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When We Were Nerds

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“Why didn’t the shark eat Jean Cardwell?” my first boss Larry Ragan would ask his young editors. “Professional courtesy.”

But the publisher of Speechwriters Newsletter always told it in a way that suggested he was joking about headhunters in general, and not Cardwell herself, who was the only recruiter to use if you were looking for a speechwriter.

And whenever we’d call Cardwell to get a quote on trends in speechwriting, we understood she was no shark—and in most ways, she was a professional friend, in an era long before the Professional Speechwriters Association, and even before the Internet, when professional speechwriting friends were awfully hard to find.

Despite the fact that we are both based in Chicago, it had been about two decades since I’d last spoken with Cardwell. She had long since been supplanted as the go-to speechwriting recruiter by specialty arms of larger firms, like Heyman Associates. But when an-out-of-work speechwriter mentioned her to me recently, I realized she was still in business and I asked her to lunch.

Jean Cardwell knows a lot of things, and one of them is how to do lunch. She suggested Gibson’s Steakhouse, out near O’Hare. The reservation would be in her name. Twelve o’clock. We were both there 20 minutes early.

I’d warned her I would bring my reporter’s notebook, and she didn’t mind my launching right into the questioning about of her recruiting days, which commenced mid-career, after she left a job as a communication executive in the early 1980s.

“I’m a tryer,” she told me. And so she tried recruiting. Shedding her first name “Gloria” in favor of what she hoped was a more gender-neutral middle name, she made visits to then-corporate HQ-heavy Pittsburgh and Houston, where she found her first client: Exxon. “I thought, ‘I’m the smallest company in the world and they’re the largest,’” she said. They made a good match, and Cardwell went on to conduct searches for speechwriters and other communication positions for Exxon, Mobil, and a number of other oil companies.

The large recruiting firms were content to leave communication recruiting to Cardwell, because, she says, “they considered it beneath them.”

Cardwell came to own it—and she kept on owning it for years, even after the Internet “made it a totally different game.” She continued to do all her business on the phone and in person, trading on her ability to do more than find bodies for speechwriting roles, but to assess the chemistry that’s so crucial between a speechwriter and a client and a corporate culture.

She prided herself, and still does, on her willingness to speak to any speechwriter who called. She would offer advice, counsel the speechwriter on a résumé—and she’d definitely pick up the phone to talk to a reporter from Speechwriter’s Newsletter, no matter how young and clumsy he was. “I hope that even when I was at my very busiest that I was never too busy to take time to speak to people,” she says.

And she especially liked talking to speechwriters. “They were the nerds!” she said. Far from the glad-handing “people persons” who dominated PR departments, speechwriters were erudite, literary and more monk-like than they are now. “They were sitting in a room with an IBM typewriter!”

And that’s actually how speechwriters were evaluated at some companies. At Mobil in particular, she remembers a prospective recruit named Mike O’Malley being given a stack of paper and a typewriter and a speech assignment to write on the spot. He got the job, and went on to a long and successful career at the company—a career immortalized by the PSA white paper, “What Is a Speechwriter?”

Cardwell said she always encouraged speechwriters to “see the big picture,” and find ways to serve CEOs beyond merely by writing speeches, because that was the best way to move up. “But a lot of them had blinders on,” she lamented, adding that she often wished they would take bigger risks in their careers—as she felt she had, by starting her recruiting business. “They were so talented,” she said.

Along the way, Cardwell began an unlikely moonlighting business, dealing in antique jewelry, where she also made some money. She felt her two careers had something in common—looking for treasure.

When I told her I was looking forward to telling some veteran speechwriters that I’d had lunch with Jean Cardwell, she exclaimed, “Tell them I love them!”

Some shark.