‘Merrrr-cle’ in Memphis

Date Published: 
October, 2004
Original Author: 
Sandra Colleton
Evergreen-Washelli Memorial Park, Seattle, Washington
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, October 2004

Ever wondered exactly what it's like to attend ICFA University? One of this year's Women's Forum Scholarship winners kept a diary, and now she tells all-the professors, the late nights, the dining hall food, the new friends, the brainstorming, the beer, the blues, and last, but definitely not least, the ...

‘Merrrr-cle’ in Memphis

It was another rainy January day in Seattle and I just didn't feel like wading out in the wet stuff to buy lunch.

I resigned myself to eating the limp and unappealing grocery store chef salad I had purchased three days ago then hadn't had time to eat. I needed a diversion to keep me from looking at the gray "mystery meat" on my salad and listening to my colleagues, funeral directors who only moments earlier were doing goodness knows what in our prep room a couple hundred feet down the hall—and were still talking about it!

Since the sports page was missing and I couldn't bear to read any more bad news coming out of Iraq, I picked up the latest issue of ICFM, where I happened upon the Women's Forum ad announcing the availability of two scholarships for ICFA University in July. "Why not apply?" I said to myself.

I tackled the application that evening, mailed it and never gave it another thought. About a month later, I received a phone call from ICFA headquarters informing me I had been awarded one of the scholarships.

I registered for the J. Asher Neel College of Sales and Marketing, pleased to see that Gary O'Sullivan was dean. I had heard Gary give a sensational talk on leadership to conclude an ICFA Sales and Marketing Conference in Las Vegas a couple of years ago. I recalled with enthusiasm Gary's passion for leadership and sales concepts and was eager to have an opportunity to learn more from him.

A Plane Trip Fueled by Caffeine
Fast forward to Wednesday, July 15, the day before my scheduled flight to Memphis:  Murphy's Law says no matter how much I prepare ahead, somehow the day before I travel never goes according to plan. My day planner read: "leave work by 4 p.m., dinner with sons, pack, in bed by 11." Reality was: leave work at 11 p.m., dinner alone at midnight, pack, in bed at 4:30 a.m.

My "power nap" ended abruptly when the alarm rang at 6 a.m. Thursday. At the airport, the security line was long enough to give me time to finish the entire triple grande non-fat white chocolate mocha I purchased at the airport Starbucks, and I needed another to keep me awake while waiting at the gate.

I watched my golf clubs fall off the conveyor belt as they were being loaded onto the plane, but fortunately the baggage handler noticed them and put them into the cargo bay. I planned to take a day of vacation after ICFAU in order to play golf at The Bear Trace at Chickasaw, near Memphis, one of the top-rated courses in the country, according to Golf Digest Magazine.

By 10:45 a.m. I was airborne, but now too caffeinated to sleep on the plane. After a mercifully short delay on the sweltering 107- degree tarmac in Dallas, my connecting flight landed in Memphis just in time for me to find the University of Memphis Fogelman Executive Center, where ICFAU classes are held, before dark.

Since my 3-ounce bag of pretzels courtesy of Delta Airlines was long gone, I headed across the street to the Holiday Inn for dinner, slipping in the door right before the 9:30 p.m. closing time.

I crashed at 11 p.m., the effects of my six morning espresso shots having finally worn off. The alarm was set for 6 a.m., since I planned to play a round of golf before the Friday evening welcome reception and dinner. 

A Warm Reception
Knock-knock-knock: ''Housekeeping!'' I awoke with a start, stared at the clock and realized it still said 11—in the morning! That eliminated any chance of golf, so I decided to do a little sightseeing before the 5:30 p.m. reception instead.

After spending a week there, I can say that it's not hard to navigate around Memphis. However, the first time I tried to find Beale Street, I missed the turn for Riverside Drive and ended up crossing the muddy but mighty Mississippi River into West Memphis, Arkansas.

Ten miles and one illegal U-turn later, I was cruisin' on Beale Street—all three blocks of it. Daytime on Beale Street doesn't give much hint of what the night life is like, so I decided to pursue lunch elsewhere. I happened upon Joe's Crab Shack, where I dined on some fine crab cakes and hush puppies.

