting to student loans. Many an hour was spent at the Andrew Carnegie Library at 42nd street and 5th Avenue using the splendid research materials of the institution.
It was a good upbringing. It taught me a lot about how to live, taught me how to survive, taught me to place real substantial goals in front of me and not be misled by the zeitgeist of the moment or flavor of the month.
What was your family like?
I came from a large family, six siblings. Each had their own individuality. My mother and father instilled in us, "Do what you want to become and become what you want to do. Don't let other people or other things or ideas deter you unless it's in your best interest."
A spiritual Catholicism rather than a ritualistic one was the center of my family's strength. God, family and country were our pivotal points. Discussion of religion, politics and world events, and future musings were encouraged at our dinner table. Hopefulness was always being served. Very interesting as my parents were subjected to The Great Depression in the early years of their long marriage.
So with that, I spring-boarded into my adult avocation. I knew I wanted to be a chemist.
How did you decide to attend St. Francis College?
I received acceptance into four or five local universities/colleges. I went to visit St. Francis at the behest of a friend of mine. He said, "I'm going to apply to this little college over there on Baltic Street" - St. Francis's campus at that time - which I didn't know anything about. But when I walked the halls, it was amazing. I call it love at first sight. I said, "This is the school I want to attend."
At that time the enrollment was 600 students. Of course it was an all men's college, but the pursuit of scholarly excellence was really first-rate. We also had a great competitive basketball team. Hence the name Terriers was very appropriate.
What made you fall in love with St. Francis?
The classes were in the neighborhood of 14 to 18 students. You had a lot of interactive dialogue in the classroom, which was very impressive to me. The Student Lounge was always a center of dialogue, discussion and open encouraged debate. Political Correctness had not yet been implemented as censorship. As students, we were encouraged to dialogue between the teachers and the student body, which is what I found so very motivating. This was similar in many respects to the ancient Greece education platforms. St. Francis College did not train but educated you to think to your fullest. The ideas and ability of my education came from the liberal arts education. This began the foundation for my ability to change careers and job fields. Training was not the objective; thinking was.
The classes at other colleges I visited were anywhere between 30 and 40 students, some sleeping, some not paying attention, some just kind of passing the 45 minutes. But St. Francis had a much different flavor. That's what I wanted. I had a thirst for knowledge. I still look upon the Franciscan Brothers, who were very prevalent on campus then, with admiration and respect for their ability to teach effectively, engage the students and advise with wisdom and foresight. At the same time instilled the necessity of learning discipline and the value it ultimately provided to you.
What did you end up studying here?
I pursued my BS degree in chemistry at St. Francis. Interestingly, I still have my first five chemistry books. I had good teachers, actually excellent teachers. They were forward thinkers. They were looking forward in terms of what were the up and coming science fields. For example, Brother Simeon encouraged me to follow a career in the new discipline of biochemistry. This was a small offshoot of chemistry at the time, but today one of the five largest growing fields and breakthrough areas in medical science. Brother Leo talked about the emerging machine-driven problem solving, well before computers and Artificial Intelligence were part of the vernacular. The theme of "teach me about tomorrow" was excellent.
What else were you involved with here?
I was politically active at St. Francis. We had an organization called the Young Republicans Club and I became a very interested member. I'm a science major and generally science majors are totally oblivious to the world around them. Not so with this budding chemist. The YRC was my playground. We even had a Presidential candidate, Senator Barry Goldwater, accept our invitation to speak before the student body.
As I had very little time available to play sports, I helped organize a college Weight Lifting Club as a way of encouraging good health habits. These habits have remained with me today as part of my daily routine.
Was there a big moment for you in your St. Francis political life?
I was made a member of the old Phi Rho Pi fraternity organization, which was part of a national organization. The competing Pi Alpha fraternity was also on campus at the time. The student council was occupied by the Pi Alpha members. They had too much power and influence and institutionalized the offices.
So Phi Rho Pi basically pulled a coup. We organized and put in good solid candidates along with a well thought-out campaign. When the student council elections came up, we managed to take every class office. Naturally, a very satisfying accomplishment but a doorway into a much broader aspect of my journey began.
That was the seeding of my political life.
Did you stick with politics after graduation?
