Tuesday, February 11, 1997
Engineering the
Freedom Center

Enquirer Profile:
Edwin J. Rigaud

BY JOHN JOHNSTON
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Rigaud
| ZOOM |
Ed Rigaud spends 12 hours a day at the office. He hauls paperwork home every night and works until 1 in the morning. He takes his briefcase to social gatherings, the doctor's office, the grocery store and on vacations.

You might think that would be enough.

But no.

Even when he is sleeping -- he allows about five hours a night -- he is working.

Which explains why he awoke at 3:46 one recent morning, compelled to jot down thoughts about the weighty topic of racial reconciliation, and how a person's view of someone can be skewed by skin color:

We should not be asking for 'colorblindness.' We should be calling for 'art appreciation,' where every individual is viewed as one of God's unique masterpieces.

Edwin Joseph Rigaud

  • Occupation: Executive director, National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. On loan since March 1996 from Procter & Gamble, where he is vice president/government relations.
  • Born: June 25, 1943, in New Orleans.
  • Home: Mount Lookout.
  • Family: Married 31 years to Carole Rigaud; children, Simone, 30; Edwin III, 29; Eric, 28.
  • Education: Bachelor's degree in chemistry, 1965, Xavier University of Louisiana; master's in biochemistry, 1972, University of Cincinnati.
  • My mother always told me: ''That I could do anything I wanted to set my mind to. And I believed her.''
  • His first P&G assignment: ''I was responsible for new (Duncan Hines) cake mix flavors. Every day, we'd have literally 100 cakes to taste and grade. Everybody else would expectorate -- they wouldn't swallow. I thought that was gross. So I swallowed those things. And I started (he uses his hands to indicate a bulging stomach). I swore off desserts.''

  • With that early morning revelation, another piece of his vision for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center fell into place. Eleven months ago, Mr. Rigaud became the center's first executive director. He is on a two-year loan from Procter & Gamble, where he is vice president of government relations.

    ''If you have a crystal-clear vision of what you're trying to achieve,'' he says, ''and the vision is so clear you can taste it, feel it, smell it, touch it as though it were here today, then all the obstacles that might get in the way are no longer obstacles.''

    Mr. Rigaud (pronounced ree-GO) says his vision of the Freedom Center is not yet crystal clear. But it's close. Very close.

    The Freedom Center edged closer to reality with Monday's formal project launch and announcement of a national advisory board. Nobody's saying it will be easy. But there also is a local steering committee and a board of trustees, as well as consultants and politicians and volunteers who want to make it happen.

    And in the center of it all is Edwin Joseph Rigaud.

    ''To have that kind of resource available to us is more than we ever hoped for,'' says Harry Whipple, Enquirer president and publisher and co-chairman of the Freedom Center board of trustees.

    Mr. Rigaud, a 31-year Procter & Gamble veteran, was the ''obvious choice,'' says John Pepper, P&G chairman and chief executive and a member of the project's national advisory board.

    ''Ed is a leader. Nothing of this magnitude can happen if it's not being led by somebody who  believes in it deeply -- to the point of passion -- and  can convey it to other people.''

    Committee members knew they were getting a successful manager. They perhaps didn't know just how hard he drives himself.

    True story: About 13 years ago, Mr. Rigaud left a business meeting, ruptured a spleen in an auto accident, sorted the mess out with police, then headed to another meeting.

    He didn't know his spleen was ruptured. Only that his stomach hurt so much, he couldn't finish the meeting.

    Later at home, his wife, Carole, pleaded with him to see a doctor. But Mr. Rigaud, a man on the corporate fast track, had another important powwow the next day, and wouldn't be bothered with whatever was ailing him.

    He kept working, enduring excruciating pain for several days, then relented.

    ''He was so lucky,'' Mrs. Rigaud says. ''The doctor said he could have bled to death.''

    After surgery to remove his spleen, he spent 11 days in the hospital. A second surgery was needed when his stitches popped. He says he hadn't been sewn up properly. His wife says he tried to get up too soon.

    ''I don't think I'd do that today,'' he says, flashing his gap-toothed smile and proclaiming himself ''a little more balanced.''

    Maybe he is. But at 53, Mr. Rigaud's inner drive seems stuck on warp speed.

