"I measure some of its impact by my being here on the 62nd floor of Rockefeller Center as a senior manager and director at Lazard Freres and Co.," Vernon Jordan said, speaking from the heart about how effective the civil rights movement has been in his life. "I'm sensible enough to know I didn't get here by myself."

In addition to his major position at the investment firm, Jordan is counsel for the law firm Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld. Previously, he was a partner in that law firm and before that served for 10 years as executive director of the National Urban League. He has worked for numerous civil-rights organizations, including the NAACP, and has been especially well-known as a friend and adviser to U.S. presidents, beginning with Richard Nixon and culminating with Bill Clinton.

Jordan received his undergraduate education at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., a predominantly white school, and then took his law degree from Howard University, the country's most prestigious black university, located in Washington, D.C.

During a telephone interview from his New York office to promote his new book — "Vernon Can Read! A Memoir" — the 66-year-old Jordan says he did none of this by himself. And he gives credit not only to civil-rights workers and volunteers down through the years, but to his dynamic and resolute mother, Mary Belle Jordan, whom he calls "the principle architect, general contractor and bricklayer" for his entire life.

Jordan, an imposing man who stands 6 feet 5 inches tall, and weighs more than 200 pounds, says "the best story" from his life concerns his mother, who told him early on that in college he should join the ROTC. "I asked her what she knew about the ROTC, and she said, 'The white women talk about it all the time, so there must be something to it.' My mother was a very big part of my life, and she was my most important adviser all along. When I was in college, she wrote me every day! For her, it was a form of relaxation. She was indispensable to me."

Jordan is also quick to praise his wife, Shirley Yarbrough, whom he met and married while they were both students at Howard University. He was initially taken with her exceptional beauty and thought to himself, "There must be some way to get a date with this girl." When he discovered she was also from Atlanta, he started calling her "Home Girl." She was already "pinned" to a guy named Chester — but Jordan refused to give up.

One day, he volunteered to "safeguard" an enormous teddy bear she had in her room. He saw her often "at chapel," then started studying with her, thus appreciating her wit and playful personality. One night, when he walked her home, they ran into Chester, who was upset. He said, "Shirley, you've got five minutes to get home!" Jordan laughed and said, "Well, Shirley, I'd better rush you home, right?"

The next day, Shirley dropped Chester.

Jordan fell deeply in love with Shirley and soon married her. Their reverie was interrupted by the discovery that she had multiple sclerosis — at the age of 28. Today, Jordan says, "the most profound experience of my life was having a wife with MS." The disease tested both of them emotionally.

"When I was so disturbed about Shirley's MS, my mother really helped me. She said, 'The Lord only gives you as much as you can tote.' I also could not have done it without my wife's courage and my daughter Vickee's understanding. It was a joint venture."

Shirley died at the age of 48, and Jordan is now happily re-married to Ann Dibble Cook, formerly a professor at the University of Chicago.

After carefully weighing his interest in the law, the ministry and politics, he chose the law. Ironically, after helping assure integration at the University of Georgia, Jordan flunked the Georgia bar exam following a strange conversation with Eugene Cook, then Georgia's attorney general. Cook "promised" Jordan he would not pass the bar exam — "You need to be taught a lesson."

Jordan says, "I can't prove that he made it happen, but I sure do remember that conversation."

Later, he passed the bar in Arkansas, a safer bet in view of his previous run-in with Cook.

Jordan harbors no bitterness today. "There is a notion that I've had this fairy-tale life, and yet no life is a fairy tale, and no life has Sunday every day. It's a series of ups and downs, and I had mine."

One of Jordan's unusual experiences came between college and law school when he drove a bus during the summer of 1957 in downtown Chicago. "It was a great job. You really learn about people. You find out how lonesome they are. I drove at night, and a lot of them would tell the bus driver their troubles. They knew the bus driver wasn't going to tell anybody."

Jordan has discovered that many of his successes were resented by other blacks. When he went to DePauw University, he lost his two best friends at home in Atlanta because they thought he was "acting white." When he and his wife attended a white corporate dinner, the black maid refused to serve them hors d'oeuvres. Such experiences were typical.

"I think racism messed us up in some ways, causing blacks to compete in funny ways," said Jordan. "A lot of kids would accuse you of 'being white.' If you got sidetracked by that, you would never accomplish anything. You have to be master of your fate and captain of your soul."

Jordan has been "blessed with many male friends and mentors" throughout his life, something most men cannot claim. "I may be more relaxed about forming friendships than some, but so are the guys who have been my buddies. I found a mutuality of interests that superceded all else."


E-mail: dennis@desnews.com