Nanny, Mentor, Pray Warrior–and Friend
|October 11, 2011||Posted by Darcy Pattison under Civil Rights|
CEO SUSAN NECK’S MENTOR—HER NANNY
by Lorri Cardwell-Casey
Long before The Help’s wild success, CEO Susan Neck knew just who to turn to whenever she needed good advice—her beloved nanny, Piccola Zeigler. “She’s been with me since I was a small child. She was instrumental in raising me…the one who took me to my school activities.” Growing up in Monroe, Louisiana, Susan’s nanny took care of her during her entire childhood, “The one who bandaged me up when I’d scrape my knee.”
As an adult, Susan still counts on “Nanny” for both business and personal issues. CEO of Harrell-Neck Distributing Corporation, a wholesale cookie and cake distribution company, Susan wears many hats. She’s mom of six, grandmother of three, and author of two historical romance novels, Servant of Servants and Reflected Glory (both rich with Louisiana’s black history) and a nonfiction sports book, Sandlot Dreams, profiling a dozen African-American athletes who overcame poverty and racism to become 9 NFLers, 2 NBAers (both first-round draft choices), and one Harlem Globetrotters’ captain.
The day of our interview happened to be Nanny’s birthday, June 10th. Her age, however, was a well-kept secret! Her skin didn’t reveal the truth.
Susan and Nanny’s relationship has always gone beyond the traditional, starting with the exposure it gave Susan to the racism growing up in the south. Susan says, “I grew up where they were just starting desegregation. If I would feel someone had mistreated her, she would always give a reason or say, ‘Well, this is why’ or ‘Maybe they’re in pain themselves’ or ‘In God’s eyes, we’re all the same’. She never had hate. She always had her words of wisdom, which she referred back to the Bible. She had the most profound statements and philosophies. The way I perceive myself and the way I perceive other people came a lot from her.”
“When I was off going to school, the first thing Nanny would remind me is that, ‘It didn’t matter if it was a Baptist or a Catholic church, as long as I was in church and that, even though she wasn’t there to watch over me, that God would be there and not only watch over me, but He would KNOW if I was in church!’” Susan cackles. She says, “In my early twenties, if I didn’t feel like I was living the way I should, Nanny’d say, ‘Honey! I got clay up to my knees!’ But whenever she would tell me that, I would think, ‘There’s just no way. If anybody’s sitting at the right hand of God, it’s gonna be my nanny!’”
Susan says, “Nanny often told me the story of the little bitty sparrow and how God was bothered with a bird dropping, that God is right here with you, and you can have a personal relationship with him.”
Susan directly quotes some of Nanny’s words of wisdom in her books, for example, when a character uses the same phrase to chide an ill-behaving child as Nanny did when “Susie” (her childhood nickname) acted up. “If I would lie to her, the devil was ‘gonna burn the tongue outta my mouth!’” Susan falls into laughter. Then her voice stills, like a rippled pond calming to smooth glass-top. “Whenever I have a character who’s not working out or maybe have a new character who needs introduced to the story to make the story more pliable, she’s always the first one to say, ‘I’ll pray about that for you’.”
Susan’s voice grows serious and she clears her throat. During crisis, Nanny held up Susan. “When my mother was real ill, my dad was out-of-town most of the time, and I was basically alone, a young child, seven or eight. But Nanny would stay many a night. She knew I was afraid. Back in those days, you got paid by the week, not the hour. She was a living Christian example. She never said, ‘I’m not gettin’ paid for this’.”
“Nanny never had children of her own. She had time to talk to me about whatever. She still says that I’m her baby and I’m her child. She always took time to make sure that I understood how much she loved me and that she would be there for me. She does that still today. She should’ve had ten children of her own. But God saw fit to give her one bad child and that was me.” Susan laughs her rowdy, contagious laugh, each laugh growing louder, then tapering back off.
Quieter, in her charming Louisiana accent, she says, “There were times when I’m sure she could’ve taken better-paying jobs, but because of my mother being ill and my father gone a lot, I think that she felt I needed her more than she needed the money and she stayed there. She never worked anywhere else.”
Mentoring an Adult
Even in Susan’s career, Nanny’s influence played a big role. She might never have pursued her business career if not for Nanny. Susan’s father became so ill, he decided to sell the company. That was fine with Susan, but NOT fine with Nanny! Susan says Nanny “explained to me how he and Mother had worked and sacrificed to start the business back during the Depression, and that it had grown very successful. She said I shouldn’t feel guilty, but be reminiscent of the fact that he was selling only because he could do it no longer and that it might make him happy if I took over, which I did.”
In her soft-spoken, kind-sounding southern drawl, Piccola Zeigler—Nanny says, “Susie’s mama and daddy had put so much into the business.” She laughs. “I knew her daddy could depend on her, but it took him a pretty long time to find that out.” She adds, “I told Susie, ‘You can do it. Trust in God.’ She had the knowledge and understanding. She had a time of it, starting out. I told her, ‘You just pray, honey, and I’ll pray with you. Put it in God’s hands, then don’t tamper with it and see how successful you’ll become’.”
Nanny says, “I got faith. I believe in miracles.”
Susan’s parents lived long enough to see her build upon their success, but that success didn’t come easily and it didn’t come without Nanny’s support. “I started off filing. But I had a lot of good people working with me. We did very well. I know at one time, we were the largest independently-owned family distributorship in the south. I don’t keep track of those things, but I presume we still are.” Susan’s company ended up working with big-name companies, like Walmart.
“At different times, if I was having a problem with the company or with an employee,” Susan says she used Nanny’s bottom-line advice for every situation: “Treat people the way you would want to be treated.” Such an obvious statement, the Golden Rule, but too often, core values like this get overlooked in today’s fast-paced business environments. Many times, the simple philosophies can affect and solve problems that pop up. Susan says Nanny “taught me that there is good in everyone. If you can’t find a common threshold where both of you can stand, then if you won’t let hurt or angry feelings get in the way, usually you can negotiate or agree to settle your differences without someone quitting or causing further stress.”
One more Nanny line of advice: “Grin and go on.”
Nanny chuckles again, summing it up, “One thing about it, I know Susie always had a way of doing things. Susie is my pride and joy.”
Their relationship is two-way, full of love from both sides. “If I call on Susie, she’s there.”
And for Susan, she says, “If I’m having a problem, I usually go by Nanny’s house or if I don’t have time, I pick up the phone and just talk with her a few minutes. Sometimes I don’t even bring up the problem. Sometimes it helps to just talk to her. But she always seems to sense something’s wrong. You can’t help but feel better after you talk with her.”
Whatever is going on in Susie’s (affectionately still called Susie by those closest to her) life, she knows that Nanny’s “the first one to say, ‘I’ll pray about that for you.’ And whenever she says that, that’s finished business. When she prays, you get answers.”
Hmm—sounds like Aibileen and those prayers written in her prayer book, huh?