Innovation and Generosity of Spirit: Bette Graham

We’ve heard the saying, “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door”, but how many assistants have heard of one of their own, Bette Clair McMurray Nesmith Graham, innovator extraordinaire?

Let’s work incrementally here. If you’ve ever seen the 1960s television show The Monkees, you’re familiar with Ms. Graham’s son Michael.  Post-Monkees, Michael Nesmith created the music video genre and the concept behind MTV; he won the inaugural Grammy award for Video of the Year in 1982, and is credited with pioneering home video. Michael Nesmith recently announced a Fall 2013 US tour, but let’s focus on his mother; she was no slouch, either.

Paris Opera House 0178 Copyright Shelagh Donnelly

Bette Clair McMurray, a Texan with artistic leanings, was born in 1924 and is said to have dropped out of high school at the age of 17 before attending night school to secure her high school diploma. Married and mother to Michael by 1942, her marriage ended after her husband’s return from service in World War II. 

Despite never having intended on such a career (sound familiar?), Bette Nesmith, as she was then known, secured a secretarial position and eventually rose to a position of responsibility at the Texas Bank & Trust while also working as a freelance artist. Job titles such as “EA” and “AA” did not exist in our profession in those days – I’ve said it before; this is not your mother’s or grandmother’s workplace – and so, in 1951, Bette held the impressive position of Executive Secretary to the Chairman of the Board.By 1951, Texas Bank & Trust was among the institutions adopting the electric typewriter.

There was no “Ctrl:“Z” option to undo typing errors and Nesmith, as with her counterparts then and now, made typographical mistakes.A single mistake would mark a waste of both time and paper, which would be discarded as a secretary inserted a fresh sheet of paper and began the process all over again.

With time, though, Nesmith separated herself from frustrated peers who resorted to yanking their work from the typewriter, generating a protesting, grinding whirl from the typewriter roll, before inserting a fresh sheet of paper and re-typing a document from scratch.

As a freelance artist, Nesmith was accustomed to painting over mistakes and decided one day to apply theh same approach to her workplace errors. Using her kitchen blender to mix a water-based paint, she added pigmentation until she matched the colour of the bank’s stationery. No longer would the press of an incorrect key as Nesmith approached the end of a word-perfect page necessitate a complete duplication of effort. Instead, she was then able to roll the paper from its position in the typewriter, pull out a small container of her paint and dab a bit on the paper. Next, Nesmith would blow on the paper to dry the paint; she could then re-insert the paper in her typewriter before typing over the original error.

Nesmith likely repeated the process on the duplicate page beneath the carbon tissue in her typerwiter for, while Seattle-born Chester Carlson invented xerography in 1938 and secured his patent in 1942, it was 1959 before office copiers (“Xeroxes”) were available to the public.

While these steps to correct a typo would make for a cringe-worthy workflow analysis in 2013, Nesmith’s innovation represented tremendous progress in 1951.

Her secretarial colleagues caught on to the innovation and asked to use it, and so Nesmith began pouring the product into small bottles she labelled “Mistake Out”, and supplied her paint to fellow secretaries. By 1956, Nesmith had formed the Mistake Out Company; continuing to mix the liquid in her home, Nesmith had ready employees in her son Michael and his friends, whom she paid to fill the tiny bottles.

Nesmith researched means by which to improve her product; she secured a formula for tempura paint, the kind you may have used for finger painting in your early school years, from her public library. A chemistry teacher at a local school helped her experiment, a paint company employee taught Nesmith how to grind and mix paint, and Nesmith secured a product patent, renaming her product Liquid Paper.

Yes, that Liquid Paper. Nesmith, son Michael and his friends used her phone to approach office supply dealers for sales and, over time, a trade magazine article generated orders from across the US. General Electric gave Nesmith her first major order, for 300 bottles in three colours. Along the way, so the story goes, Nesmith was fired from Texas Bank & Trust after she became so engrossed in her moonlighting that she inadvertently typed “The Liquid Paper Company” rather than her employer’s name on bank stationery one day.

Nesmith devoted herself full time to her little company, and Liquid Paper became profitable in 1968. In 1975, Graham opened a 35,000 square foot international headquarters in Dallas, with annual production capacity of 25 million bottles annually and sales in 31 countries. An innovative employer, Graham encouraged employee participation in the company’s decision making, and her headquarters housed a child care centre, library and art showcase featuring her work as well as other artists’.

Imagine how gratifying it must have been for this former executive secretary, who had unsuccessfully tried to sell Liquid Paper to IBM in her early years, when she sold her company to the Gillette Corporation in 1979 for $47.5 million plus royalties on every bottle sold until 2000. We Administrative Professionals (APs) turn to our keyboards to correct today’s typing errors, but this woman’s innovation, now owned by Rubbermaid, extends to a line including a correction tape and correction pen.

A philanthropist who established two foundations to support women’s welfare and benefit their efforts in arts and business, Graham died in 1980 at the age of 56, leaving half her estate to her son and the balance to charities. For, as Graham had offered, “Most people in my income bracket build estates. I can’t understand why. My estate will be what I can do for others. I want to see my money working, causing progress for people.”

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