From the vantage point of my window seat at Joe's, I watched a hellacious electrical storm roll down the Mississippi River. I quickly came to the conclusion that a miracle (or as Gary O'Sullivan later would say in his delightful South Carolina drawl, "merrrrr-cle") happened for me in Memphis when I overslept, since if I hadn't I would have been on the 12th hole right when the deluge began! It rained two inches in less than two hours.

Like most Seattleites, I own an umbrella collection, but of course I didn't bring a single one to Memphis. I ordered another iced tea and decided to wait out the storm at Joe's. Still, it was only 3 p.m. when I returned "home" to the Fogelman Executive Center. I had time to register and get in a good long run to burn off steam before the welcome reception.

"Burning off steam" has a different meaning when running in a Southern climate. With the sun shining again, I could see the heat and humidity rising in a shimmer off the pavement. I never carry water on a six-mile run in Seattle, but I decided to carry two liters of water here—one to drink and one to pour on my head.

I arrived at the reception feeling refreshed and eager to meet as many people as possible during the week. Scanning the room, I first sought out the only three people I knew. After chatting with them a few minutes, I jumped right in and began mingling.

I found everyone eager and friendly, and by the end of the reception I had made a dozen new acquaintances. We listened to the welcoming address by ICFAU Chancellor Bob Gordon Sr. (who also happens to be on the board of directors at Evergreen-Washelli) and were introduced to the deans of the various colleges.

Considering I only knew three people when I arrived at the reception, Miracle No. 2 occurred when I received a generous invitation to dine later in the evening with a dozen colleagues at Erling Jensen's, the finest dining establishment in all of Memphis.

The food was exquisite, the service impeccable, and the conversations stimulating. This was a great opportunity for me to get to know some of the brightest people in leadership roles in our profession—Nicole Wiedeman, Patrick Downey, Gary Brown and Gary O'Sullivan, to name a few.

After dinner, about half of our group tried to find a karaoke bar where Nicki Wiedeman could show off her considerable vocal talents. We found the bar, but not the karaoke.

At 2 a.m. I was calling the front desk for a wake-up call in 3½ hours so I would be sure to get up early enough on Saturday to run before the first day of class. There's nothing like running five miles in 85 percent humidity to get the blood flowing in the morning, especially since I had no idea where the closest Starbucks was.

The first morning of class was every bit as inspirational as I had hoped. Gary O'Sullivan got us all fired up and promised us that a "merrrr-cle" would happen to all of us while we were in Memphis. I had no trouble believing him, since I already had experienced two during my short time there.

When Gary had the 20 or so students in the Sales and Marketing College introduce ourselves, I was interested to note that we ranged in experience from Rick, with 20 years', to Fran, who was starting her first day on the job as a sales manager! We were cemeterians, cremationists, funeral directors, owners, general managers, sales managers, sales people and vendors—a true cross-section of our profession.

At lunch I got my first taste of the food at Fogelman. One look at the buffet offerings made me glad I had skipped breakfast—it looked so good I wanted to sample everything. I met three new colleagues at my lunch table, but made the fatal mistake of sitting next to the tantalizing dessert buffet and vowed not to do so again!

When we returned to our classroom after lunch, we observed that there appeared to be only two temperature settings on the thermostat in this particular classroom—58 degrees or 88 degrees. Outside it was stifling hot, yet inside I was wishing I had brought my polar fleece from Seattle. (Note to self: Next year remember to pack appropriate clothes to allow dressing in layers).

Break Time = Networking Time
There are two half-hour breaks between classes, one mid-morning and one in the afternoon. I learned on this very first day that the networking that occurs at break time is as valuable as the classroom time.

What a great experience to be able to exchange ideas and information informally with colleagues from around the country. The directory listed 150 students, instructors, spouses and administrators in attendance. By the time the week was over, I had had meaningful conversations with nearly half of them.

During one memorable brainstorming session some of us were joking with Sue, the dairy farmer turned cemeterian, that she needed a new slogan. Her dairy farm used to advertise "From cow to your table in less than 24 hours." Our suggested motto for her new profession: "From corpse to six feet under in less than 24 hours." Well, maybe she'd better hire a professional advertising firm after all.

