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Diverse experiences help lead Searles to success

​Joseph Searles III

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series profiling winners of the 2014 Outstanding Alumni Awards, which will be presented April 8 at the annual American Association of Community Colleges convention in Washington, D.C.

Joseph Searles III is one of those guys who has truly “been there, done that.”

Wall Street? Absolutely. In February 1970, Searles became the first African-American floor member and floor broker in the New York Stock Exchange.

Real estate? Check. He was appointed twice by the governor of New York to be chairman and director of the New York State Mortgage Agency.

Banking? Of course. Searles was a vice president in the public finance department at Manufacturers Hanover Trust Co.

Economic development? You bet. As deputy commissioner of the New York City Economic Development Corp., Searles established minority enterprises and small businesses throughout the city. In fact, he served as the first chairman of the 125th Street Business Improvement District in Harlem.

In addition to all of these successful careers, Searles was an officer of the New York Urban League, a nonprofit that helps disadvantaged New Yorkers gain access to equal opportunity in employment, education, health care and housing; a concert promoter who brought the Isley Brothers and KC & the Sunshine Band to Madison Square Garden; and the president of the New York/New Jersey chapter of the National Football League Players Association. He was also twice elected a member of the NFL’s National Steering Committee.

Gathering diverse experiences

People who know the 72-year-old Searles are not surprised when they learn of his incredibly varied past and all of the glorious “firsts” he’s achieved. He proudly calls himself a “people person” and says he likes nothing better than meeting people and gathering experiences.

“I’ve lived in Panama, Cuba, Hawaii and Japan, and have friends from all of those places, as well as Africa, China and all over the United States,” says Searles. “I went to high school in Texas, college in Kansas and law school in Washington, D.C. Wherever I went, I watched people to see how they did things.” 

Searles was particularly taken with how hard the Japanese people worked to reinvent and rebuild their country after World War II. Their determination helped him to reconfirm his own strength.

“They took all that America had thrown away and made it into something else,” he says. “It instilled in me an urge to never waste time and to always try and do good for myself and others. As a result, I’m always asking myself, ‘How can I help my parents and myself be better?’”

Humble beginnings

At the age of 11, Searles began picking cotton and washing dishes at a fast-food restaurant and discovered that hard work could pay off.

“I was already 5’10” and one day, when the cook didn’t come in, the owner asked if I could cook. I said yes,” laughs Searles. “So I became a short-order cook and I earned 50 cents an hour. Over the years, I’ve done almost everything.”

Searles says that his experiences have helped him get along with all types of people.

“I helped integrate sports in my Texas high school and have seen monumental change all over the place. There are enough differences to tout and push, but I’d rather try to get the game underway and finish.”

Searles left Ft. Hood, Texas, in the fall of 1959 and went to Pratt Junior College (now Pratt Community College or PCC) in Kansas on a football scholarship. In his second year, he was named an All-American and All-Conference football player at the halfback position. He was sports editor of the yearbook, on the student commission and on the debate team.

After graduating, Searles went to Kansas State University (KSU) on a football scholarship and then attended graduate school at George Washington University. He left college to play for the New York Giants but returned a year later and eventually graduated from George Washington University Law School.

Finding his interests

“College was the first time I’d been away from home and it was overwhelming at first,” Searles says.

Since there were no dorms at PCC, he found a place to live in the “minority part of town.” While there, he discovered he enjoyed making ends meet, earning good grades and playing football. He even found time to sing in the church choir.

“Pratt helped me become an independent man and develop my ability to interact with people,” he says. “Everyone was so accommodating and supportive. I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish what I did without their support. The people at Pratt invited me to dinner at their houses on Sundays, and if I had a rip in my jeans a lady at church would offer to sew it. It’s a great community, and I benefitted tremendously. It brought out the best in me.”

Not too surprisingly, Searles was the 2012 Outstanding Alumnus at PCC.

Giving back to the community

Although Searles learned a lot about himself and the world through his work experiences, he’s a true believer in the value of a strong education and believes today’s students should prioritize college and get as much schooling as they can.

“Even if you don’t have good grades, you have to do what it takes to get a good education,” he says. “Join the service if you have to. You put yourself at risk, but it’s a way to afford an education, and it’s so necessary to be able to say, ‘I did three years here, four years there.’”

Even though he’s retired, Searles continues to give back to the community by actively serving on several boards, including the Greater Harlem Nursing Home, the New York Urban League, the National Football Players Association and the NFL Retired Players Union. He’s been the chair of the prestigious Diversity Advisory Council and a board member of the President’s Entrepreneurial Round Table for KSU.

This type of work gives him much pleasure, especially since he enjoys giving speeches.

From all of his experiences, Searles says he’s learned three major lessons: Respect everybody. Never pre-judge. Wait to see what’s going to happen next.