The new president of the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) is a different kind of car guy.
Claude Verbal, 53, is a licensed hypno-therapist who meditates every day and wears double-breasted suits. During his 32-year career at General Motors Corp., he has worked as a design engineer, an operations and manufacturing engineer and he's now the plant manager of Gm's Service Parts Operation in Lansing, MI.
Mr. Verbal's term at the SAE's helm begins this month, making him the first African American to head the 91-year-old organization and its 68,000 members in 81 countries.
Although his ascension might seem special, it's the result of a tenaciousness that has served the SAE president all of his life.
From age nine, Mr. Verbal knew he either wanted to be a doctor or an engineer because he was good at math and science, and he liked them both. Mr. Verbal was the kind of student who felt good when he did well in school. And like a lot of successful people, he had the support and encouragement of his teachers. But his role models were at home.
Mr. Verbal's father, Sidney, was a barber in Durham, NC. His mother, Mary Gladys, was a self-employed seamstress who ran her own business out of the family home. "She made clothes for everybody," says Mr. Verbal.
Early on, young Claude became skilled at dismantling hair clippers and barber's chairs, as well as sewing machines. Most importantly, he also learned how to put them back together.
A greater challenge was repairing the horse-drawn tractor his family used on their six acres of land. Mr. Verbal says it wasn't a farm, but some of the acreage was used to grow carrots, corn, greens and squash to put on the table.
Mr. Verbal's parents had no college education, but they instilled a family credo in their seven children: Get as much education as you need to get what you want out of life.
"My folks were great believers in being responsible," he says. That lesson has much to do with his career path.
Mr. Verbal decided it would cost less to attend engineering school rather than go to a medical college. So he enrolled at North Carolina State University in 1960. After getting his engineering degree, he reasoned, if he still wanted to be a doctor, he could work his way through medical school.
But first there was engineering. Coming from a segregated community, and with only two or three black students at North Carolina State then, "you immediately become faced with the challenge of how do you get through the school," says Mr. Verbal.
He couldn't find a study group of engineering students to join, "so I went through four years of getting an engineering degree on my own," he says "I studied with me."
The young student would formulate everything he read in his mind. That's how he started meditating. "I could make connections (that) I could not pick up in the book from reading the chapter," he says. That sort of dedication and discipline helped Mr. Verbal achieve his goal: to obtain a bachelor's degree in engineering in four years.
It was a unique career path for a young black male growing up in the South in the early '50s. His choice was confined mainly to dreams of white males in the middle class urban centers of the country.
Of the racial uniqueness that has been implicit throughout his academic and professional life, Mr. Verbal says simply, "it's been challenging."
After graduation in 1964, GM hired Mr. Verbal, making him the first black engineer at Buick Motor Div. in Flint. And again, he was faced with assimilation. You work your way through it; each one of those has been a challenge," Mr. Verbal says without an iota of bitterness. "You become as social as you can, (but) you also find other ways to satisfy your need to socialize on a job level."
For Mr. Verbal, that was the SAE. After two years at Buick, a co-worker asked if he would serve on an SAE committee. He agreed, and that was the beginning of 30 years of volunteerism and membership. The organization became his primary professional network. Mr. Verbal says he would not have done as wen in his career, nor had the experiences he's had, nor met as many people had it not been for the society.
"The SAE helped me meet the challenges," he says. "It's interesting. When you're doing volunteer work with people and they're there because they want to be, they take on a whole different perspective than when they're working for money."
That is the harshest thing Mr. Verbal has to say about the hard times that he had during the early days of his career.
He now has reached the top of the organization that has abetted his professional life. For the last five years, the SAE has been trying to broaden its membership while deemphasizing its automotive heritage. In other words, the SAE wants to serve engineers involved in air, land, sea and space travel, while shedding its image as a society for automotive design engineers to now include all phases of carmaking.
"Claude can move the group further toward those goals," says David E. Cole, director of the University of Michigan's Office for die Study of Automotive Transportation. Dr. Cole has known Mr. Verbal and his wife, Dorothy, for years. (Claude is) a salt-of-the-Earth kind of guy. He's not afraid of hard work, and that's easy because he doesn't view work as something to avoid. It's something you do," says Dr. Cole.
Mr. Verbal doesn't think his race has anything to do with his being tapped to head the SAE. "I have excellent skills at being able to come into a group and make something happen," he says. "They saw that, and they liked that."
Indeed, Mr. Verbal has been making something happen for most of his life.