Finishing strong

A man of distinct tastes, varied interests and on the eve of his retirement, Senior Vice President John Beacon, GR ’74, reflects on his 50-plus years of recruitment success in higher education.




On a crisp, sunny afternoon in early April, members of the Indiana State University campus gathered in the John W. Moore Welcome Center. Amid the balloons and Sycamore-leaf-shaped cookies were people of all ages and fitness levels wearing their running shoes.

Participants take off from the starting line of the first John Beacon 5K Fun Run.

Some had been high school athletes. A few had run marathons. Some had never even walked in a 5K, but there they were at the starting line — raising money for a scholarship fund honoring the retirement of John Beacon, senior vice president of enrollment management, communications and marketing.

Beacon, GR ’74, credits his more than five decades of success in higher education to building a good team. Like the participants of his retirement 5K, some on his State team are lifelong higher education or marketing professionals. Others, like this writer, randomly applied for a job, Beacon saw some potential and took a chance.

“Hire people who are better than you. They’re only going to make you look good,” he said, reflecting on his career. “My resolve is always telling the truth and having integrity, treating people equally, fairly and knowing I am no better than anyone else. My job has always been to make your life easier by removing roadblocks and hurdles to you doing your job.

“But also have a really good time doing it. If you don’t have a sense of humor and can’t laugh at yourself, you have a problem.”

In his 10 years at State, Beacon has led the charge to boost enrollment by 30 percent — and to all-time institutional highs — at a time when other colleges and universities in the Midwest were struggling to attract students.

“We have an incredibly talented group of people,” he said. “We’ve just had success after success. And once you experience success, you get people who are more confident, and it’s easier to show the value we’re getting out of the university’s investments.”

Carrie Lutz crosses the finish line of the first annual John Beacon 5K fun run.

He built a welcome center and a modern brand for Indiana State, changed the way the university recruits students and saw the value in social media — before smart phones were permanent fixtures in our hands.

“You see a lot more blue. There’s pride on this campus that was never there before,” he said. “All of that is certainly not due to just me. It’s great people who buy into our paradigm.”

Indiana State President Dan Bradley knew Beacon was the right man for the job when he learned that in more than 30 years of running, Beacon could count on one hand the days he’d missed a workout.

The day after Beacon was hired in 2007, then President Lloyd Benjamin announced he would be retiring in one year. When Bradley came to State in 2008, Beacon was, as a direct report to the president, in a vulnerable position, given the fact new administrators often prefer to hire their own cabinet, not inherit one.

“We didn’t gain enrollment in that first year — not at all,” Beacon recalled. “It didn’t bother me. I had enough confidence to know what we needed to do. Maybe I was too naive to realize I should have been bothered.”

There were, however, signs enrollment would improve, and by the end of Bradley’s first year and Beacon’s second, it did. “Once that happened, there was no turning back.”

Running is a constant factor in Beacon’s adult life and career — an activity that often triggered his best ideas and is held as an example of his stick-to-it-ness. A common joke among his staff was his desire to name a program “Running Start.” That desire was fulfilled with the 5K fun run in April, which raised nearly $2,000 for the Running Start Scholarship. The $500 award will be distributed beginning fall 2018 to incoming freshmen from Indiana who have a 2.5 GPA or higher.

Beacon started running on July 6, 1972 — a time when basically no one ran for fitness in America. Not that his 6’4” frame looked unhealthy, but Beacon had gained some weight after graduating from college and getting married.

When he heard a friend had shed a few pounds by dieting, Beacon thought he’d give exercise a try — a quarter-mile jog was enough at first.

“I realized I liked doing it enough that I started doing it every day,” he said. “I’d dropped 50 pounds and hadn’t missed a day in a year. Then, I got to two years without missing a day. Then I wanted to go further and faster. And then I started running races. Five years went by before I missed the first day I ever missed — I mean every day: Christmas, New Years, summer storms.”

Finishing a half marathon or marathon isn’t an unusual accomplishment these days, but back in the 1970s, it was certainly a niche hobby — and therefore a perfect one for Beacon, who has one of the first Runners World magazines when it was a tabloid being published out of a garage in California.

