A favorite comedian of mine, Shelly Berman, as part of his very funny routine about reading an insurance policy, said: "the most horrible word in the English language is 'maim'." With all due respect to Mr. Berman, there is even a more horrible one – defunct! Think about it – defunct, gone, no longer useful – ugg.
Unfortunately, that terrible word seemed to sum up my early career, until I was lucky enough to meet Hank Boerner.
Fulfilling my life-long ambition, I began the 1960s as a journalist for a major daily newspaper, The New York Journal-American. By the end of the decade, that word was used to describe, not only the Journal-American, but two other newspapers – The World Journal Tribune and The Long Island Star-Journal – that were misguided enough to hire me as a reporter. It seemed when I was ready for journalism, journalism wasn't ready for me, and my "career" was just about, it seemed, defunct.
Truly at a crossroads, I decided to accept a position in a peripheral profession, that of public relations executive for The Long Island Rail Road, the country's busiest commuter line. The condition of the railroad at the time was well documented by the metropolitan area's (and the nation's) media, so I won't go into detail about all the problems, but within the year I was convinced I made another bad choice.
That's when Hank walked in the door. Fresh from public relations successes at American Airlines, Hank was brought in to work his magic at the LIRR – and he didn't waste any time. In a relatively short time, he had totally revamped the PR department. Hank's achievements as the LIRR's public relations director are legendary.
In one of his early staff meetings, he said that up until now we had been holed up in a bunker (our offices), dodging the barrage of abuse from the public and the media, trying daily to coin new excuses for the horrendous service. "From now on we go on the offensive," he said. "We'll tell the people, yeah, you're right, things are not too good, but we're making it better."
To get that campaign off to a good start, he came up with the idea to recruit girls from the railroad’s office staff at its Jamaica headquarters to serve as Metro Mini Maids. Dressed in railroad-style uniforms, the mini-maids were sent out to greet passengers and offer first-hand information on the line’s current status. They soon became a positive symbol of the LIRR and were always on hand for the various marketing campaigns that soon followed.
Another of Hank's early innovations, and possibly his most important one, was to set up a broadcast department that allowed direct contact with all the radio and TV stations throughout New York City and Long Island for instantaneous dissemination of constantly breaking news.
I was thrilled when he named me as broadcast relations manager, and together we set out to enlist all the stations to join the LIRR network. The broadcast media loved the plan, and participated with much enthusiasm. Hank talked "Ma Bell" into designing direct "hot lines" from a newly-built broadcast booth in the PR offices to the radio and TV stations, and we soon had 14 telephones in operation. The network was so popular that even broadcast media in outlying areas, like Bridgeport, Connecticut, requested participation.
Sidebar: The more I worked with Hank, the more I discovered there was nothing ordinary about the guy. For example, for the meeting in Bridgeport, Hank surprised me by saying: "Let's fly up there." I didn't know that he was a licensed pilot. I was soon standing near the runway at Flushing Airport waiting for Hank to come in from Republic Airport to pick me up. As a plane started to land, Stick Hanzlick, the venerable airport manager, ran out of the shack, raised his fist in the air and shouted at the approaching aircraft: "You're comin' in the wrong way!" I remember thinking: I hope that's not Hank. Well, it was, but I boarded anyway – my first flight in a private single-engine plane. Stick Hanzlick aside, Hank's flying was perfect and he even let me take the controls for part of the way!
In addition to Broadcast Relations Manager, Hank put me in charge of promotions and marketing, and I jumped into it with both feet. While the LIRR was running at almost full capacity during the rush hours with 260,000 passengers, the trains were virtually empty during off-peak hours.
It was one of Hank's objectives to increase non-peak passenger traffic, or leisure-time travel, and since the railroad had stations at or near important entertainment venues, such as Shea Stadium, Nassau Coliseum, Forest Hills tennis Stadium and Madison Square Garden, the possibilities seemed limitless.
Soon, we had baseball greats like Yogi Berra, Thurman Munson and Sparky Lyle giving baseball clinics on a flatcar covered with AstroTurf to promote travel to Shea and Yankee stadiums; performers like Dollly Parton and Porter Wagoner on a "Country Music Special" for the Country-in-New York shows at the Madison Square Garden's Felt
Forum; rock 'n' roll stars like Danny & The Juniors performing from car to car promoting package tickets (transportation and admission) to "hall of fame" rock concerts, and the Mickey Mouse Special where Mickey and his friends greeted kids at various RR stations for the Disney on Parade shows.
Passengers making their way through the concourse of Penn Station, directly below Madison Square Garden never knew what to expect: a stage with Guy Lombardo and his orchestra promoting his Sound of Music show at Jones Beach Theater; tennis stars on make-shift court for the U.S. Open at Forest Hills; cowboys and cowgirls for the rodeo; karate exhibitions; fashion shows . . . the list goes on and on.
And nothing was too outrageous! While old-school railroad executives shook their heads in stupefaction, wondering whatever happened to their staid and conservative traditions, Hank kept pulling new and exciting marketing tricks out of his hat. The thing is, no one really opposed him since it was assumed he had the solid backing of the railroad's new owners – the MTA and Governor Rockefeller. During those blustering days, many disgruntled officials could be heard sarcastically paraphrasing that old song: Whatever Hank wants, Hank gets.
Well, I've mentioned only a fraction of what Hank and I accomplished during the seven years of working together, but that's only due to space limitations. The important thing is, when we left the LIRR – approximately a year within each other's departures – we left in our wake a much improved transportation system, one that to this day incorporates many of the innovations we introduced.
After "working on the railroad," Hank continued his illustrious career in crisis management, and his company, Boerner Communications, is well known throughout the world of the Fortune 500. I, on the other hand, while always keeping my fingers pecking away on a keyboard, continued on in my own careers in marketing and advertising, then full-time writing . . . none of which, I'm happy to say, ever fell victim to the word defunct – thanks, in no small way, to the tutelage of a guy called Hank.