    ''When we go to parties, poker games, he's got his briefcase,'' says retired P&Ger Gary Benjamin, who grew up on the same New Orleans street as Mr. Rigaud. ''We give him a hard time about it. We know that's Ed.''

    Mrs. Rigaud explains the ever-present briefcase this way: ''It's like a pacifier.''

    So now that you've got this image of a hard-charging, gung-ho, take-no-prisoners business executive, take note: All that melts away when you meet Ed Rigaud.

    There's warmth in his brown eyes and his rich, mellow voice. He speaks in an even, measured way. Hands folded on his neat desk on the 20th floor of the Enquirer building, he's low-key and genuine, whether discussing his own life or asking an interviewer to talk about his.

    ''You would never know by the way he treats people and the way he goes about accomplishing (his) objectives that he is so driven,'' says Bill Jacoby, a P&G manager who has worked closely with Mr. Rigaud. ''That's probably his greatest strength. He really, really values people. Because of that, people rally around him, and want to work hard to accomplish the objective that he sets.''

    Robert ''Chip'' Harrod, executive director of the National Conference (founded as the National Conference of Christians and Jews), the group that proposed the freedom center in April 1994, worked with Mr. Rigaud when he served on the National Conference board. He calls him ''the most naturally gifted people person that I have ever worked with. Ed doesn't have acquaintances; they're all friends.''

    One of them, stockbroker Rich Coleman, met Mr. Rigaud on a golf course five years ago. ''He can go to Over-the-Rhine and sit at Stenger's (Cafe) and eat and talk and just be Ed from New Orleans, or he can be in the board room with some of the most important people in the country. And he treats everybody the same. That's an amazing quality . . .''

    It dovetails with a personal philosophy that Mr. Rigaud calls HOFF -- honesty, openness, fairness and fun.

    Compassion, he admits, can conflict with corporate culture. HOFF ''works against me in situations where you need to be hard-nosed or beat up on somebody. I have a hard time doing that. I haven't learned to be both tough and HOFF.''

    But he has learned to be innovative. He spent much of his career in P&G's food and beverage areas, where he worked on such brands as Duncan Hines, Pringles, Crisco and Folgers.

    ''I get a kick out of taking unknown stuff, putting a concept together, and taking it all the way to the marketplace,'' he says.

    As a boy, though, he dreamed of being an architect. Fate -- in the form of racism -- altered those plans.

    He grew up in New Orleans' 7th Ward, a low-income neighborhood populated primarily by black Roman Catholics.

    He was the middle child of five. They didn't see much of their father, a military man whose career often took him away from home. His mother, a seamstress, gets credit for nurturing his young mind and encouraging his artistic endeavors. He still likes to sketch and paint.

    His Catholic teachers were mostly white; his classmates black. He earned straight A's at St. Augustine, an all-boys high school with rigorous academic standards, then applied to Louisiana State University to study architecture.

    ''I thought, you pick the school you can afford, you apply, and if you're a good student, you get in.''

    But not if it is 1961 and you are black.

    He still has the rejection letter that says ''our policies will not allow you on our campus at this time.''

    ''It's the biggest blow to me personally that I've ever had,'' he says somberly.

    Segregation in Cincinnati

    He wound up instead at Xavier University in New Orleans. The school had no architecture program, so he studied chemistry. In the student center one day his freshman year, a friend introduced him to Carole Tyler.

    ''May I have a bit of your lunch?'' he asked.

    They married about two weeks after graduation. Everyone at the reception followed the newlyweds to the airport for a send-off. Young Mr. Rigaud had a job waiting at Procter & Gamble.

    He thought he was leaving segregation behind in his native South. He was wrong.

    In Cincinnati, the couple began apartment hunting. They would call, make an appointment to see a place, then arrive only to be told that all the units had been rented.

    Either that, or the door would be slammed in their faces.

    Finally, Mr. Rigaud talked to the only black person he had seen at P&G: a mail-room worker. He took the Rigauds to his neighborhood, Silverton, where they found an apartment right away.

    Such episodes would repeat themselves over the years. In the late 1960s, when they had three youngsters, the Rigauds answered an ad for a Greenhills apartment that accepted kids.

    ''One little thing,'' the manager said. ''I'll have to call the owner tomorrow to make sure everything's OK.''

