Shawnee, Okla. — The hand-painted signs above the doors of some businesses in his hometown of Shawnee angered John "Rocky" Barrett, chairman of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, when he was a teenager.
"No dogs or Indians. I grew up with signs like that. That's the way it was in the 1950s and '60s," Barrett, 79, said.
That's the way it was 100 years after his tribe and others were relocated to the so-called Indian territory by the federal government following the Civil War. Overt and subtle discrimination was a part of life for generations.
Still, there were plenty of fair people, too, including a newcomer to Shawnee in the 1950s named Mel Pourchot, who had two sons, Rick and Phil, about the age of Barrett.
"Mel started a little company called Central Plastics that manufactured plastic fittings," Barrett said. "The plastics business was new to the town."
Barrett was impressed at how fast the business grew thanks to innovations related to PVC and then high density polyethylene, a material that offered durability, flexibility and stability.
"One patent and fitting, in particular, ended up being on every natural gas meter in the country. I believe it was a conductivity breaker," Barrett said.
The success of the business, now GF Central Plastics, struck Barrett early on. He still marvels at how it expanded its products and services for the gas, water and energy sectors with HDPE pipe, conventional fusion and electrofusion fittings, natural gas meter sets and risers, flange insulation products and factory certified installer training programs.
Phil Pourchot went on to run the company and later sold it to Georg Fischer, which put the GF in front of Central Plastics.
In his youth, Barrett experienced discrimination, but he saw opportunities he seized, too. He focused on the latter and now oversees a tribe with a $650 million annual budget as he strives to live up to his Potawatomi name, Kiweoge, which means "He Leads Them Home."
After Barrett graduated from Shawnee High School in 1962, he wasn't sure he would be back for any great length of time. He attended Princeton University for a year but had to take a leave of absence. He went back home and transferred to the University of Oklahoma. He got married and then enrolled at Oklahoma City University, where he graduated with a bachelor's degree in business and took classes toward an MBA.
Barrett then took a sales job with the now-defunct U.S. Plywood Corp. The position meant travel and work stints to other states at a time of civil unrest.