When I graduated St. Francis, I was politically active in the City of New York. I was among one of the early founders and organizers of the Conservative Party established by Michael Long. Our meetings were held in his ice cream store, located in Cypress Hills on Euclid Avenue. We were purpose driven and not constrained by the political intrigues and obligations of the city Democratic Party organization. Our Conservative Party organized to get Republican candidate John V. Lindsey elected as the first Republican Mayor of New York City in a generation. Of course the Conservative Party is an effective national organization today.
Of course most of the original founders moved on in life, like myself. But it was a very good experience. This episode taught me about politics and taught me how to see another side of the issues and positions taken by others. Compromise is a welcome friend, best courted in almost all situations.
What did you do career-wise in Private Industry after graduation?
I went to work as a full-fledged chemist for several industrial chemical companies, including Shulton Fine Chemicals, a subsidiary of Union Carbide Chemical Co, and Oakite Industrial Chemicals. I stayed in the field for about, let's see, probably a good seven years. During that time I developed a chemical which allowed for the first time oil and water to be miscible. The product Sodium Sulfonate was derived from lignin. I offer my sincere thanks to Drs. Burke, Marchisotto and McLaughlin of the St. Francis Science Department for their fine tutelage in research and development.
And after that?
I moved into the financial area by pursuing an MBA.
Little did I know I was going to end up with an NYU degree! It took me five years at night. Consequently, I knew my days in the laboratory were coming to an end.
Next I moved on to a career on Wall Street. I was hired on by NL Industries, a multibillion dollar holding company with worldwide subsidiaries and operations. My position was in the Corporate Development Department as part of the Chairman's Office. My career spanned 10 years.
My position allowed me entry into what we call today worldwide global operations. For the company, I worked in South America. Lived for three years throughout South America which included Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, Chile. I might add, all during a period of communist social unrest as added flavor to my daily routine there. I had a family, which of course I could not take with me, but I came home on R & R. I then traveled throughout operations in Central America, then Mexico. I had assignments in Canada and Europe as well.
From there I went on to a directorship at the old Grand Union Company, a 2 billion dollar business. Completely in a different direction, a U.S. and Caribbean based retail food business.
Then you finally got into government?
I ended up as a Presidential appointee, by President Ford in Washington, DC. For what I thought would be a short term position in Public Service.
I managed to survive seven presidents, worked for the Postal Service in many, many different assignments during my career tenure. One award I am particularly proud of I received from Coretta Scott King, Widow of Dr. Martin Luther King. This distinguished service award was given to me for having served on the Martin Luther King Youth Movement Committee over several years. Each year we organized a week long gathering of 2000 disadvantaged minority youth for a motivation and educational gathering in Washington D.C.
When I retired the first time from the Postal Service, I moved over to the Department of Homeland Security, when it was just in its formative stages after the 9/11 tragic attack on the country.
Tom Ridge, the first secretary of the DHS, was my boss. I stayed with that assignment for about two years. I worked in an area called the Office of Technology and Science Directorate which was dealing with the real threats that the country was facing, from possible nuclear attack to bio-engineering and bacterial and germ warfare. As a side note I always think of Brother Simeon advising me 50 years prior to consider the biochemistry field because of the huge potential. Yes, but in a way far different than we could ever imagine. Indeed this assignment was ideal for me considering my previous journeys.
After putting in a lot of sweat and tears, I retired. I was retired for about seven months, and I went to work for the city of Alexandria, Virginia and their financial management. Stayed in that assignment for five years and am now officially retired.
Looking back now, what comes to mind when you think of St. Francis?
My student career at St. Francis was extremely good. It's heartfelt even to this day. It's one of the key points in my life to which I owe much of my success. The St. Francis College family is indeed that; from the Franciscan Brothers, notable Professors and the great administrative staff that offered assistance and help to the helpless students who entered the doorway of their office. The lively interaction of the student body was earmarked by cooperation, help and lively challenges of opinion. I took a lot away with me and it helped me get through some very, very difficult times in life. More important was the instilling of discipline that is the cornerstone of my successes.
How does the Franciscan tradition factor in your life?
I think I developed a lot of respect for the institution of the Franciscans because I always knew they gave me the wisdom and tools to make my plans a reality no matter what obstacles and challenges arose. The first planning tool I ever use – in anything I wanted to pursue – is a good heartfelt discussion with God and prayer. Next was seeking the learned experience of those who traveled before me in the direction I wanted to pursue.
My careers and life have been a great journey made possible by the Franciscan St. Francis College experience. Thank you!