It was the first day of school for William Jews at Johns Hopkins University, and he was feeling intimidated and scared.
The future CEO couldn't help noticing he was the only black person sitting in that freshmen biology class as the professor began taking roll. "Jews?" the professor said. "Present," William Jews answered. "You're going to have problems here," the professor commented as he continued calling names.
Mr. Jews' heart sank.
He thought about dropping the class. But he was not going to walk out of that door without clearing up the professor's comment. "After class, I went up and asked him why he said that," Mr. Jews said.
It turned out the professor was simply attempting a humorous comment about Mr. Jews' last name. "He explained that there were a lot of Jewish people at the school," he said. "That's all he meant."
Years later, the man who is president and chief executive officer of Dimensions Health Corp., among the top four health systems in the state, sits in a Cross Keys restaurant recalling the incident. This is also a man who currently sits on more than a dozen boards and committees, including Maryland National Bank, the Abell Foundation and the President's Round Table, which is an organization of black chief executives of Maryland corporations. A man who is helping shape Baltimore's future as vice-chairman of the Greater Baltimore Committee, the business group that represents the region's largest employers. A man who frequently lunches with the governor.
At 6 feet 7 inches, the broad-shouldered William Jews cuts an imposing figure. There is a brusque, no nonsense air about him that is tempered by the politeness he shows to everyone from the busboy to the businessmen who interrupted him during a recent breakfast.
He likes to be prepared to a fault. "I tend to have a plan for everything I do," he said.
He has devoted so much time to following his "strategic plan" to get where he is today that his personal life has suffered somewhat. "I have probably put my career first," said Mr. Jews, who has never married.
Now that he has turned 40 and has a successful career, the "strategic plan" is evolving. "I'm moving to another phase," he said. "I'm going to begin to take a little more time to enjoy things like vacations and my hobbies [tennis, photography and carpentry], and for the appreciation of friends and colleagues."
While growing up an only child in Cambridge during the '50s and '60s, William Jews planned early on to be something important. He was a good student and a promising athlete.
"I played basketball, obviously," he said, a reference to his towering height. He could easily have focused on developing an athletic career rather than a scholastic one. However, a television interview he saw cemented his desire to concentrate more on brain power than brawn power.
He was 15, sitting on the floor at home watching the tube. A black athlete was being interviewed after a football game. The athlete was notably inarticulate during the interview, Mr. Jews said.
"I thought it was really unfortunate that college had provided him with a chance to play football but not an education," he said. It was then he decided it would never happen to him. "I wish I could remember who that athlete was so I could thank him," he said.
His mother, Mabel Jones, isn't surprised by her son's accomplishments. She and her late husband, William Jews Sr., figured he would be successful. "I always felt there was something different about him," said Mrs. Jews, who still lives in Cambridge.
He, in turn, credits strong parental support for his success. "They helped me focus on always doing better," Mr. Jews said of his mother, a teacher, and his father, a barber and carpenter.
In many ways, William Jews had a typical small-town childhood. "I had a lot of close, good friends. There was respect for values. Everybody worked hard," he said of life on the Eastern Shore. But being black in the Cambridge of the 1960s left some disturbing memories.
Such as the time during the early 1960s when racial riots erupted in Cambridge, and Mr. Jews found himself staring down the barrel of a gun. He was about 11 years old and watching the riots from some distance.
He started running home and bumped into a National Guardsman who pointed a rifle in his face. "He said, 'Halt.' I turned around and ran," Mr. Jews recalled. He slowly shakes his head at the memory.
When he accepted an academic scholarship to Hopkins, it was a whole new world for a black kid who had spent his life in largely segregated settings on the Eastern Shore.
Once out of the safe, close-knit cocoon of family and friends, his insecurities surfaced. "I remember the apprehension, the fear and the intimidation," he said. He recalls the roommate he had from New York City. "He had already had advanced-placement calculus and chemistry," Mr. Jews said. "I hadn't."