Written by Joel Goldman, Past Supreme Prior
The phone rings. “Joel, you got a minute?” It’s Bill Schwartz. This scenario happened when I was Prior of Sigma Zeta (Indiana), Regional Governor, and when I served on the Octagon. When Bill said “you got a minute” then you better not have said “yes” unless you had an hour to give.
The only time that I did not hear those words from Bill was when I served on Sigma Alpha Mu’s professional staff from 1985- 1992. In fact, I had the converse issue of trying to get Bill’s undivided attention, but he went from call to call all day long. I finally figured out that the only way to meet with Bill without interruption was to join him on his lunch time walk. These were never just a stroll around the block. It felt more like I was in training for a 10k sprint. I would usually get through my list of business to discuss with Bill within the first mile or two. After that Bill would just free flow talk and impart his years of wisdom from being Sigma Alpha Mu’s Executive Director.
It’s been 27 years since my last walk with Bill when I was serving as his Assistant Executive Director. I now serve CARE as the Executive Director of their Entertainment Industry Strategy & Relations office in Hollywood. The tools that serve me in my current role and have throughout my career I learned from my first boss and mentor, Bill. He taught me how to ask good questions, when to shut up, and how to listen. He taught me how to hear what people were really saying and not saying. If you ask anyone that has ever worked with me in my career about my strengths, they would tell you how I build and maintain relationships. I attribute that to Bill. There are 4 pillars of relationship building that he taught me. I use them everyday.
1 Find the common ground. Bill taught me that when you walk into a Prior’s room in the chapter house or sit in the Chapter Advisor’s office observe what was on the walls or shelves; is there a photo, a book, that helps you make a personal connection to help start the dialogue.
2 Bill always said “see the man”… Don’t just be a voice on the phone when you can meet face to face. Because of Bill, I will get on a plane and fly halfway around the world to meet someone face to face if it is an important business relationship that needs to be established.
3 The environment where you meet is crucial. “Take the Council out for dinner,” Bill would say (note he’d also say “go for pizza and save the Fraternity some dough”). You will learn more at a meal then sitting in an office. And you will get to know them on a personal level which will carry you far.
4 Bill would say find out what a person is passionate about and find a way to involve that interest in the organization. Bill used to tell the story of a newly initiated legacy from a chapter that the Prior complained would not get involved. When Bill visited the chapter he found out he loved to paint. There was a glass wall in the foyer and Bill suggested that he paint on it to welcome guests, celebrate homecoming, etc…That painter eventually became the Prior.
I was blessed to have Bill impart his knowledge on me. He was grooming me to become the 3rd Executive Director in SAM’s history. Following his and Jimmy Hammerstein’s footsteps would not be easy. During the course of my 7 years of the Fraternity staff, Bill and I each had a major unexpected life event that changed our courses, but deepened our bonds of Fraternalism.
Bill married later in life to a wonderful woman he knew from growing up in Oklahoma City. Judy was a gorgeous soul inside and out. Bill and Judy had a beautiful daughter appropriately named Jolie. Judy died in a car crash and was tragically taken from Bill and 8 year old Jolie. I moved into their home to help in the month that followed Judy’s death. Jolie, Bill, and I became more like family in the months and years that followed.
My life event would happen a few years after Judy’s passing. It was the late 80’s and being openly gay at work (especially in Indiana) was not something you did if you wanted to keep your job. But like many gay men in the early 90’s, I hit Bill with the double whammy that not only was I gay, but I had been diagnosed with HIV. I was given a prognosis of 2-3 years to live. I decided to leave the Fraternity’s employ so that I could speak on campuses to educate college students about HIV/AIDS and how to protect oneself.
Bill and PSP Phil Glauben who was the Leadership Conference Chairman at the time asked me to share my story at the next ΣAM Convention. The room was literally standing room only with every undergraduate, alumni and their wives in attendance. Sharing my story was liberating and affirming of Fraternalism. I surpassed the 2-3 year prognosis because of the new HIV “drug cocktail.” When a seat became vacant on the Octagon during the school year, Supreme Prior Hanno Mott invited me to fill the seat. At a time when HIV+ people were being fired from jobs, kicked out of apartments, and disowned by loved ones, Sigma Alpha Mu was modeling the way that there was no stigma attached to living with HIV.
I served on the Octagon for 5 years and I was ready to ascend to the role of Supreme Prior. A few months before the Atlanta Convention where I would be elected, my hometown newspaper, The Columbus Dispatch, ran a profile piece on me. The article mentioned that I lived with my life-partner Eddie. A few of my contemporaries brought copies of the articles to Convention sharing it with undergraduates saying that if ΣAM elects an openly gay Supreme Prior it will kill rush for the entire Fraternity.
Bill and PSP Larry Schafer met with me and said that I was not to back down. “You are the man who is ready for this position,” Bill said. It was ironic that men in their 60’s were modeling the way for a younger generation to be okay with electing an openly HIV+ gay man. The vote counter whispered in my ear that only 4 votes were not cast for my re-election to the Octagon. The Octagon met after the business session to vote in their next Supreme Prior and I was unanimously elected. Again, Fraternalism was reaffirmed for me.
When I first met the legendary Bill Schwartz at the first Conclave I attended at Mu Psi, Miami University. I never would have predicted that someday I would think of him as a first boss, a mentor, a friend, and a father-figure. I am blessed to have been taught so much by him and to use those gifts every day. How I yearn for those hour calls that were only supposed to be a minute.
Joel’s story is an example of the impact Bill had on the lives of his fellow fratres, friends, family, and fraternal community. To celebrate Bill’s invaluable legacy, we have prepared a 6-minute video tribute and message board that are available to view at sam.org/bill. Below you will find a handful of the written messages shared in tribute to Bill’s memory.