I was student body president my senior year at my small college up in the mountains of Colorado. One of the many perks that came with the job was a trip out to the Coors Brewery in Golden for a special tour given to all the student body presidents from the various colleges and universities across Colorado. They even flew us in. Of course the real reason for this gathering was for the brewery to promote their college marketing department and to encourage each of us to consider them for future promotional and sponsorship opportunities on our individual campuses. Interestingly, much of the persuasion came while we were testing the various brands of complimentary Coors beer. Perhaps that’s why I left Golden fully committed to the brand, even though I wasn’t quite sure why. Nevertheless, it was a fun trip and I got to meet many of the key marketing execs from Coors while there.
As graduation slowly approached, my future was still up in the air. I had applied to a well-known graduate school out east for both admission and an assistantship but hadn’t heard anything. The assistantship would pay my tuition, room/board, and provide a modest stipend each month. Without it, I couldn’t afford to go, so it was an all-or-nothing deal for me.
And then I got the phone call. “Greg, this is Jason Dawl (not his real name) from college marketing over at Coors. We have a position opening up in our department and I wanted to encourage you to apply for it.”
“Me? Really?” I asked, in a complete state of shock.
“Yes. Our reps have really enjoyed working with you at the college and thought you’d be a great addition to the team here.”
“Tell me more,” I asked, trying to cover up the big smile on my face.
“You’d be on a team of Coors liaisons with colleges and universities across the country. You’d help us sponsor events and create branding with Coors on the campuses. It would involve a lot of traveling, hanging out with college students, and having a lot of fun. Are you interested?”
I tried my hardest to sound like I had hundreds of offers on the table already. “I’ll definitely look into it,” I replied while trying to catch me breath. Of course what I really wanted to say was, Are you kidding me! I’d do that for free!
Two days later with Coors still on my mind, I received a thick packet in the mail from the graduate school. Well aware that getting a packet could only be good news, I frantically opened it up and pulled out the cover letter. It read,
Dear Greg, we’d like to congratulate you on your acceptance into the graduate school. You’ve also been granted a full assistantship in residential life and will receive out-of-state tuition, room/board, and a monthly stipend. Welcome to the university.
I jumped out of my shoes in exhilaration. By the third jump my eyes gazed across the room to an empty Coors can sitting on my counter from the previous night’s graduation party.
Oh wait, I realized, things could very easily get complicated. What if Coors were to offer me a job, what would I do then?
Whenever I’m unsure about something, I can usually count on my father for guidance. I called him immediately to share the good news.
“That’s great, son. I’m so proud of you.” And then just before hanging up he added, “I’m sure you’ll make the right decision. We’ll see you when you get home.”
I thanked him for his support and hung up, wondering what he meant by the right decision?
Immediately after graduation I moved home and interviewed with Coors. Why not, I figured, it’s always good to have options, right?
Two days later the phone rang. It was Jason. “Are you ready to come work for Coors?” he roared. “We’d like to offer you a position with college marketing.”
“Are you serious! This is one of the best days of my life!” I yelled, as my stomach tightened into knots. You see, as excited as I was to get the offer, not getting it would have made my life a lot easier. Now I had to make a decision that I wasn’t ready nor prepared to make. “Can I think about it and call you tomorrow?”
“Of course you can. I’ll be sitting by the phone,” he said, trying to be funny.
I hung up with my heart pounding out of control. Crap, what am I going to do? I want to do both.
As evening approach, I contacted a couple buddies and asked them out for a drink to help me make this all important decision. They accepted. Three rounds later, I came to what seemed to be an obvious conclusion, possibly influence by the fact that we were drinking Coors beer. Now all I had to do was convince my father.
I practiced going over my rationale as I drove home. He’s always given me grief for choosing psychology over business as a major, I argued to myself as I veered onto the highway. “There’s no jobs in psychology,” he’d say over and over again. “You can’t go wrong with a business degree.” I knew he was probably right about all of that but I went the psychology route anyway. And I’d be lying if I said it didn’t create a little bit of tension between us. That is until now.
That’s it! I thought as I got off the exit near the house, I’ll emphasize to him that I did in fact take his advice after all and went with the business option. He’ll be thrilled. Besides, he’s a marketing and advertising guy himself; why wouldn’t he want me to follow in his footsteps.
