By Brian E. Clark
AVALANCHE, Vernon County – There are two ways to look at Patrick Strickler’s long employment history: He’s either an expert at retiring or he doesn’t understand the concept.
Regardless, after surviving more than two dozen acquisitions and mergers and taking several buyouts during a decade-plus in banking public relations, he knows the drill.
The 62-year-old Strickler — who on July 4th finished nearly seven years at UW-Madison in several top communications posts — has moved on to new endeavors.
“I really don’t view it as retirement,” he said with a grin. “It’s more like reinventing myself again.”
He prepared for the transition during the last year by working half-time for the university while laying the groundwork for his next endeavor.
He’s also relocated physically, out to the geographically rumpled Driftless Area of western Wisconsin, just a stone’s throw from one of the best trout-fishing streams in the country.
Appropriately, the walls of his rustic cabin office — which is wired with high-speed internet access — are lined with angling paraphernalia. The window over his writing desk looks out past a quaking aspen tree to a green valley.
It’s a great place, he says, to run his Blue Waters Group, a communications consulting firm serving what he likes to call the “knowledge economy.”
And to go fly-fishing, which he does at least four times a week for “therapy.”
Strickler says it is the Internet that allows him to run his business and deal with clients anywhere around the globe from a Vernon County hollow.
“The reason I can keep working – and I do aim to stay busy – is because of this,” he said, gesturing to a laptop computer on an old wooden desk.
“And the power of the Web,” added Strickler, who sports a short, white beard and bears a slight resemblance to Ernest Hemingway.
“You don’t have to be in Chicago or Madison or New York and have all that overhead built into the rate structure,” said Strickler, who recently finished writing “The Butcher, The Baker,” a novel about the intersection of Amish and non-Amish cultures in Wisconsin’s Driftless Area. He’s also doing volunteer work for the Viroqua Chamber of Commerce and is getting involved in a Vernon County economic development group.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way. I like being involved – preferably in a behind-the-scenes kind of way,” said Strickler, an unassuming former St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter and editor at the Detroit Free Press. He also worked as a correspondent for a Life Magazine and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism at the Post-Dispatch.
“Now I love living on our 40 acres in this remote little hollow,” he said.
After leaving the newspaper business – a decision that still gives him pause – he worked for major PR firms, including Hill & Knowlton, and Golin-Harris in Chicago. He managed accounts for them in both the United States and Europe, including Turkey.
But Strickler doesn’t plan to work full-time.
“I sometimes get up in the middle of night to write, but I am not a workaholic,” he said.
And as much as he loves his new digs, he and his wife, Joyce, plan to spend at least a couple of months each dreary Wisconsin winter in San Miguel de Allende, a picturesque and sunny colonial city in the central highlands of Mexico.
Thanks to the Internet, and decades of contacts, Strickler can work from Latin America, too. After all, he can call his own shots now because he’s, well, retired once again.
“The Web has erased concepts of time and space,” he said, sounding a bit like Rod Serling of “The Twilight Zone.”
“We are now all in a huge global aquarium and able to communicate with each other, unrestrained by distance. So yes, I can be very productive and communicate with people from San Miguel, too.”
Strickler, the son of a University of Notre Dame education professor, worked for more than a dozen years in journalism and then jumped to public relations for businesses, primarily banks. His last corporate job was with Firstar Corp. in Milwaukee, where he was first vice president and director of public affairs before it merged with Star Banc.
He moved to UW-Madison in 1999 and found it a bit like the Land of Oz.
“It was totally unlike the corporate banking world, which was all about earnings and profits” he said.
“The whole concept in Madison was about doing something for the greater good,” he said. “It can drive you crazy, but I’d grown up in a university environment and found myself loving it. My years at UW-Madison were among the best of my professional life.”
Charlie Hoslet, managing director of the Office of Corporate Relations and Strickler’s last boss, said his years of experience, his expertise and his wit will be missed.
“Patrick has been a tremendous asset to me and the Office of Corporate Relations,” Hoslet said. “His many years of private-sector experience, and his time as director of the university’s communications office, provided a perfect background to help create a new office that facilitates interactions between the business community and the campus.”
Strickler is now making the transition back to private-sector consulting.
“When you boil it down, the Blue Waters Group is all about high-level story telling,” Strickler said.
He got the idea while helping run the OCR, his post for the last years at the university.
It was his job to explain to the business community what he calls “the menu of resources the university has to officer companies competing in today’s technology driven environment.”
“But what I’m doing now is distinctly not PR,” said Strickler. “I’ll leave that to other players. What the Blue Waters Groups is about is producing high-level content for the Internet, which is the 21st Century’s new communications distribution paradigm.”
Though Strickler said he has fond memories of his years working for newspapers, he views them as a fading industry because of slumping circulation numbers, and, in some notable cases, declining credibility.
“What large institutions like universities are discovering is that when a story is good and the institution has credibility, you can communicate directly with your audience instead of the going through newspapers or radio or television,” he said.
“Instead, you basically self-publish to get your story out on the Web,” he said. “And from there, it literally can go all over the world.
“You can deliver information directly to your critical audiences, who frankly don’t want to wait for the morning paper or the evening news,” he said.
By self-publishing, businesses or other groups can avoid the filter of a newspaper, radio or television editor trimming a story down, he said.
“That is a critical fact that people are now just catching on to,” he said. “The action is on the Web and that has created a lot of opportunities.”
“We all want our information immediately and go to the Web to get it, whether it is from WisBusiness.com, the UW Business News Wire, a newspaper Web site or anyone,” he said.
Strickler hopes to develop communications strategies for clients to help them deliver information and stories to the public.
“And I can do it with senior-level writing, again, because of the contacts with strong writers I’ve developed over the years,” he said.
Strickler points to “The Better World Report,” a book which came out early this year that he coordinated and edited. It was written for the Association of University Technology Managers and profiles 25 technology-transfer cases that have had a major impact on society.
“That whole project was managed right here in this little room in a valley in western Wisconsin with nothing but a pasture in front of me surrounded by hills and far away from the hubbub,” he said.
Aside from being printed, the book was – more importantly – posted on the international association’s Web site.
“None of that was dependent on old-fashioned PR,” he said. “Rather, it was simply a matter of setting things up, putting good writers on interesting stories and then packaging it all for a worldwide audience.”
Strickler began to attract other clients as he edged toward his version of “retirement.”
“Now that my university employment has ended, I can go at this hammer and tongs and let businesses know what services I’m offering – from my rustic little cabin,” he said.
— Strickler can be reached via e-mail him at [email protected] or by phone at (608) 634-4814.