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Stellar PR career built on next-best-thing

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.

"We met when I worked for Dick. Charlie was news director for Channel 8 and had announced he was leaving to start a PR firm. Dick and I laughed at that, about what a mistake he was making and how there wasn't enough business for a PR firm to make it. The next day, we learned Carbide had hired Charlie to conduct media training for Carbide executives.

"I'd been in Tennessee about four years when Charlie needed someone to run the public relations side of the business. He had grown to about 14 people and Harry Peck was running the advertising side. Charlie had Carbide, FMC and Monsanto as clients and wanted someone with a chemical background. So he brought me back in 1980 to be the first director of public relations for Charles Ryan Associates.

"I worked for him for eight years and opened his first branch office in Huntington. I got burned out, so in '89, I left.

"Charlie got me started in lobbying. In '89, Columbia Gas Transmission asked me to join them as manager of state government affairs. I had West Virginia, Ohio, New York and North Carolina.

"I was in Washington getting ready to do some federal work when Columbia Gas announced they were filing for bankruptcy. I had less than five years with them. The rumor was that everybody with less than five years would be axed. So I started looking around.

"About then, Charlie realized that if he wanted to grow the agency past himself, he needed to open up the ownership. So he invited me back as part-owner. There were seven of us. I stayed until two years ago, so I had about 27 years with Charlie in a variety of management positions.

"When I started in business, it was probably 60 to 70 percent men. Now that has flipped. That's probably the biggest change. And technology. I remember when I would travel around looking for a phone booth to call the office. I started on a manual typewriter.

"The first printer we bought at Charles Ryan was huge and so noisy it had to be in a case with a Plexiglas top. Now it's so much easier for a single practitioner in public relations to run a business out of the home.

"When I was ready for a change, I joined Tom Susman and Chris Hall at TSG Consulting. We brought my part of the business at CRA here, so I'm doing the same work for the same clients out of a different office.

"We're gearing up for another Legislative session. Lobbying is an interesting business. I've never considered myself very political. To me, it's a communication function. It's a great chess game. You can learn to play chess in a day, but it takes years to master the plays and techniques. Same thing with lobbying.

"I've been lobbying now for almost 32 years, and every year I learn something. It's about understanding the nuances of how the Legislature works, the process of a bill going through subcommittees and committees and hearings, the strategy behind moving or defeating a piece of legislation.

"I'm going to hang in for a few more years. I'm having fun.

"When I lived in Huntington, I started tai kwon do with Master Chong Kim, who just retired as dean of Marshall school of business. I was working on my fourth-degree black belt when I retired. I was one of his senior instructors.

"I've loved motorcycles since I was five. My parents would never let me have one. As I got older, I always had other priorities. When I turned 50, I decided to buy a used cycle. I enjoyed the people I met through riding -- doctors, architects, lawyers, coal miners, truck drivers. I rode with Sen. Manchin when he was governor.

"When you are on a bike, it's not who you are. It's all about riding. I joined the Capitol City Harley Owners Group. A friend, Steve Branner, is a long-distance motorcycle rider. Every year, he would put together a trip for us. The first one I went on was out west.

"The longest distance for me until then was a day trip to Louisville and back, 500 miles. On the trip west, the first day was 780 miles to Kansas City. The end of the second day, we were in Colorado.

"I've ridden now in 35 states, from here to Needles, Calif.; Las Vegas; through Arizona. I have a 2007 Harley Road Glide, my touring bike, and a 2007 Sportster. I ride as often as I can.

"I used to parachute when I was younger. I regret that I never got my pilot's license and never got my scuba certification.

"It's been a great life. One of the greatest things I did was take my dad back to Europe to retrace the places he went during the war. We landed in England exactly 50 years to the day I landed in Glasgow, Scotland, by boat to start my tour."Reach Sandy Wells at sandyw@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5173.


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