It’s impossible to wear on a lapel, and it actually started out as something of a joke. But the Graybar Star-Spangled Button has come to be an honor bestowed on only a very few company employees.
Longevity has a lot to do with who gets the button. In fact, it has everything to do with it, because the holder of the Star-Spangled Button is the employee with the longest tenure at Graybar.
It’s impossible to wear, since the button is really a 21-inch by 21-inch brass plaque, originally presented in 1915 to Fred Uhrig. Graybar forerunner Western Electric had introduced a service pin (the kind you could actually wear) in recognition of employees who had been with the company for at least 10 years. Stars were added to signify every additional five years of service. Fred’s colleagues humorously gave him a special button modeled after the service pin, containing 19 stars (five for service, 14 for personal achievements).
Uhrig had the foresight to think the honor of the button should be preserved. So he bequeathed it to the senior employee in Graybar’s Chicago branch, John Valenta, who kept it for 10 years before handing it off to Alfred Hallstrom, a vice president in Philadelphia with almost 50 years of service. A tradition was established.
Some employees have delayed their retirement just to win the button. A.A. “Tommy” Thompson received it in 1995, his 45th year with the company. He proudly displayed it for three months before retiring. “It makes you feel good to get that button,” Thompson said. “It’s very old, and it’s an important part of the company’s heritage.”
Anyone is eligible to win. Dictaphone operator Mabel Lathan (49 years of service), handed the button off to William Henges, a 50-year employee and the only president ever to win.
So far, 45 Graybar employees have been awarded the Star-Spangled Button. The current holder of the button, Jack Bofinger, observed that, although our business is different from when he first started, “Our core values are the same as they were 50 years ago. What we stand for hasn’t changed.”
As an employee-owned company, Graybar has a long track record of investing in employees’ development and helping them build successful careers. This opportunity to grow with the company appeals to today’s workforce, just as it did for the generations before. That bodes well for the future of the Star-Spangled Button. While there is no way to know precisely who will hold the button 40 or 50 years from now, there’s a good chance that somebody starting their career at Graybar today will proudly carry on this cherished company tradition.