The world of public relations can be a loud place, filled with hype, hyperbole and self-absorption. But as a major force and influential presence in that world for more than 60 years Al Golin was an oasis of quiet dignity, compassion and humility.
Espousing such notions as “Putting a human face on companies is our specialty,” Golin built a small Chicago-based company into one of world’s largest public relations firms, one that still bears his name. A lifelong Chicagoan, Golin, 87, died on April 8 in Scottsdale, Ariz. He had for some years been suffering from prostate cancer and died in his sleep.
“We had a wonderful roller coaster of a life,” said his wife of 55 years, June. “He liked to have me involved in his business. I would be there for meetings, and we traveled the world together. We talked a lot about these things during his illness and we actually came to the same conclusion: No regrets. We had a great life because we made such a good team.”
There is an often-told story that tried to capture the basis of Golin’s success and, indeed, his legend. It involves a phone call he made in 1957 to a man named Ray Kroc, who had recently opened a restaurant called McDonald’s in suburban Des Plaines. After some small talk, Kroc invited Golin to his office where the two men talked some more and a deal was made.
Alvin (ever known as Al) Golin was born on June 19, 1929, in Chicago. His father, Charles, was of Polish descent, and his mother Jeannette’s family was from Lithuania. He had a brother, Theodore, who was three years older.
His mother’s family owned a number of movie theaters in the city and his father ran one of them, the De Luxe Theater on Wilson Avenue. Golin worked there as an usher and behind the candy counter, and often invited pals to come see movies for free, making him understandably one of the most popular kids at Nettelhorst grammar school and Senn High School.
The family lived comfortably in the Belmont Harbor area and, after high school, Golin attended Roosevelt University, where he was assistant editor of the school paper, hosted a weekly radio show and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business in 1950.
Surely influenced by his youthful brush with movies, he aspired to be a movie producer and toward that end his first job after college was in the Chicago offices of MGM Studios, where he handled publicity for such visiting stars as Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy.
He enjoyed his time there but, in 1956, he accepted the position of junior partner at Max Cooper & Associates, a small, six-person public relations firm.
The next year he made that legendary phone call to Kroc who, upon meeting and talking with Golin, signed him to a $500-per-month retainer. His relationship with the man and the company was an enduring one, arguably the longest-lasting client-agency partnership in the PR industry, a fact manifested in a now faded and framed 1977 Western Union telegram sent by Kroc that hung on the wall of Golin’s office: “We never would have made it without your help. We were immature amateurs with virtually no friends. Thank you, Al, a million times.”
Golin became a partner in the firm in 1958 and over the decades the firm’s name changed as it grew, but Golin name was always on the door. What is now known simply as Golin has more than 50 offices and 1,200 employees worldwide, and a client roster that includes such major brands as, of course, McDonald’s, but also Wal-Mart, Unilever, Nintendo, Texas Instruments and Mondelez.
“I’ve spent half my life working with Al. He has been my boss, my mentor and, most of all, my friend,” said company Chairman Fred Cook. “Al loved this company, and his honest, humble, humorous approach to life and business made a huge impact on all of us. Al’s character defines who we are.”
(There is a remarkable gathering of remembrances and testimonials to be found at golin.com/tributes-to-al/.)
Golin was charming and he was also persuasive. As a young man he convinced Ernest Hemingway, enjoying himself in a Havana bar, to pose for a photo. He also knocked on the door of the home of the aging painter Norman Rockwell and convinced him to do a painting for the cover of a McDonald’s annual report.
Some of his life/business philosophy was detailed in his fine 2003 book, “Trust or Consequences: Build Trust Today or Lose Your Market Tomorrow,” including such tenets as “Find a job you love and you will never work another day the rest of your life”; “Happy employees make for happy clients”; and “Do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.”
He never really retired, remaining a fixture in Golin’s Chicago offices , where he counseled colleagues and clients. In recent years he and his wife spent the winter months in Scottsdale, but he stayed connected to the business on a daily basis by email and phone.
He met his wife, June Kerns, at the premiere screening of “Exodus.” She was divorced with two young children whom Golin would adopt: Barry, now a musician/teacher in London, and Karen, a longtime schoolteacher, who lives in Arizona. Golin called Kerns, and on their first date they went to a Lenny Bruce performance.
They shared similar backgrounds, indeed grew up in the same apartment building, though they never met then, and both attended at different times the same grammar and high schools. She was a trained opera singer with a passion for show tunes, and she often performed at parties and at her husband’s corporate events, accompanied for more than 40 years by the late jazz great pianist Joe Vito.
They were married in 1961 and daughter Ellen arrived two years later. “My father actually did love what he did,” said Ellen Resnick, who runs Crystal Clear Communications public relations firm and lives with her husband, David, blocks from where her parents grew up. “He brought his work home to the dinner tables and we all shared in it. Most of family vacations were McDonald’s-related, going to see the McDonald’s All-American High School Band perform in the Macy’s Christmas Parade in New York or in the Rose Bowl Parade in California.
“Of course he greatly influenced my career, starting about the time my sister and I would take press clippings about his clients and use rubber cement to paste them into large books.”
The family moved from the city to the suburbs, living for more than three decades in Glencoe before Al and June moved back downtown a few years ago.
An avid tennis player in his youth — he founded the Roosevelt University tennis team in 1948 — Golin played golf as often as he could and swam laps almost daily. He was a lifelong sports fan, especially fond of the Bears and Cubs. In the 1970s he tried to facilitate a deal for Kroc to buy the baseball team, sending a letter to Cubs owner William Wrigley expressing Kroc’s interest.
Wrigley’s response was terse: “Some things in life aren’t for sale and the Chicago Cubs is one of them.”
For the last several years, Golin remained engaged in current events. He was particularly concerned during the production of the recent film about his friend Kroc — “The Founder,” starring Michael Keaton — which was released in theaters in January.
“That was the last movie we ever saw,” said his wife. “We went with our daughter Ellen and, well, Al didn’t like it at all.”
Golin was awarded virtually every significant honor in his field, among them being named one of the 100 Most Influential Public Relations People of the 20th Century by PR Week and inducted into its Hall of Fame in 2014, as well as receiving honorary doctorate degrees from DePaul University and Roosevelt University. He also served for 30 years on the Board of Directors for the Goodman Theatre.
One of his most enduring legacies is likely to be the Al Golin Trust Bank Award that each year since 1992 has been presented to the McDonald’s franchise operator who has had the most significant impact on his or her community.
It is always difficult to find an anecdote that will provide the measure of a person. But last year, at a celebration of his firm’s 60th anniversary, Golin said: “Someone once asked me, ‘Was the call to Ray Kroc the most important call you ever made in your life?’ And I said, ‘No it was really the second most important call. The first one was asking my wife, June, out for our first date.'”
In addition to his wife, Golin is survived by son Barry; daughters Karen Golin and Ellen Resnick; six grandchildren; and one great grandson.
A memorial service is being planned.