As a combat infantry Marine in the Vietnam War, Ernest Washington ’73 fought to clear a safe path for others to follow. As a mentor, advocate and entrepreneur, he’s still at it.
"In combat, you make a lot of promises to yourself,” says Washington, a native of Roxbury, Mass., and owner of Vanguard Parking Services. “Mine was, ‘If I'm lucky enough to get out of here alive, I'll do whatever I can to help my community.’”
In the four decades since returning – with a gunshot wound, Purple Heart and Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry – Washington has made good on his pledge by helping two groups close to his heart: at-risk youth from Roxbury and fellow U.S. veterans.
Turning Minus to Plus
On-the-job training programs for local kids have been a strategic cornerstone at Vanguard from its earliest days.
“The business serves as an engine to drive these training programs,” says Washington, whose company has earned recognition by the Massachusetts House of Representatives and received the Black White Business Profile Award, among other honors.
“I meet a lot of young people who were leading a life of crime,” he continues. “But I see them doing the same things that successful business people do: market themselves, carve out their turf, and compete with others. My training programs help them turn the negative things they were doing into positives.”
For the most academically talented, Washington has special advice: Take a look at Bentley.
“The school has always entertained their applications with enthusiasm,” he notes. “After the harshness of Vietnam and Marine Corps, it’s the greatest thrill for me to be able to offer a kid an opportunity. “
A Welcoming Hand
On a different front, Washington has been a trustee of Veterans Benefits Clearinghouse since its founding in 1992. The organization helps returning soldiers get the support needed to re-acclimate to civilian life.
He has particular empathy for the "brave individuals re-entering society from a hostile environment. We advocate for these veterans and point them toward services and programs.”
Washington’s own return from combat included a warm reception by Bentley. In the late 1960s, the school offered a scholarship for returning veterans -- and Washington was among the first recipients.
“I was extremely lucky to be recruited,” he recalls. “I have to give Bentley credit for changing my life. That program has everything to do with my success today.”
Washington began his career at General Electric, with six years in the aerospace manufacturing division. He moved on to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, rising to manager of parking operations for Logan International Airport. His quest for experience in all forms of public transportation led to Massport. He managed the Tobin Bridge before branching out on his own in 1986 with Vanguard Parking and General Services Corporation.
Today, the Roxbury-based Vanguard employs 150 people and brings in $3.5 million per year. Clients for the company’s parking management, janitorial and transportation services include the Massachusetts State House, Hampton Inn, Johns Hopkins/Manuille Life Insurance, and Sylvan Learning Center.
Pride of Place
His life’s work has earned Washington several honors, including a Distinguished Alumni Award from Bentley. Most recently, he received the Theodore Parker Award for outstanding service to the veteran community, presented by the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences at UMass Boston.
He appreciates the recognition. But neither personal accolades nor professional success has eclipsed that battlefield promise made long ago.
“I’m still on point,” says Washington, who remains in Roxbury, where he and his wife raised three daughters. “I wanted to give back to my community, and if I left, it wouldn’t feel like my community anymore.”