At 64, Joe Carter still has vivid memories of his mother coming home each day from 12 hours of cleaning someone else's house with a greasy brown bag tucked under her arm and her day's pay of $1.50 in her pocket.
That memory gave me drive," said Carter, whose father was a construction laborer often out of work. "It gives you a burning desire to always do better. My wife says I just can't stop."
And since 1939, when he started working at Garfinckel's as a truck driver's helper, he hasn't stopped. The indefatigable labor paid off: Carter is Garfinckel's vice president of material handling. In charge of receiving, checking and marking all merchandise for Garfinckel's 12 local stores, he supervises 73 employes and oversees a budget of more than $1 million.
Carter doesn't reserve his energy for work. He is well-known citywide for activities including serving as a trustee at the Mt. Bethel Baptist Church, Ward 4 chairman of the D.C. Clothethon for Needy Children, and president of the Fourth Street Community Association. In 1980, he was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention and chairman of the D.C. Democrats' voter registration campaign.
"He works hard for any cause in which he believes. He is very energetic, totally dedicated and sincere," former City Council chairman Sterling Tucker said. "Joe has four jobs--between his full-time job, civic work, political activities and church work--and he only gets paid for one."
Carter the truck driver's helper also moonlighted nights as a cab driver so his wife, Juanita, could stay home and raise their nine children, including one foster child.
When he talks, it brings to mind the golden rule, stained-glass windows, amber wheat fields and all that stands for a good and simple life. His descriptions of work and family are interspersed with some personal philosophy, such as: "The only way to get somewhere is to be a person who puts your heart into your work."
"He's not an articulate man but a home-grown man," said Earl Watkins, a Garfinckel's manager who works under Carter's supervision. "He's a teacher . . . very knowledgeable and fair. He has managed to change with the times."
Another manager, Charles Turner, calls Carter "a dedicated man from the old school . . . a company man who spends every moment thinking of the company. He demands you work hard, but I've enjoyed working for him because he looks out for his people."
The management job was something Carter never dreamed of. In 1939, a black man's ambitions were limited by the reality of segregation.
"Blacks were not even in sales," he recalled. But that's all he'll say about what working at Garfinckel's was like in those days, dimissing further questions with: "The company has been very good to me. I can't complain."
After his first promotion to truck driver, Carter, a Washington native, left the store for two years during World War II to work as a civilian for the Navy. Shortly after his return, he was promoted to assistant delivery superintendent.
In 1952, he became Garfinckel's delivery superintendent. He was soon traveling around the country, meeting with managers from other stores and most of the time finding himself the only black present. In l975, several promotions later, he assumed his present position.
"He is the kingpin responsible for following goods . . .," said Harry Vandervort, Garfinckel's vice president of personnel. "He's been an inspiration to black people, a counselor and coach to everyone. He's a real sounding board and confidant for me."
Recently, Carter has spent a lot of time at home, a plain row house on upper Fourth Street NW, near Grant Circle, recuperating from a torn tendon sustained when he fell on the way home from work during the February blizzard. His telephone rings constantly: charitable organizations asking that he join their boards, would-be politicians asking his advice and his support, college students inquiring about summer jobs.
There is little in the house to attest to such popularity. The only indication of political activity is a picture of Carter being greeted by former president Jimmy Carter at a White House reception. His favorite pictures are those showing various stages in the lives of his nine children, 18 grandchildren and one great-grandchild that take up an entire dining room wall.
The decor is practical: large, sturdy old mahogony furniture in the dining room and a plastic-covered couch in the living room. There's a small wooden nativity scene in a dry aquarium in the vestibule and a lighted picture of Christ in the living room.
Three children, including their foster daughter, still live at home with the Carters, who have been married for 44 years.
Yet, it seems like just yesterday, said Juanita Carter, that her husband would "line up the shoes every child was going to wear the next day and shine each pair. He has always been conscientious and very dedicated at whatever he does."