    Explain, Mr. Rigaud said.

    ''There are no blacks in this neighborhood.''

    Denied the apartment the next day, the Rigauds sought help from Housing Opportunities Made Equal, a fair-housing group. Under pressure, the landlord eventually rented to the Rigauds.

    ''The first thing that happened when we moved in,'' Mr. Rigaud says, ''was the neighbors came over to welcome us, to say how great it was to have blacks in the neighborhood. They wondered why it never happened before.''

    A few years later when the Rigauds tried to buy a home in Greenhills, they again encountered discrimination.

    Such incidents left him hurt, but undaunted. He strengthed his revolve, more determined than ever ''that I was going to be successful.''

    He has been. He rose steadily through the P&G ranks to become, in 1983, the company's first African-American director in product development; he became a general manager in 1989 and a vice president three years later.

    The Rigauds now live in Mount Lookout a hillside home tastefully decorated by Carole.

    The home is a popular gathering place for young P&G professionals. Friends from the Rigaud children's high school days still drop by. It feels a lot like family. Which explains why they call Ed and Carole ''Mom and Dad.''

    Early on, Carole kept busy raising their children, Simone, Edwin III and Eric, all now grown. Today she devotes herself to volunteer activities and boards, including the YWCA capital campaign, May Festival, Cincinnati Museum Center, Fine Arts Committee and Lighthouse Youth Services.

    When Ed ran for Forest Park City Council in 1979, Carole campaigned by knocking on doors all day while the kids were in school. Mr. Rigaud got more votes than anyone and served four years.

    Mrs. Rigaud, as soft-spoken as her husband, calls him Eddie. She cuts his hair. She buys his clothes. When he was in the hospital for spleen surgery, she took away his cigarettes. He hasn't smoked since.

    ''(Ed) knows that Carole is the best thing that ever happened to him,'' Mr. Benjamin says.

    Mr. Rigaud's community service has included stints on more than a dozen local boards and committees, from Children's Hospital Medical Center and Kids Voting USA (both current projects) to the zoo and Natural History Museum.

    He once juggled 11 board positions. It was too much. His blood pressure skyrocketed.

    ''We all wondered how he could maintain the pace,'' attorney Phil Shepardson says. The ''we'' consists of five men who met Mr. Rigaud in 1989 through Leadership Cincinnati, a program that connects civic leaders and promotes community involvement.

    They banded together as the Lunch Bunch, in part to encourage their harried friend to slow down. It was another example of people rallying around Ed Rigaud.

    He dropped off some boards. He got his blood pressure under control. He remembered that the final 'F' in HOFF stands for ''fun.''

    Golf, poker, art and music are among his outlets. After 18 holes with the Lunch Bunch last July, they quenched their thirst on a porch at Hyde Park Golf & Country Club. About 60 other people were there, most of them ignoring a man playing guitar.

    When the musician took a break, Ed ''Crayfish'' Rigaud saw his chance.

    ''Ed says, 'I think I'll play,' '' Mr. Shepardson recalls. ''He walks over, pulls out his wallet, reaches inside and takes out a guitar pick. He sits down and plays something like Malaguena. And when he's finished, everybody on the porch is applauding.''

    An accomplished, self-taught musician, he plays jazz, blues and some classical.

    Mr. Rigaud did not have to take on the Freedom Center project. He accepted because, ''You don't get that many chances to do things that are this powerfully significant.''

    At P&G, a project of this magnitude would have 25 people assigned to it, he says. Until recently, Mr. Rigaud had only one full-time staffer, Eric Bachmann, who earned a history degree from Texas Tech in 1993. John Dupuy, a longtime friend who is retiring from P&G, has offered his help for a year.

    Ed Rigaud, of course, is no stranger to hard work.

    This is what drives him: ''I get visions,'' he says, ''and I gotta go make them happen.''

    His vision for the Freedom Center is almost crystal clear now. Much of it revolves around racial healing and reconciliation.

    ''This could be pioneering,'' he says. ''We have never really had a concerted effort to come together, to put history on the table and confront it, and to have it help us decide our future.''

    He's thinking a lot about the future. That's why sometimes in the middle of the night, when a piece of the Freedom Center vision comes to him, he's sure to jot it down:

    Reconciliation could be the end of racism in America.