John W. “Jack” Felton, longtime head of communications at McCormick Spices and noted PR advocate and educator, passed away on May 7, 2013.
Anyone who has the read The History Factory’s Oral History will recognize Jack as one of our company’s earliest supporters and cheerleaders. Although “risk-taker” is not a characteristic that commonly emerges from the food industry, tributes and appreciations that appeared in the wake of Jack’s passing demonstrated that he clearly had the guts—or perhaps the complete lack of common sense—to engage our three-person firm, then called Informative Design Group, to tackle the preservation and computerization of McCormick’s nearly century-old archives.
In the early 1980s, our fledgling company, armed with a brand new personal computer, caught the eye of this seasoned (pun intended) corporate executive from one of America’s venerated brands. Jack had already caused a minor publicity sensation in the investor relations community by cleverly adding the aromas of spices to the inks used for McCormick’s annual reports. With the company’s closure of its historic factory in Baltimore’s inner harbor and approaching company centennial, Jack sensed that the timing was right to make a major commitment to preparing the company’s history for the next century.
Jack responded to one of our earliest direct mail solicitations. The next thing we knew, we were scurrying madly to beg, borrow and steal some presentable office furniture for our tiny three-room office in upper Georgetown in anticipation of the visit from the corporate VIP. As I recall, Jack arrived at our office 11:57 a.m., spent a grand total of two minutes in the office before announcing, “OK, fellows. Let’s go grab lunch.”
That became the pattern for years to come. Over long lunches or dinners in D.C. or Hunt Valley, MD, Jack would regale us with his global exploits as a communicator while always challenging us to think differently—and bigger—about our company. “Books, videos and exhibits are all well and good,” Jack would say. “But never underestimate the value of historical archives to corporations.”
Jack put his money where his mouth was by investing considerable amounts in McCormick’s archives, and he was always recommending The History Factory to colleagues in trade and professional associations. “Recommending” is probably the wrong word to describe what Jack did for us. Jack took credit for our success, which was perfectly fine to us. Everyone recognized that Jack was a big personality, and his pride in being our “godfather” was just part of the package.
I often ran into Jack at professional events in our post-McCormick years, and he would always strike a theatrical stance and declare to anyone within earshot: “There’s my old friend Bruce Weindruch from The History Factory. I was his first client.”
While technically not our “first client,” Jack Felton was clearly our most important foundational client. He saw something in our young company that we didn’t see in ourselves. He had a fundamental belief in the power of archives and history. He believed in us and challenged us to do more. And perhaps just as importantly, he introduced me to Dennis Jenks, who has been my partner since 1986. We’ll miss you, Jack. The history of The History factory wouldn’t be the same without you.