After six hours of excellent classroom material from all the lecturers as well as lunchtime and break-time networking, I was on sensory overload after only one day. I bowed out of a dinner invitation in favor of time alone to mentally digest the day's gourmet feast of information. The night before at Erling Jensen's, I wanted time to savor every morsel before the next course, and now I felt the same, except I was dealing with food for thought.

After a couple of hours, the thought of some Memphis barbeque sounded appealing. I drove down Poplar Avenue in search of Corky's, as I had heard from a reliable source that they had "the best fall-off-the-bone ribs in all of Memphis." (This came from Patrick Downey, whose taste buds I trusted because he used to live in Memphis.)

Ribs are served wet or dry, and fortunately there were four cars ahead of me in the drive-through line, giving me time to make this most difficult decision. I opted for dry and did not regret it. Miracle No.3 occurred when I actually ate every finger-licking bite of the generous serving provided.

After walking off the ribs, I worked on my swing in the hotel room mirror. This was as close as I got to playing golf during my week in Memphis. Around midnight, I read a book until I fell asleep.

First Class, then The Blues
On Sunday I slept through my alarm again, having forgotten to ask for a wakeup call. Miracle No.4 was that I was only two minutes late for class! The early morning class session was invigorating, mostly because of the instructor, Mike Hays, but also because the arctic room temperature kept us shivering in our seats. The mid-morning break found most of us outside in the sun to thaw out.

Nicki Weideman led us in a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis, and her student participation approach was welcomed, as it kept the class lively with everyone's attention focused, She politely declined to sing for us, but her "smelly markers" were a source of fun.

It's a shame I had to fly over 2,000 miles to have lunch with a colleague who works less than 30 miles away from me in the Puget Sound region, Jim Hammond from Mountain View Funeral Home and Memorial Park in Tacoma, Jim graciously shared with me the ins and outs of his successful family services program, I vowed that after I got home I would make time to do some local networking,

Miracle No. 5 was that I avoided the dessert table altogether on Sunday, even though they were serving that deliciously evil pecan pie again.

Dick Perl's fun and interactive session on team-building not only was enlightening, but also kept us from drifting into siesta mode, which would have been easy to do after such a scrumptious lunch, Then Nicki kept us revved up after the break with a session on ch-ch-ch-changes and how to be a change agent at your organization.

Sunday night dinner at Fogelman brought a chance to hook up with more colleagues to discuss the day's sessions, We decided it was time to cruise Beale Street for the first time after dinner. We all bought a "Big Ass Beer" and wandered around taking in the sights for a while before alighting at the Rum Boogie Café to listen to the Billy Gibson Band.

The blues were so good we ended up staying for all three sets that evening. Billy would do the most amazing things on his "Mississippi saxophone" (harmonica), while lead guitar player Dave did a mean Otis Redding impersonation.

My networking buddies from Colorado were good sports and great fun—and not bad dancers, either. Several other classmates and instructors drifted in and out of the cafe during the course of the evening.

Miracle No.6 was that the rental car still had all its wheels, stereo and glass intact when we returned to the too-dark parking lot at 1 a.m.!

An Epiphany
Dang! I overslept again on Monday and raced to class so as to not miss a word of Dick Perl's presentation on affinity marketing.

Maybe we were feeling overloaded with our total immersion in the cemetery and funeral profession or maybe it was the lack of sleep, but somehow during the morning break the conversation drifted back to cows again. A colleague mentioned that when he was 8 years old and working on a relative's dairy farm he went from shoveling manure at one end of the cow to feeding hay at the other—definitely the best promotion he's ever had!

Over Mexican food at lunch, I had the privilege of getting to know classmate Kelly Dwyer, a fourth-generation cemeterian who is proud of her firm's new Harley hearse. We discussed Rick Wesner's pre-lunch presentation on database marketing and our various experiences with and without this tool in the current market climate.

Several of us were looking for coffee and Snicker's bars to jumpstart us for the afternoon session, but such artificial stimulation proved unnecessary Matt Kreidenweis kept his session lively and stimulating. Besides, none of us dared drift off to sleep because: 1. Matt was randomly calling on different people to read aloud from the handout we were reviewing, and 2. Matt was handing out real, actual money ($1, $5 and $10 bills) to those who answered his questions correctly!

