In his farewell speech to members at the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) Annual Meeting, NEMA’s outgoing president Malcolm O’Hagan recounted when he first came to the United States as an Irish immigrant.
At the NEMA meeting, O’Hagan was presented NEMA’s Bernard T. Falk Award for his many contributions to the electroindustry. O’Hagan thanked NEMA’s leadership, its staff, and his family for their support over the 14 years he served as NEMA president.
O’Hagan, who grew up in a small seaside town in Ireland, said he used to look out across the Atlantic and imagine the skyscrapers of New York. In 1962, with a college scholarship in hand, he left on a ship for America. O’Hagan was floored by his first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty: “The Lady of Hope for countless millions of immigrants emerged from the early morning mist, her right arm holding the torch of liberty high in the air. In the background, the skyscrapers of Manhattan soared.
Up close, however, it was not so glamorous, he recalled. “The noise, grit, and grime of the port soon grounded me. I was overwhelmed by the size of the skyscrapers, the size of the dock, the size of the cars, the highways, and the amazing interchanges. Everything was on a scale beyond my conception.
O’Hagan said he arrived on these shores with negative perceptions about America — perceptions formed by movies, the news, “Ugly American” tourists, and the fleeting failures of the U.S. space program, ridiculed by the European press. And yet he said he felt completely at home after two days. “People were welcoming, we spoke the same language, and friendships formed easily,” he said.
O’Hagan attended George Washington University for four years and returned to Ireland in 1966 with a doctorate and a new wife. But without any promising job prospects he returned to the United States.
He went to Dayton, Ohio, for a job interview with Bendix one Monday in 1968. On the way to breakfast that day, he learned that Bobby Kennedy had been shot. “Whenever I recall that horrific event, I have the same sick, sinking feeling that swept over me then,” O’Hagan said. “I was in shock, appalled, disgusted. I wanted to go to the airport, leave, and not come back. Luckily I didn’t.” He and his wife, Virginia, built a new life in the Midwest with two sons, living in a rambler in the suburbs, just like the ones he’d seen in the movies. Then his real education began.
O’Hagan came from the hierarchical British business environment where workers, middle management, and top management were often segregated. “You can imagine my surprise the first day I walked into the cafeteria at Bendix,” he said, “and saw the general manager stand in line with the workers, and then sit at an open seat without regard for who was sitting next to him. I loved it. His name was Henry, but to everyone in that plant, he was just Hank, one of the guys, who happened to be general manager, because he deserved to be.
How refreshing. The openness, the practice of calling everyone by first names, the absence of reserved parking spaces, the lack of class distinction — these were my first tastes of the egalitarian America I have come to love.
O’Hagan marveled at the opportunities he received in the United States. “It is inconceivable that I could have become the head of a German, Japanese, or Chinese industry association. Yet, in America, the fact that I am an immigrant is of no consequence. I could do the job; I was hired.
O’Hagan said it pains him to see people in other countries misread the noble intentions of America. “This is a nation of unbounded generosity. America does not seek to take from other nations, but to give to them. It’s the essential goodness of America and Americans that I have finally come to understand, and I am grateful for having been accepted into this amazing society. I have been honored by all of you with the Falk Award, an honor that I can accept only as a tribute to our collective efforts. My experience has been a uniquely American one, for only in America could it have been possible.”