Banking pioneer Bob Samuels was ready for sun and relaxation by the pool. He told all his friends he was retiring to Tampa to write his memoirs.
That was 20 years ago. He self-published the book in November.
But don't blame Samuels for procrastination. Life interfered. Three separate cancers, a diabetes diagnosis, two advocacy groups and numerous task forces, boards and research panels derailed him temporarily.
Since retirement, he has become nationally known as an advocate for prostate cancer prevention and research. He carried the Olympic torch in the relay before the 2002 games in Salt Lake City. Retired Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf praises his "dedication, leadership and hard work" fighting cancer in a video posted on Samuels' website.
During the downtime of his most recent treatment for small-cell cancer — when chemotherapy had sapped his energy — Samuels finally sat down to write. He wanted to preserve the details of his journey from the Philadelphia ghetto to international banking executive before his memory faded.
He has his first book signing reception Thursday in Tampa. The Wellswood area resident is also working with friends and former colleagues to do a signing in New York, Philadelphia and possibly Washington, D.C.
It's not as much about marketing the book as it is its message, reflected in the title, Don't Tell Me I Can't.
• • •
Samuels, 73, had reason to think he couldn't succeed. He was born to a teen mother and raised in poverty in Philadelphia. He was among the first black students in his parochial school, and he used to take off his jacket and tie before returning to the neighborhood so no one would beat him up.
He enlisted in the Air Force, but later declined to re-enlist and was given an honorable discharge. Samuels didn't know what to do with his life and began working for a company as an administrative assistant. He later took a demotion to janitor to avoid being laid off entirely. For various reasons, he said, his marriage crumbled.
Humiliated and frustrated, he wanted something better for his young son, his namesake. He started taking accounting and finance classes at night, because banking had the security he craved.
He remembers being one of few black men in the top tiers of banking during the 1970s. Samuels' "pioneer generation" was driven, he said.
"We got there on the shoulders of the generation before us, who had sacrificed life and limb to create that opportunity," he said. "We understood that our mission was to go through the doors that they opened."
He worries that the current generation — an "entitlement generation" — has lost sight of that and makes too many excuses for why they can't succeed. They must not "be willing to accept the negative," Samuels said.
He wasn't. Samuels remembers working at a finance company in Philadelphia when white colleagues began leaving for more prestigious positions at a local bank. It was 1964 and he decided to interview there. No openings, they told him. Then another white associate got hired.
Samuels mentioned to a bank employee his plans to talk to the Human Rights Commission about the disparity. Before he could, he got a telegram inviting him for an interview. He got the job. His employers said they had been worried how the public would react to getting loans from a black man.
He stayed five years and then moved to New York to work for Manufacturers Hanover Trust Co. where he was promoted to vice president in 1975. When he retired in 1992, he had risen to vice president of the Global Financial Institutions Group. He even has a likeness of himself in the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore, highlighted for his entrepreneurship.
• • •
Samuels' retirement took him in a direction far from banking.
In 1994, he was having lunch with a friend when he learned the friend had prostate cancer. Months before, Samuels had a physical and his health seemed fine, but he was curious about his friend's diagnosis. Samuels asked his doctor if he could be tested.
A blood test and two biopsies later, Samuels learned he had advanced prostate cancer. Almost overnight, his life had changed, plunging him into the medical world where he had to make decisions about treatment and deal with terminology new to him.
"It was like landing in a foreign country where you don't speak the language and you don't have a road map," he said.
He wanted to spread the word to others to get themselves tested and help walk them through their options if they did have cancer. Too often men are unwilling to show weakness and ask for medical tests or help, he said.
He became founder of the National Prostate Cancer Coalition in 1996 and the Florida Prostate Cancer Network two years later.
"This is in his state of retirement," said Brian Rivers, the former executive director of the Florida network. "Sometimes you forget this isn't his career."
Today, Samuels talks about empowering men to take charge of their own health, said Rivers, a member of the research faculty for H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center. Samuels urges speakers to attend programs outside the hospital's walls, so people will feel less intimidated.
"Men gravitate to him and appreciate his compassion," Rivers said. "You feel empowered after interfacing with Bob, but at the same time you get the sense that he really cares."
He also has a knack for bringing people together from various groups — small businesses, policy-makers, community leaders, medical professionals. He motivates them and encourages collaboration, Rivers said.
This, despite dealing with his own medical problems. Since his prostate cancer diagnosis, Samuels also has had throat cancer, small-cell cancer and diabetes.
"It's still amazing that even through the different challenges, he continues to press through and stick to the greater good and serve humanity," Rivers said.
Courtney Cairns Pastor can be reached at [email protected]