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March 25, 2002

The magic man

By Eric Rangus


Bill McBride likes to play with fire.

An amateur magician for years, he makes flames fly through the air with the greatest of ease. A mild-mannered carpenter in Facilities Management by day, McBride recently has guided the Employee Council through a volatile year in which perhaps its biggest accomplishment was—literally—clearing the smoky air.

McBride cuts a laid-back profile, but his passions are considerable and this year he’s had ample opportunity to put them to work.

Five days ago, at the council’s most recent meeting, McBride’s reign as president ended. The presidency passed to Grady Hospital’s Cheryl Bowie, who had spent the previous 12 months as president-elect, while McBride eased into ex officio status.

Presiding over Employee Council, the mouthpiece of Emory’s roughly 18,000 employees, is one of the most challenging jobs on campus.

“I was really honored that someone like me, a carpenter, would be elected to the office,” said McBride, who volunteered for the council a couple years ago. Prior to coming to Emory, he had more than 20 years of construction experience—much of it supervisory—and had taken a pay cut to come to the University. The council would be his way to contribute to his new work place.

McBride was assigned to the council’s special issues committee (“That’s where the gripes are; that’s where the fun is,” he said), eventually rising to co-chair. That put him in line for the council presidency, which he took over last spring.

“I probably haven’t been as active as some of the previous presidents, but based on my situation, I feel like I did a pretty thorough job of doing what needed to be done—meeting with committee people and dealing with the issues that came up.”

McBride’s self-effacing evaluation of his presidency is a reflection of his personality rather than his accomplishments. He skillfully and professionally guided the council through some difficult issues, including the current benefits debate, without allowing any discussions to get out of hand.

Earlier in the year, the Employee Council led the way on another touchy subject, Emory’s smoking policy. Months of dialogue eventually resulted in a council-written resolution asking President Bill Chace to designate a task force to identify smoke-free main entrances to buildings and create smoking areas outside buildings.

“That issue just seemed to drag on forever,” McBride said. “I would’ve preferred to do something even more comprehensive, but there are going to be some changes, so I’m proud of that.”

Not all of McBride’s tenure has been spent rocking boats. One of the council’s major accomplishments this year has been its foray into servant leadership, a workplace philosophy that challenges all employees to be leaders, regardless of their position.

“It’s unfortunate that a lot of workers hate their job and they’re scared to death that they’re going to lose it. That’s no way to live,” McBride said. “With all Emory’s resources, there’s really no reason why this can’t be the best place to work in the South. I like working here and a lot of people feel that way. But a lot of other people feel that if Emory just did some more it would be an [even greater] place to work. That’s our goal.”

McBride particularly lauded the leadership in Facilities Management, led by Senior Associate Vice President Bob Hascall, as enlightened, and part of the reason McBride wanted to take such an active role in Employee Council was to pass along some of his experiences in FM.

“You spend most of your life working, and if you can do something to make that enjoyable I think you’ll live longer and you’ll be a much better person,” he said.

McBride’s title—carpenter—implies a certain scope of job. It’s a bit misleading; McBride does much more than cut wood. His team is responsible for setting up the Commencement stage. They do all the University’s signage, fix the sidewalks, build ramps to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act regulations, and work on many other projects, sometimes three or four a day.

“Sixty percent of what we do is reactive,” McBride said. “If there is a busted steam line, we have to drop everything and go dig it up.”

McBride’s off-campus activities are just as involved as those on campus. For instance, he does a lot of work with children, and to break the ice he utilizes a skill he’s had since he was their age: magic.

“I got the idea that if you’re a magician, you can smart-mouth adults and get away with it because they don’t know how you did the trick.” McBride said. “The first couple years, I was so inept, it was like I was a joke. People could see what I was doing, but everybody played along because it was cute, I guess.

“But when I developed some proficiency, I also developed the smart-aleck thing. That was enjoyable because everybody enjoys the stuffing being taken out of the stuffed shirt. To do something that totally bamboozles them is fun. I like that.”

Following one Employee Council meeting, McBride brought his accomplished and entertaining act to the Jones Room, and while there weren’t too many stuffed shirts around, practically every trick stumped the audience.

McBride’s biggest fans, though, are the children at the Atlanta Church of Religious Science, the multicultural and nondenominational church to which he and his family belong.

McBride describes the church as the 13th step of 12-step program—a place to blend the spiritual aspect of a person’s life with their work and relationships. McBride even took four years of classes to become a minister in the church but stopped short of earning the title when he learned he would need to attend a final two-week course in California, followed by a move to another city.

McBride and his wife Leslie, an attorney, have two adopted children—Rebecca, 11, and Ly, 10. As toddlers, the two girls had been in foster care after their mother died in a car accident and their father was unable to care for them.

Because they were sisters and social workers did not want to split them up, they were not easy to place. That’s where McBride came in. A social worker asked if Bill and Leslie would be interested in adopting the two girls, they said yes, and shortly after finishing their adoption training course, they met the girls.

“We liked them, and they liked us,” McBride said. A week later, they tried a sleepover. “Once we got their stuff and they moved in, that was it. They never left.” That was eight years ago.

“They really are the loves of our lives right now,” McBride said. “Hopefully they’ll get to go to Emory someday.”