Wednesday, March 13 1996
A significant part of man's life in this endeavor

The Cincinnati Enquirer

A century after the Civil War ended, Ed Rigaud retraced a route of the Underground Railroad.

He traveled the line fugitive slaves once took from New Orleans to Cincinnati, from slavery to freedom.

This was no exercise in reliving the past. He was just on his way to his first job out of college. A fun-loving, guitar-playing black man from New Orleans. Going to work in Cincinnati at the very big and very white Procter & Gamble Co.

Ed Rigaud would find great success at P&G, helping to develop Pringles potato crisps and Sure antiperspirant. He became the company's first black director in 1983 and a vice president in 1992.

But now he's taking a two-year leave of absence from P&G to become the first executive director of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. In its initial planning stages, the nearly 2-year-old nonprofit project has the potential to become an internationally known museum.

Taking time out from unpacking boxes in his new office, Mr. Rigaud sees himself going ''from success to significance.''

He is not making light of the cases of Pringles and Sure he sold for P&G. ''The work I've done there has been very fulfilling,'' he says. ''But this is much different.

''It is,'' he adds, lowering his voice and giving serious weight to every syllable of the word, ''significant.''

It is enormously so. The center is vital for what it represents and what it could become.

Give it the right location. Put it on the riverfront, across from the Kentucky shore where the slaves crossed over. Infuse it with the spirit of the quest for freedom.

Do all that and the center could represent for slavery, that shameful chapter in America's past, what the U.S. MemorialHolocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.,does for that blighted period in European history.

It just has to be handled right. And, Ed Rigaud is the right man to do it.

He's not making any grandiose predictions. He knows the center won't be built in a day. ''I don't see a building being constructed in five years. It's going to take time to make a museum that's best of class and sets new standards.''

He sees the center honoring the past as well as housing hopes for the future. ''This place has the potential to give all people the inspiration to rely on their own personal courage.''

Ed Rigaud knows ''the enormity of what occurred'' as runaway slaves made their way from the South to freedom in the years after the American Revolution and before the Civil War.

He is aware of ''the courage it took'' as they traveled by night, not knowing friend from foe, following the stars north.

Above all, he knows ''the goal they were after. It was so lofty. These people wanted freedom. They were willing to die for it. And, many did.''

Their efforts must be honored ''in an active place where the performing arts are used to tell the story and make it come alive.''

As a fitting tribute, he also envisions ''a contemplative area of the building where people can reflect on the courage'' of both the runaway slaves and the abolitionists who helped them. ''This will put them in the context of their own problems, which pale in comparison.''

He thinks of slaves fleeing north. With no warm clothes. And not enough to eat.

Then he reflects on his past.

In 1961, Ed Rigaud applied to Louisiana State University. He wanted to be an architect. Back then, what a black high school kid from a poor section of New Orleans wanted didn't matter. Segregation did.

He can still quote the entire contents of his rejection letter:

''We're sorry but our policies will not allow you on our campus at this time.''

He was devastated. But not deterred. He went to another school. And then on to P&G and Cincinnati.

''That changed the course of my life,'' he says. ''It gave me a path to a future I might not otherwise have had.

''I could be designing houses, making lots of money. But I wouldn't be doing the Underground Railroad center.''

And he wouldn't know the difference between success and significance.

Cliff Radel's column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.