CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The prestigious award on his office wall reflects the serendipitous outcome of a next-best-thing career choice.
Ripley native Joe Gollehon wanted to be a Boy Scout executive. He wanted a degree in youth organization leadership. He had to settle for public relations at West Virginia University. Apparently the gods knew something he didn't.
In 2011, he was admitted into the College of Fellows of the Public Relations Society of America, an honor bestowed on only 2 percent of the organization's 22,000 members.
He kicked off his PR career at Union Carbide, then hooked up with a fledgling PR firm called Charles Ryan Associates. He wound up as one of the owners and spent 27 years at CRA, evolving into a respected lobbyist.
At 61, he's still going strong as senior vice president and government affairs director at TSG Consulting.
When he isn't toiling in public relations, he sheds the suit, grabs a helmet and hops on his Harley. He rides all over the country, just another smitten biker embracing the freedom of the open road.
"My parents are from Raleigh County. I was born in Radford, Va. My dad was a steelworker. We lived in Pulaski, Va., then moved to Greensboro, N.C. We moved back to West Virginia, to Beckley, when I started first grade.
"When I started third grade in 1959, my dad came to Jackson County to work for Kaiser Aluminum. My dad was working in the welding shop of a coal mine. He followed a lot of coal miners to Jackson County to work for the aluminum plant. He worked there for 23 years.
"We moved to Evans first. We lived in a trailer, one bedroom -- my parents, my brother and I and two dogs -- until we found a small house. There weren't any homes to rent in Jackson County at that time because they had all these people moving in for the plant.
"In '64, we moved to Ripley. My mom was manager of Cox's Department Store, then ran the geriatric ward at the hospital.
"I thought I would become a professional Scout executive. I was in Scouts through high school. Every summer, I worked at our Scout camp in Wirt County.
"There were four colleges that had programs to train professional youth organization leaders. One was Salem. I was accepted there. At the beginning of my junior year in high school, a recruiter came to the high school recruiting for the Central Intelligence Agency. You could be excused from class to take this pre-employment exam. I would do anything to get out of study hall. Almost a year later, right before I graduated, I got this letter from the CIA saying I had passed this preliminary exam and they would like to have a personal interview with me.
"They told me about this job in Washington and that they would have to run a security clearance on me. It sounded like an adventure. So off to Washington I went. The idea was to go to college at night, but that didn't work out. I was 18. Every agency had secretarial pools. The ratio was 9 to 1 women to men. There were parties all the time.
"I ended up working at CIA headquarters at Langley. I was a courier, a glorified mail boy. I was there about six months. My roommate decided to go back to college. I looked around and figured I'd better get my rear end back to college too. My best friend was going to WVU. He said to come to WVU and we would get a room together.
"I looked for something in the college catalog like the program at Salem. The closest thing I could come up with was public relations. I could substitute science courses for math and didn't have to have a foreign language. I thought, 'Boy, this is for me!'
"I enjoyed all my journalism classes. I worked at The Daily Athenaeum and did a lot of freelance photography. I had some articles published in The Dominion Post.
"I have a minor in geology. I worked in the geology department doing special projects that counted for a grade. I ended up writing an article for Wild Wonderful West Virginia on Lake Monongahela, a pre-glacial lake.
"I graduated and started looking for jobs. Nothing came quickly. I headed back to Washington. A friend was going to set up an interview with the Capitol police force. Instead, I got a call from Union Carbide. Carbide had called the journalism school looking for someone.
"I went to work there for Dick Henderson. I was assistant editor on The Carbider, the weekly newspaper. Carbide was booming. This was 1973. After three years, I transferred to Oakridge, Tenn., with Carbide's nuclear division staff where I was in charge of external publications. I was there about four years when Charlie Ryan called.