Picking the worms out of a flour barrel in a Harlem grocery store when he was 11 was the first job held by Reginald Griffith, the Washington area's new chief federal planner.
Between the worms and Washington lay a long route that took Griffith to prestigious architectural and planning firms in Boston and New York, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, building Army missile bases in Germany, a fellowship in Africa. That and other experience made: him "the outstanding choice" among more than 40 candidates for the $47,500-a-year job as executive director of the National Capital Planning Commission.
"Evening if we had found him in San Francisco he would have been our first choice," said David Childs, an architect and chairman of the 55-year-old federal planning agency. "But here we have a man who already sits on the commission and understands it, has had national experience and is totally knowledgeable about local things."
Griffith, 38, was named to the career Civil Service post by Childs and two candidate-selection committees and will assume his duties in mid-May.
He was appointed to the commission in 1975 by then Mayor Walter Washington and has been its vice chairman since then until he resigned earlier this month when he learned of his appointment. The first black to hold a high position with the planning agency, which protects the federal interest in the Washington area, he succeeds Charles H. Conrad, who retired in February after a career of almost three decades with NCPC.
Reg Griffith, who has had his own city planning and architectural firm here since 1970, did not see much of a future when he lived in a "bucket of blood hole" in Harlem with his sister and mother. His mother was born in Panama, after her family moved from Trinidad and Barbados.
He was told he had no chance of getting into the prestigious Brooklyn Technical (High) School, which Griffith said had only 60 blacks among its 6,000 students. But he applied and took exams and "somehow" got in. It was one of many turning points.
After abandoning an uninviting career as a grocery store worm picker, Griffith took a job as a stock boy in a 5-and-10-cent store to help support his family. While promotions and, later, the promise of becoming the chain's first black store manager were tempting, he decided to try for a job in industrial design. He loved drawing, he said, and was taking technical art courses at Brooklyn Tech.
Starting at the top, Griffith went to downtown Manhatten and applied to Henry Dreyfuss, "whose firm controlled perhaps 40 percent of the industrial design market in America," ranging from the design of telephones, clocks and vacuum cleaners to television sets. He was given a job as office boy, "at less money than I was making" in the 5-and-10, began studying at Pratt Institute at night and soon found himself "at another turning point in my life."
He was now also accepted as a design apprentice at Dreyfuss and was "working late one night when Dreyfuss called me into his office. We talked for four or five hours . . . his time was extremely valuable and here I was the office boy, but he was a phenomenal man, as considerate to the elevator operator and the boy at the newstand as he was to corporate executives," said Griffith.
"It turned out we'd gone to the same Harlem schools, P.S. 10 and P.S. 157, and we talked frankly about his being Jewish and my future as a black and Roman Catholic."
Dreyfuss suggested Griffith think about additional schooling "and I applied to MIT and got a scholarship . . . which Dreyfuss may have had something to do with," although Griffith never knew.
Although Griffith began at MIT by studying architecture, he finished as a city planner after being drafted into the Army Corps of Engineers and studying housing problems in West Africa on a traveling fellowship. His wife, Linden, accoompanied him to Africa but returned home after their first child was born in Nigeria. A dietician with a master's degree from Johns Hopkins, she later became his partner when Griffith opened his own firm.
When he returned to this country, Griffith was hired by Edward Logue, "probably the premier developer in this country," and worked in the Boston slums as a planner. In 1967 he was called by Washington's Walter Fauntroy, who was then organizing the nonprofit Model Inner Cities Community Organization.
It was "a community-based organization with its own planning staff. It had never been done before," said Griffith. He headed MICCO's staff of 26 and helped plan much of the downtown urban renewal in Washington "before it (MICCO) went out of business after four or five years," Griffith said.
Griffith then began teaching regional planning at Howard University and opened his own firm, Griffith Associates, which is helping design the master plans for Boston's Logan Airport and for Atlantic City and is helping prepare a proposal for the $400 million Capitol Gateway housing development south of the Capitol.
Because he also has been doing many local planning and architectural jobs, Griffith intends to resign from his firm to avoid conflict of interest.He said recently he hopes that as NCPC's top staff official he will be able to "promote the federal interest and at the same time to take an active role in working closely with the city."
Griffith serves on the board of Georgetown Day School, which his two children attend, and lives in the same Anacostia house, in the Congress Heights section, which he and his family bought when they came to Washington in 1967. He said because of his new job he may have to cut back on reading science fiction, painting and handball, which he enjoys.
But he plans to continue his community work.
"I love people. I've been helped all my life by people, black and white, rich and poor, any number of good people. And I guess because people have helped me that's what we're geared up to do," he commented. CAPTION: Picture, Reginald Griffith.