At 16, Anthony R. James almost dropped out of school. His father had lost an arm in a car accident, and James wanted to work in the mines to help support his family. But his mother told him to stay in school - the family "would make it."
Years later, James became the second black engineer to graduate from the University of South Florida in Tampa.
He went on to break barriers. He became the first black plant manager for Southern Co., an electricity firm that services the Southeast. And nearly three years ago, he became the first black CEO of a major organization in Savannah, Ga., when he was named head of Savannah Electric and Power Co.
This weekend, James will be honored as the 2004 Black Engineer of the Year at an annual conference in Baltimore.
"I think I've been very successful and probably more successful than anything I could have ever dreamed of," said James, 53, from his Savannah home. "I've been a pioneer in a lot of cases, and I want to be a role model and try to encourage other kids to get involved and understand there are a lot of opportunities."
That's part of the goal of this weekend's conference, where students will explore opportunities for careers in science and math. Hundreds of schoolchildren participated in hands-on activities and simple experiments yesterday at the National Aquarium here. A pre-college program today and a career fair tomorrow are designed to help lure minority talent into high-tech industries.
Eight thousand people are expected at the conference, which is being held at the Baltimore Convention Center. A variety of seminars are scheduled, including the history of blacks in technology as well as black women who are reshaping life in the technology workplace.
A roundtable of top black technology executives is set for tomorrow and will include Mark E. Dean, the executive at International Business Machines Corp. who was named the 2000 Black Engineer of the Year, and Dixie Garr, vice president of customer success engineering for Cisco Systems Inc.
The event, now in its 18th year, is sponsored by Lockheed Martin Corp., the Council of Engineering Deans of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities and US Black Engineer & Information Technology magazine.
Executives gather annually to help showcase the achievements of black professionals in engineering and technology and to help bolster their ranks in these fields, said Eric Addison, managing editor of Career Communications Group, the Baltimore-based publisher of the black engineer magazine.
For James - who was one of 170 people from around the country nominated for this year's award - science and math captivated him at a young age.
As a boy, James built skateboards and constructed pop guns that shot chinaberries. He picked parasites off citrus plants as an after-school job. He tinkered with his car and repaired lawnmowers in high school.
But it wasn't until college that James knew he should be an engineer.
He was working at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration as a co-op student when astronauts first landed on the moon.
"My eyes were really opened to the field of engineering," James said.
James studied mini-computers, Doppler radar and laser printers as a NASA research assistant. He worked for Procter & Gamble Co. after graduation and moved to Southern Co. in 1978. He climbed through the company's hierarchy, supervising safety and health and managing power plants.
He served as vice president and central cluster manager for Georgia Power Co., a subsidiary of Southern Co. In April 2001, he was named CEO at Savannah Electric, another Southern Co. subsidiary.
"I paid my dues. I worked hard. My normal days are very long," James said. "I've tried to be the best I could be in every role I've played."
Jim Davis, a former Southern Co. executive, wrote a letter supporting James' nomination for the black engineer award. Davis, who retired last year, was a company official when James was hired.
"I was really impressed with him," Davis said from his Atlanta home. "We became friends practically instantly. When he came, I just kind of took him as a little brother."
Davis helped propel James through the company. One night, Davis spent three hours convincing James to stay and make his contributions to Southern Co. instead of moving on.
James grew up in Lake Alfred, a former military outpost on Florida's Gulf Coast. He took classes at nearby Polk Community College before attending the University of South Florida. James has mentored Polk's science students and offered field trips to his company.
He will be honored at 8 p.m. tomorrow at the Black Engineer of the Year awards ceremony.
"I'm standing on the shoulders of some real giants," he says. "These are the people who come before me and opened the path and allowed me to be successful."
Anthony R. James
Title: President and CEO of Savannah Electric and Power Co., a subsidiary of Southern Co.