When Al Golin was growing up, his mother always wanted him to become a doctor. While honorary doctorates from DePaul and Roosevelt universities may not be what his mom had in mind, there is no doubt that Al helped shape the lives and careers of countless individuals who mourn his passing today.
Al Golin, 87, died Saturday morning at his second home in Scottsdale, Arizona, after a long battle with prostate cancer. Al so loved his profession that he never retired. He remained engaged with the firm that bears his name until the very end.
Longtime colleague, mentee and friend Fred Cook, Golin chairman, concisely sums up the qualities that made Al such a remarkable leader:
He was honest. Whether he was talking to his clients or his people, he always told it like it is.
He was hard-working. No one loved coming to work more than Al. He was in the office every day, meeting with staff, talking to clients and reading his beloved newspapers.
He was humble. Al never liked being in the spotlight. He always preferred his clients get the attention. Even though his office is filled with awards, he never boasted about his accomplishments.
He was curious. Al was more up to speed on what’s going on in the world than anyone else in our company. He read books, went to plays, attended concerts, watched movies and devoured news.
He never took himself too seriously. Al told a lot of funny stories. Most of those stories were about him — falling out of a chair at a meeting or introducing a client to a chimpanzee in the elevator.
These traits allowed Al to successfully launch his own agency after the legendary cold-call on fast-food start up entrepreneur Ray Kroc some 60 years ago. That visit helped create McDonald’s, one of the best known brands in the world. The Golin-McDonald’s relationship is one of the longest agency-corporate alliances ever.
Golin Vice Chair Ellen Ryan Mardiks witnessed the evolution of the agency first hand since becoming an account executive there in 1984. “When I joined Al’s firm we had one office in one town, Chicago. Look what’s happened since then. All because of this man, a giant in our industry who never acted like one. There was no pretense about him, ever.” Golin now has 50 offices and more than 1,200 employees worldwide.
“Over the 22 years I worked with Al, first as an employee and then as a client, he exhibited the greatest curiosity, integrity, diplomacy and energy of any public relations professional I have known,” said former Golin staffer and later McDonald’s executive Chuck Ebeling. “McDonald’s trusted Al with building their public reputation, and he never let them down.”
Long-time friend and former colleague Keith Burton said, “Al loved the firm he created and the energy of the public relations agency profession he built along with competitors Dan Edelman and Harold Burson.” Burton, now chair of the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations, recalls Al telling him that his proudest moment came when a Golin alum told him, “Through all the years, I’ve never met a soul who said anything but the most positive things about your firm.” It was true.
Al frequently used the Woody Allen line, “Find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” Burton said Al never saw his leadership of Golin as work. “It was a passion, and he loved the many men and women who built their careers at the firm.”
Al’s Advice for Students
Five years ago, Al and his wife of more than 55 years, June, spoke candidly to my class about their careers and the trials and tribulations of maintaining a family and civic life while building a business. He expanded on that discussion during his commencement remarks to College of Communication graduates at DePaul University in 2012. While urging young people to be “current, creative and curious,” Al also encouraged them to live a balanced life by giving back to their professions and communities.
“I interviewed a young person the other day who thought he was impressing me when he described himself as a ‘workaholic’ and thought I was the same,” Al told graduates. “I promptly told him that he should think of developing outside activities so that he would be more interesting to his family and friends, and, of course, his business colleagues. I firmly believe that my interest in art, music, theater, literature and sports, in addition to community involvement, helped me lead a full life.”
“DePaul awarded Al an honorary degree because he so beautifully embodied the university’s ideals,” said Fr. Dennis Holtschneider, president of DePaul. “We considered him our ‘final lesson’ to our students as they graduated. He was at the top of his game professionally in every sense, and, creating the concept of a ‘trust bank,’ led his clients and field toward genuinely noble behavior. The world is better because of Al Golin, and we were honored to have our students learn from him.” Al served on the Dean’s advisory board for the College of Communication at DePaul.
The Golin Legacy
Former Golin CEO and Chicago PR leader Rich Jernstedt sums up the outpouring of affection for Al by noting that “he meant so much to so many people.” Said Rich, “To me he was boss, mentor and friend. His standards for virtually everything he did will always be an inspiration. We will all miss the gentleman, but his legacy will last forever through his wonderful family, the firm and the impact he had on everything he touched.”
Roger Bolton, president of the Arthur W. Page Society, said: “In this day of data analytics, it’s refreshing that Al was all about human judgement.” In his Page Society Hall of Fame induction speech, Al said, “It really boils down to going with your gut feeling.”
To get a sense of how Al will be remembered in the history of our profession, I asked corporate historian Bruce Weindruch to assess his legacy.
“Al Golin’s career is remarkable in that he began as a traditional publicist and within a decade was pioneering what would become the discipline of modern corporate communications,” said Bruce, founder and CEO of The History Factory. “From his unique vantage point in Chicago, he built a practice that helped fuel the post-WWII national and global expansion of some of America’s greatest business innovators.”
Al is survived by his wife June, and their three children: Barry Golin, Karen Golin and Ellen Resnick six grandchildren: Sam, Alex, Jackson, Kyle, Cydney and Marlena; and one great grandson, Thor. A memorial celebration of Al’s life is being planned.
In His Own Words
Check out the inspiring messages contained in the informative and highly entertaining “Allegories” series featuring Al Golin discussing major milestones in his life and career.