Agent McSween Recalls King, The Olympics And His Career

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When a prominent museum honored Cirilo McSween with a visual retrospective of his life earlier this year, there were actually enough memories to fill several lives.

The focus of the exhibit at the DuSable Museum of African American History, which runs through Oct. 17, is “McSween Meets King: A Civil Rights Story.”

But as McSween told National Underwriter, a retrospective of his life also could have focused on his career as an Olympic athlete or his time as a life insurance representative who, starting in the late 1950s, brought in over $1 million in new business for a run of 20 years.

McSween says he started his career as a sales representative affiliated with New York Life Insurance Company in 1956 after graduating from the University of Illinois with a concentration in finance.

McSween had attended college after participating in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, as part of the Panamanian Olympic team. His events were the 400-meter race and 1-mile relay, he recalls.

He says his decision to become a life insurance broker was influenced by his professor, Robert Mehr, author of the textbook, “Life Insurance: Theory and Practice.”

Mehr, he says, offered advice that contributed to his success as a top producer: “make a client paramount.”

That advice became a “mission,” he says, and allowed him to succeed in an environment in which “no one was hiring black people.”

In Chicago, where he had settled, McSween says he started from scratch, handing out booklets explaining the value of insurance to African Americans. Starting with small policies, he gradually began to cover bigger cases including physicians and more complicated estate plans.

McSween says he still has faith in simple whole life insurance. “Whole life is suited for most circumstances.”

It was during the height of his career that McSween started working with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. “I worked with Dr. Martin Luther King in the years when I was most productive.”

McSween served as national treasurer with the SCLC. As he became more active in the organization, he says more of his time was dedicated to volunteering, going to organizational meetings and even posting bond for members who had been arrested during protests. He was also on the SCLCs board of directors and executive committee.

He recalls being present when King gave his “I Have A Dream” speech on the Mall in Washington.

On April 3, 1968, McSween says he was supposed to go to Memphis to be with King and his advisors but a commitment to speak before the Detroit Life Underwriters Association prevented him from flying to Memphis that day.

It had snowed in Detroit and he stayed overnight before heading back to Chicago to wrap up affairs of a recent SCLC fund-raiser, he explains. From Chicago, he was planning to fly to Memphis when he heard the news of Kings assassination.

“It was horrible,” McSween recalls about learning the news and the days that ensued.

At about 3 a.m. on the morning of April 5, the day after Kings assassination, McSween says he picked up Rev. Jesse Jackson from the airport and later they went to Atlanta for Kings funeral. At the funeral, McSween was a pallbearer.

“Martin was murdered in April. So much happened in April that I didnt deal [with my business] until September,” he recalls.

McSween still wanted to make $1 million in sales for the year and was able to achieve that goal in the remaining 3 months of 1968.

Success, he explains, comes when an agent truly wants to make a career out of selling life insurance. “I think the insurance business is an excellent business. I really love the insurance business.”

The challenge of meeting a need can be “very powerful,” he says, and an added bonus is that some of his clients have become “his best friends.”

McSween since has taken the business expertise acquired as a life insurance agent and opened several McDonalds restaurants in Chicago.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Edition, May 7, 2004. Copyright 2004 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.