February 11, 2011

Harold Burson's Blog

On Reaching 90

Posted By Harold Burson

To tell the truth, I never gave any thought to how long I would live. My father, a victim of the first poison gas attack in the first World War, made it to 68, a victim of stomach cancer; his two brothers reached their early eighties. My mother, who survived a half dozen serious heart attacks, kidney stones year-after-year, diabetes so severe it became necessary to remove a gangrenous leg, and two malignancies (one intestinal, the other a rare form of cancer that required removal of an eye,) outlived more than two dozen of her physicians and missed 90 by only three months. The elder of my two sisters was 68 when she failed to survive a mitral valve replacement operation, while my other sister lived six months short of 80.

From the time I reached 80, friends and business associates, knowing I still go to the office every day and that I travel frequently, have often asked “what’s your secret?”. Usually, I give the flip answer, “It’s all a matter of survival.” In fact, I think the real answer is that living to a ripe old age requires an amalgam of many factors that start with one’s parents, and includes not only the genes they gave you but also the example, during your childhood, of how they lived their lives. Recent scientific studies have shown that happy, agreeable people outlive those who are unhappy and angry. Also that people who like their work have an advantage as do those who own and care for a dog. I have had five of them over the past half century, the first a chocolate-colored miniature French poodle (who never wavered in believing she was human) and four West Highland White Terriers (Sonny, Angus, Geoffrey and Robby), each who thought himself a full-fledged family member.

My greatest gift is that I have been blessed with good health. From the time I left home, I have been conscious of my health, especially what and how much I ate and drank. The best diet advice I ever received was simply, “you are smart enough to know what food is good for you and what’s not good; order anything you desire, but eat only half of it.” The only time I ever smoked was when I was in Europe in a World War II combat engineer group, but I was never able to learn how to inhale. (I may as well also confess I couldn’t learn how to swim.) While I suffered a spate of minor afflictions that required hospitalization, I have never had a serious illness.

I have been conscious of preventive medicine for almost half a century. About 30 years ago I got the idea of recruiting a medical “team” consisting of doctors with whom I could form personal relationships that assured me easy access. I was especially fortunate to have known Dr. Marianne J. Legato when she brought a halt to her teaching career at the Columbia University medical school to practice her specialty, internal medicine. In effect, Dr. Legato “manages” my health care needs. Through the years, she has assembled a team of specialists with whom I have also developed close relationships, among them a cardiologist, a gastroenterologist, a dermatologist, an ophthalmologist, an endocrinologist, a neurologist, an orthopedist, and, of course, a dentist and a periodontist.

Every year, Dr. Legato schedules me for an hour-long physical examination that includes a comprehensive blood analysis. Because I started growing intestinal polyps in the late 1970s, I submitted to annual colonoscopies (about a year ago, my gastroenterologist informed me annual visits were no longer required; it was welcome news). Still on my annual agenda is an echo stress test, the aftermath of a blockage in my circumflex artery in the mid-80s that was removed with an angioplasty.

But I think the most important contributor to my physical well-being (mentally, too) was the opportunity to continue my Burson-Marsteller association after 35 years as CEO. My long-time colleague, Jim Dowling, succeeded me and it seemed to be taken for granted I would keep on working (or, at least, coming to the office). Actually, Jim had taken on a large part of the CEO job a year earlier and my associates at our parent company, Young & Rubicam, had expressed a desire for me to stay on. My role would little different from what it had been as I approached the date when my tenure as CEO came to an end. Mainly it was consulting with clients like Coca-Cola, Philip Morris, Merrill Lynch, DuPont, IBM and the U.S. Postal Service. Also, I would continue to be engaged in developing new business, cementing existing client relationships, visiting both domestic and overseas offices and participating in “institutional and ceremonial” events. That phase of my career started in 1989 and there was no talk about how long it would go on. Needless to say, I believe it is safe to speculate that none of those involved had any notion that I would be around 22 years later doing some of the same things. I hope my extended presence has boded well for Burson-Marsteller and its people. Certainly, it has played a major role in keeping me healthy, both mentally and physically.

What I like most about what I do on a daily basis are the people with whom I associate– colleagues, clients, media and other influentials. Having made the rounds of B-M offices on five continents for more than half a century, I usually have numerous friends, clients as well as employees, in every city I visit (we estimate there are some 25,000 B-M alumni in more than 30 countries on five continents). Both pleasant and even surprising in today’s fast moving business environment is the unbroken continuity of Burson-Marsteller’s singular culture around the world as succeeding generations of public relations and public affairs practitioners join our ranks. It amazes me that women and men of so many nationalities adapt and adhere so quickly to our sharing and caring environment and our ‘one company around the world” model.

As my September days move into October, or even November, I pause every now and then to reflect on the life I have led and what, given the opportunity to live it over again, I would do differently. My considered conclusion is that I would change very little. My life in public relations has been fulfilling and rewarding. The people I’ve worked with, the challenges I have faced, the places I have visited, the recognition I have received — I cannot think of any other career that would have brought me nearly as much satisfaction and as much pleasure. Although we scoff at the young person who says “I want to go into public relations because I like people,” I have come to believe there’s real wisdom in that statement. For me there is nothing I have valued more than the friendship and support of fellow public relations practitioners. Almost invariably, they, in a phrase often employed by my Father, are people “in the know.” None more so than those who gave of their wisdom and energy to make Burson-Marsteller the global institution it has become over the past 58 years. Each and every one of them and those comprising my immediate family – Bette, my wife of 63 years until last September 16, and our two sons, Scott and Mark. They, too, carried their share of the load as I traveled the world and did my thing.

It’s been one heck of a ride!

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Harold Burson

February 15, 2011