As I drove up the driveway I could see a light was still on in the den. It was about 1AM in the morning and my parents were always in bed by 9PM. Why would a light be on in the den? I thought as I got out of the car and approached the front door. Suddenly memories of sneaking back into the house when I was in high school came back as I eased the door open and tip toed towards the stairs.
A faint voice jetted out from across the room. “Is that you?”
Startled, I looked over to see my father sitting in the recliner by the light. “Yes, it’s me,” I whispered, “what are you still doing up?”
“I couldn’t sleep,” he said, “and I wanted to know what you decided.”
“About what?” I asked, trying to downplay the moment.
“About graduate school.”
“Oh, that one,” as I looked away for a second, trying to gather up some confidence for what I was about to say next. “You’ll be happy to know that I decided to go with Coors.”
His eyes pierced right threw me. “The hell you will!”
“What?” I exclaimed, hoping he didn’t just say what I thought he said.
“You heard me,” he replied. “If you go with Coors, I’ll disown you from this family.”
First an outright disagreement, now a threat! It felt like I had just been sucker punched in the stomach. “You’ll what? Why?” as I shook my head in complete disarray. “I don’t get this. Why are you so upset? I thought you’d be happy that I picked Coors. Besides,” I pleaded, “it’s a marketing position. You of all people should appreciate that.”
My father raised his hand to change the tempo of the quickly declining conversation. I could see his face soften as he invited me to sit down.
“Look,” he said, “there’s something I need to tell you that has been bothering me for years.”
Oh great, I wondered, is this where he tells me how much I’ve disappointed him?
He took a deep breath before speaking. “I never finished college. I don’t have a degree. It’s been one of the biggest regrets I’ve ever had.”
Somewhat relieved that his secret wasn’t about me, I leaned in. “But you went to St. Thomas College. I just assumed you graduated.”
There was an uncomfortable silence. I could see that he was really embarrassed about this as a wave of compassion enveloped me. “Dad, you are the president of one of the top advertising agencies in Colorado. Before that you were vice president at Leo Burnett, one of the top advertising agencies in the world. You made United Airlines commercials that won national awards! What does it matter if you had a degree or not…you reached the pinnacle of your profession!”
He shook his head in disagreement. “All my peers have MBAs; some even doctorate degrees. I’ve never felt like I was on the same level with them.”
Before I could respond he straightened up and looked me right in the eyes, like only a father could do. “You now have the opportunity to get a Master’s degree…for free no less! Can’t you see how valuable this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is? I don’t care if you get a degree in Dodgeball, it’s still a Master’s degree…and no one can ever take that away from you.”
They give out Master’s degrees in Dodgeball? I thought before his absurd point sunk in. “So this whole conversation never had anything to do with Coors and everything to do with the value of an education?”
“That’s right,” he said, with a big smile. “Jobs come and go, but having a Master’s degree says something about you as a person. It reveals your character, commitment and discipline. It’s more than a piece of paper.”
My father had made a compelling argument. I realized in that moment that getting a Master’s degree would not be just for me but for him as well.
“Alright,” I conceded, “I’ll go graduate school.”
As I stood up, I was caught off guard by the flood of emotions that engulfed me. I felt a connection to my father that I’d never felt before. Our relationship had transformed from the all too familiar father-son connection into a true friendship; something I had always yearned for with him. We embraced as friends for the first time in my adult life.
I graduated from Miami University with my Master’s degree in the spring of 1982. Without question, going back to school was the right decision. Ironically, Coors eliminated the college marketing department a couple of years after they had offered the job to me.
My father and I never talked about what happened that night again. When I referred to it in a toast I gave him on his 80th birthday, he smiled and nodded, letting me know that he remembered.
Since his passing a couple years ago, I reflect back to that night with bittersweet feelings. Although a monumental turn in our relationship, I am still bothered by the fact that my father felt such a void in his life for not having finished college. He was one of the most successful men I’ve ever known and yet he couldn’t see it himself. Sure, a college degree…or an advanced degree…is important in today’s world, but it shouldn’t define who we are. John Giesen was a loving husband and father who, together with my mother, raised six successful kids in their own right. He cared about people and made a difference in the lives of everyone he came into contact with. His legacy will always be about who he was, not what he had.
May you rest in peace dad!