I experienced Miracle NO.7 (and the first bona-fide miracle by Gary O' Sullivan's definition) near the end of Matt's session when I had an epiphany: I need to hold myself accountable daily to a personal mission statement similar in nature to Matt's if I want to grow to become the leader I aspire to be. I couldn't wait to get working on it.

After dinner with my new buddies, I retired to my room to change my airline reservation. Instead of returning home on Thursday, which was my original plan, I wanted to return home as soon as the college was over on Wednesday. I couldn't wait to get back to work!

By deciding to return to work a day early, I was passing up an opportunity to play golf at The Bear Trace, which constituted nothing less than Miracle NO.8.

Changing "Eat. Sleep. Work. Repeat."
I had been inspired to become, as Nicki Weideman put it, a "change agent." My second epiphany occurred when I realized that before I could hope to implement any changes in my organization that would help us maximize our sales potential, I must first change myself and how I approach my personal and professional life.

I had come to realize during these few days away from the daily grind of work that I am often too busy working at work to have any time to think about work. My life often seems like a variation of the Rum Boogie Café flashing neon sign: "Eat. Drink. Boogie. Repeat," except that my life motto lately had been: "Eat. Sleep. Work. Repeat."

Just as a pond of water not stirred by the breeze grows stagnant, so does a muscle not stretched, a spirit not challenged, a mind not stimulated. Now that I was feeling challenged and stimulated, I realized I had been so immersed in work that I had become less effective at work.

This week of highly focused classroom work, the informal brainstorming and the relaxing with peers, combined with the absence of the usual daily distractions at home and the office, made it possible for me to think clearly for the first time in quite a while about certain key issues.

My task was crystal clear to me. I had experienced the real "merrrr-cle of Memphis" Gary had prophesied. I decided to heed his advice and not try to change the world all at once. Instead, I would take home with me a "to do" list of only five priorities.
My priority list, as you will see, revolves around changing myself, not my organization. In a way, you could say this was a very selfish trip I took to ICFAU, selfish in the sense that even though I brought home with me a wealth of information gleaned from some of the best in our profession, the most important things I learned in Memphis were about myself. My priorities are listed in the "ICFAU Homework Assignment" below.

At this point, my first ICFAU experience was nearing its end. I had just one more day crammed with informative sessions and one more evening out in Memphis with my colleagues, people
I can now call friends, as well.

Many of us danced and laughed on Beale Street until 3 in the morning, not wanting the camaraderie to end. We vowed to attend the same session together next year (Cremation College) so we can once again compare notes.

Do the 'Memphis Thang'
Anyone reading this article who cannot sense my enthusiasm for the ICFAU experience needs a brain scan. This may seem like a shameless plug for the association or the university, but it's completely voluntary and sincere.

For me, ICFAU was stimulating and transforming. It was the best investment I have made yet in my career, and I plan to be back not only next year but every year that I can. So here is a BIG thank-you to all of the instructors and students who shared their time and energy and made my week in Memphis such a positive experience, as well as to the Women's Forum scholarship sponsors who paid my tuition, room and board.

To everyone reading this who hasn't been to ICFAU, I say: Now dahlin', come on down next yeah, do the "Memphis thang" and have yo' self yo' own merrrrcle! I hope to meet you there!

I would like to dedicate this report to Dave Daly. CCFE. CEO of Evergreen-Washelli. who died suddenly during the writing of this article. His passion for this profession, caring stewardship of Evergreen-Washelli and compassion for the families we serve was inspiring. We will all miss him.

I also would like to gratefully acknowledge my mentor, Mike Johnson, marketing director at Evergreen-Washelli, a true leader, for encouraging me to grow professionally and personally and for teaching me everything he knows about sales and leadership.

For more information please visit the University home page. Sandra "Sandi" Colleton is sales manager at Evergreen-Washelli Memorial Park and Funeral Home, Seattle, Washington. She was one of two recipients of the 2004 ICFAU Women's Forum scholarships.