I was student body president at Western State College in Gunnison, 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 the state. They flew us all in.
In truth, the real reason for this gathering was for the brewery to promote their college marketing department and to encourage each of us to consider Coors 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 beer. Perhaps that’s why I left Golden fully committed to the brand, even though I couldn’t see that at the time. Nevertheless, it was a fun trip, and I got to meet many of the key marketing execs from Coors while there.
As graduation approached, my future was still up in the air. I had applied to Miami University (of Ohio) for graduate school that included an assistantship, but hadn’t heard anything. The assistantship would pay my tuition, room and 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 from college marketing over at Coors. We have a position opening up in our department and I want 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 hide my enthusiasm.
“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.” He was teasing me now. “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.” 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 Miami University. Well aware that getting a packet that big 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 and board, and a monthly stipend. Welcome to Miami.
I nearly jumped out of my shoes, that is, until I spotted an empty Coors can on my counter from the graduation party the night before.
Oh wait, I realized, things could very easily get complicated here. What if Coors were to offer me a job? What would I do then?
Whenever I’m ambivalent about something, I can usually count on my father for guidance. I called him immediately to share the 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?
Shortly after graduation I moved back home with my parents and took the interview with Coors. Why not, I figured, it’s always good to have options.
Two days later Jason called with the offer. “Are you ready to come work for Coors? 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 said, as my stomach tightened into knots. 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 or 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 approached, I contacted a couple buddies and asked them out for a drink to help me make this all-important decision. Three rounds later, I came to what seemed to be an obvious conclusion, possibly influenced by the fact that we were drinking Coors beer. Now all I had to do was convince my dad.
As I drove home, I thought about previous career conversations with my father. He’s always given me grief for choosing psychology over business as a major, I argued. He’d say over and over again, “There’s no jobs in psychology. 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’s it! I thought as I got off the exit near the house, I’ll emphasize to him that I did 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 1:00 a.m. and my parents were always in bed by 9:00 p.m. Why would a light be on in the den? I thought as I got out of the car and approached the front door. I recalled the many nights sneaking back into the house late at night when I was in high school. I eased the door open and tiptoed toward the stairs.
A faint voice jetted out from across the room. “Is that you?”
I saw 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,” 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 through 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? 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 conversation. His face softened 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. “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 have 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 can 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 isn’t about Coors but about the value of an education?” I asked.
“That’s right,” he said. “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 a flood of emotions. 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 few 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 kids, each one successful 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!
*From Geese’s latest book, It’s All About Me: Stories and Insights from the Geese, by Greg Giesen