January 17, 2013
Dan Edelman: The Indomitable
Posted on the 6 A.M.blog on January 16th by Richard Edelman
Dan Edelman was born in New York City in 1920; his formative years coincided with the Great Depression. His parents were first generation Americans. Dan never forgot that in public school he shared a bench seat with another student—“half a cheek is all I got.” This explains his philosophy of wearing suits until shiny and keeping a car, usually a Buick, until it fell apart.
He is the last of this generation of Edelmans, all of whom achieved success; my Aunt Elaine who helped to build Lincoln Center; my uncle Morton who was a superb internist; and my uncle Albert, a prominent lawyer and internationalist.
Dan was proud to be Jewish; in his day, Jews had to be better than the rest to get ahead. His faith informed his belief in ethics—there was right or wrong, no grey area. He drove himself relentlessly in school, even taking notes on his notes from lectures. He graduated two years early from DeWitt Clinton High School, and finished first in his class at Columbia University.
He was always a communicator. Sick with mumps and confined to his room at age six, he slipped typewritten notes under the door to siblings. He loved his time as a journalist, a sports editor in Poughkeepsie, New York and radio news writer for CBS in New York City. A veritable media omnivore, Dan would devour The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune and Financial Times every day at breakfast. He had to be the best informed man in town.
He was transformed by his military service in World War II. He ate anything that was served, pork included, and was grateful for it. He was one of thousands of men who fought in Europe against the Nazis, but his contribution was to listen overnight to enemy propaganda, then to formulate an effective response on radio or via leaflet drops.
Dan loved sports, especially tennis, and was always in it to win. He played paddle ball with such gusto that he slipped into the wall at age 84, cutting his head. He was back later that week, stiches in place, wearing a hockey helmet. He was a Chicago Bears fan because his fraternity brother from Columbia, Sid Luckman, was the quarterback; he had no such excuse for his unrequited support for the woeful Chicago Cubs.
He was a true entrepreneur. Sometimes that led us to do things a bit backward…we began our Asian operations in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia because one of our UK executives was marrying a man who lived there and wanted to stay at the firm. We bought a firm in China the year after Tiananmen Square, a sure recipe for success. He preferred to work with founders such as the Harris brothers at Toni, or Charlie Lubin of Sara Lee or Orville Redenbacher of popping corn fame. He wanted to be his own boss and would never sell out to ad agency holding companies.
He believed in public relations in its broadest dimension of advising clients on policy and only then on how to tell the story. He said in a speech, “We are supposed to be the corporate conscience.” He believed PR was a higher form of communications than advertising. But he also knew how to make the most of a potential news story. When the Toni Twins were arrested in Tulsa, Oklahoma for practicing cosmetology without a license after an appearance on a local TV program, he called the Associated Press photo desk, and then whisked them to New York City to appear on the Today Show.
He was tough and direct with me, my siblings and his employees. You had to bring a pad to every meeting to take detailed notes. You should never wear ankle length socks for fear of exposing your calf when crossing the leg. Proposals would come back with felt-tipped pen marks all over the place—“Is this really a creative idea?” Everybody at the firm had to work on accounts and you had to strive to do your best every day, because otherwise competitors would steal your clients.
We were, in fact, all members of his family. He loved my mother most of all. They held hands, they kissed, and could not be out of each other’s sight for long. She was the secret weapon, the charming advance person at parties, the disciplinarian at home. My sister Renee, the only girl, absorbed his love of journalism and became a reporter, then a distinguished tech PR person. My brother John carries on Dan’s commitment to community as he ably manages our corporate responsibility program. And to my father’s devoted helpers, Aurelia, Teresa and Alex, thank you for your 24/7 commitment to his well-being.
It has been a rare privilege for a son to work with a father so closely for 34 years. Only when I began to work at the firm did I understand his relentless drive for perfection. We have been partners in building a great global enterprise. I have called him every day to brief him on the business, carefully listening to his advice. This summer, in my 15th year as CEO, he told me that I should take over now and that he was proud of what I had achieved. So now I say goodbye to my best friend. There will never be another Dan Edelman—indomitable, ever modest, always resilient, and ready for the next challenge.