Boss, Mentor, Friend

Steve Daley was my boss. He was larger than life. A big man with a big heart. He had a story for everything. He found out I went to UNC, he had a story about meeting Dean Smith. And not just, oh yeah, I met Dean Smith once. It was a colorful anecdote, full of details and humor and insight into the man with whom he spent maybe 15 minutes.

When I interviewed, I passed well enough. A colleague on his team wanted to hire me, but he was the group’s manager and needed to approve the hire. He figured he could use me for a few things, too, and a couple of months later I started. He wasn’t quite sure what to do with me, and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of him. It didn’t take me long to realize that he was the one I wanted to impress.

I sat in a cube outside his office and watched a parade of folks go in and plop down in his guest chair. It was a steady stream of conversations ranging from politics to sports to media strategy. Loud guffaws punctuated the banter. And I wanted in. I wanted to hear the stories. I wanted to make him laugh. I wanted to impress him.

A few months into it, he sent out an email to several of his pals at the agency, including the GM and others. I was on it. He sent along the article outing George W. Bush’s DUI back in 1976 during that year’s presidential campaign and included the crack: “I think I was drunk that day, too.” I responded with: “I was nine months old that day.” I heard him start laughing in his office and I think that was the beginning.

Slowly but surely, I proved myself to him. I turned in my first writing assignment and he didn’t hide his surprise that I was decent at it. And yet, I wasn’t offended. I was pleased, proud. I had earned a spot in the inner circle. 

Steve Daley was my mentor. Steve was a brilliant writer. He could turn a phrase that cut to the truth so subtly and with such sharp accuracy. He wrote a blog called Failed Talkers based on the Irish phrase that writers are simply failed talkers. But it was a misnomer. He could tell a story and hold an audience captive. I loved spending an afternoon in his office after a meeting hearing him tell some anecdote about bartending, life following politicians, his take on the big game the night before. He saw through to the heart of a matter instantly and had a hard time holding his tongue at a client’s latest “this is the greatest thing ever, can you get us the front page of the Wall Street Journal” claims. He would respond, instead, with his mantra, “Compelling, if true.”

When I left the company, it was complicated. I loved the people I worked with. I learned from them so much more than I could ever articulate. But the politics of the office were intense. I had to fight outside my group for assignments, for the all powerful billable hour and I was tired of having to prove my credentials to others. When I told Steve I was leaving, I was dreading it. But I wasn’t expecting his reaction. He got angry. He was pissed. He was disappointed in me. I left in tears. I felt horrible. What had I done? Thankfully, he started to understand, or at least come to terms with it and realized I wasn’t doing it to hurt him. He threw me the most fantastic surprise going away party. A night I remember with such fondness and love.

We stayed in touch, but it got harder as my life changed and I didn’t live in DC anymore. Luckily, Facebook helped bridge the gap. I lived for his “likes.” Any comment or endorsement of one of these posts shared there made my day. I knew if he liked a post, it was a good one. I tried to earn that every time, but he was judicious with that like button. I only got it when they were really worth it. And I am not quite sure what to do now that I won’t have that. The Steve Daley seal of approval.

Steve passed away suddenly on Sunday. Since finding out Monday morning, I have felt a huge void. He touched so very many with his wit, laughter and words. It seems unfair that his pen has stopped when there were so many more things to say. I feel such sorrow for his wife, whom he loved so very much and everyone who ever met him would know since he had so many stories about her.

Selfishly, I never got the chance to really catch up with him about my new gig. It’s sports related and I think he would have really gotten a kick out of what we’re doing. I was looking forward to being able to call him up and say, hey, that article you saw, that’s what I’m doing now, what do you think? I’m going to really miss that.

Steve Daley was my friend. We were supposed to get together when I was in DC this past winter, but a client conflict popped up. I’m really sorry we didn’t have that lunch. So I’ll have to hold on to all those lunches in the past. The ones that were quick, balancing styrofoam containers from the Greek deli on my lap as I listened to how we’d approach the strategy meeting we had that afternoon. The long, holiday ones at Morton’s, where we’d all stumble back into the office hours later, tipsy and full. The spontaneous ones that he’d invite you on and you’d never say no, just so you could sidle up to a bar with him and listen. Listen to his stories. Listen to his laughter. Listen to the truth according to Daley.

Today, it’s entirely too quiet.

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One thought on “Boss, Mentor, Friend

  1. I met Daley during my first two months working at our shared employer. We had a big new business pitch in Chicago, and the DC food team, god love them, arrived almost eight hours later than their appointed time, leaving me seething in some sketchy hotel in Rosemont, IL.

    Finally everyone rolled in (including Daley) and then took an hour to order food before we got down to business. My anger was increasing exponentially.

    The pitch was 8 AM the next day. I am famously NOT a morning person, so around 1 AM, I had had enough, stood up, told the assembled throng that I already invested 15 hours in this endeavor, I was NOT going to work through the night, and I would see them at 7:30 the next morning.

    Daley, whom I'd never laid eyes on until that evening, followed me out the door and caught me at the elevator. He stuck out his hand to formally introduce himself and asked, “Do you know how long I've been waiting for someone to tell those assholes to get their shit together? If there was a bar open anywhere in this godfor-f*#%ing-saken bullshit suburb, I'd buy you a drink.”

    I was in love.

    Through the years, I enjoyed attempting to “best” him in conversation, and he was not a man you could surprise or shock easily. Here's an anecdote I sent to John Kass, columnist at the Chicago Tribune, this morning. Daley worked w/ him at the Trib for many years. The context was a long conversation RE: would Chicago or would Chicago not get the Olympics. One of Kass' columns was part of the discussion.

    Daley: “You know, my relationship w/ Kass was always a little bit like Sam and Diane's on 'Cheers'.”

    Me (pretending to misunderstand): “There's lots of sexual tension?”

    Daley (sputtering, but also loving it 'cause I got him!): “Oh, good god. Are you trying to kill me? If I was going to have sex w/ some nasty man, it wouldn't be Kass!! Damn, I'm not going to sleep tonight.”

    Me: “OK, so if you and Kass are Sam and Diane, which one are you?”

    Long pause.

    Daley: “The hot one.”

    As Steve Daley always did, he got the last word. Mostly because you were laughing so hard you couldn't respond.

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