Exactly 15 years ago — on Feb. 1, 1999 (my birthday!) — I walked away from the best PR job in Chicago.
At the AAA-Chicago Motor Club I was vice president of public affairs, nearing my 18th year of service. As spokesman for the company, I was occasionally seen and heard on TV and radio offering tips on cold weather driving, gas prices and traffic safety; I was regional editor of the club’s travel magazine; and an active participant in a number of government and community committees and task forces.
It was my annual practice to bring a cake for the office on my birthday. (It was also my practice, on days that were not my birthday, to wander from department to department all around the building, foraging for other employees’ b-day goodies.)
On this particular occasion, I instructed my staff to refrain from cutting in to the cake until later.
I had been planning this day for some time.
For the previous few years, I had been doing some free-lance work for several Jewish organizations and a small business. That business was owned by my long-term friend, Joe Sameh, who sensed (before I did) that it was time for me to move on with my life. He offered me a part-time position, with a computer, an office, a phone and a health-insurance plan. Too good to pass up, right?
In pursuit of poetic justice, I targeted my birthday as Day One of my new career. It was not unusual in many companies for a resigning exec to be stripped of his company stuff and escorted to the door by security. I had no reason to think that would happen to me. But in the weeks leading up to the big day, I copied files from the computer I thought I might need and surreptitiously took home my Rolodex and other personal items. I also cleaned out the company car that was assigned to me and arranged for my wife, Estee, to pick me up at the office in case the car was taken away.
After depositing the aforementioned cake on top of a file cabinet to discourage hungry staff members from jumping the gun, I called Zoe, the executive secretary, to get me an appointment with the company’s president, Rich Bensen.
What would I tell him?