John Beacon

“My first pair of running shoes was Adidas Italias,” he said. “They were white with green stripes, and I thought they would last me the rest of my life. I ran in them and then put them back in the box. They lasted about four months.”

Beacon doesn’t know how many pairs he’s worn out since then, but he certainly knows the value of them. When he was working at an Illinois community college, he did — as a man with a young family and no money — take a track and cross-country job for the perk of free running shoes each season.

During his heyday, the days Beacon missed lacing up counted 19 — including a few days for a wisdom teeth extraction. He’s logging 106,000 miles “on all original parts,” although he’s slowed down in recent years.

When Beacon graduated from college in 1967 with a business degree, he interviewed with a pharmaceutical company for a sales job. The Vietnam war, however, was in full swing, and he was classified “1A,” meaning he was among the first picks for the draft.

“I was excited about the job prospect, but I learned they were not going to hire me because there was a six-month training period to learn all of the technical stuff and they were sure I’d be drafted in the mean time,” he said.

“I happened to see an announcement on the bulletin board in the career center six weeks before I was about to graduate and get married. It was a job for a recruiter in the Chicago area for a small school in western Nebraska.”

Beacon signed the employment contract with Hiram Scott College the same day he married his wife. He got trained and started visiting schools. After three years of increasing enrollment as a recruiter, Beacon decided he liked what he was doing so much that he should get a master’s degree in higher ed.

“I went to Indiana State University, because they had one of the best college student personnel services program in the United States,” he said.

Beacon had hoped to earn a graduate assistantship while completing his studies at State, but the director of admissions had an assistant director opening. Beacon became the first non-alumni to get that full-time job.

“In those days, recruiting was very, very different. We visited schools and just waited for the apps to come in,” he said. “We didn’t do any marketing. Nobody reviewed data. You simply sat back and waited for the applications to come in.”

The reason? The World War II baby boom caught colleges off-guard, and there were fewer schools and more students trying to get into college than space would allow. “Colleges could be very selective,” Beacon said.

Then, in the ’70s the baby boom ended, and the country had become over-built with schools, including community colleges that cropped up to serve low-income and under-prepared students. Universities now had to work to recruit students.

John Beacon poses with members from his enrollment management team at his retirement dinner.

Part of State’s recruitment strategy in the ’70s was publishing a viewbook — a mainstay still today. One summer, Beacon and a couple of colleagues were tasked with distributing it during band day at the Indiana State Fair.

“All the buses were parked in the infield, and we had boxes and boxes of viewbooks. Our job was to put one on every seat,” he said.

After completing his degree at State, Beacon landed at the Illinois Valley Community College as director of admissions. There, he created a financial aid office and started a career center — in addition to managing admissions (and coaching track and cross-country, of course).

“I learned a lot doing that, but I missed four-year schools,” he said.

Eastern Illinois University needed a director of admissions, so Beacon and his family moved to Charleston, where he created recruitment videos and campus visitation days. Enrollment climbed from 8,000 students to more than 10,000 over four years.

“I gained a reputation for growing enrollments,” he said.

Oklahoma State came calling, and Beacon arrived as a “Midwesterner without the Oklahoma accent.”

“In the end, I won them over,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot from a lot of people over the years. There is no single way to grow enrollment.”

While Beacon makes enrollment management look easy, many of the universities had volatile personnel issues that could have sunk him right away. Beacon says he held true to the lessons he gained as a young man working as a counselor at a YMCA summer camp in Wisconsin over six summers.

“It was one of those events that preached honesty, integrity and doing the right thing — always do the right thing,” he said. “That, and the experiences I had from these jobs, is who I am.”

After Oklahoma State, Beacon was hired as director of admissions at the University of Nebraska — at least initially.

“The financial aid office was in bedlam,” he said, noting they were criticized in the student newspaper. “I was delighted I wasn’t in charge of financial aid.”

Beacon was asked to improve the reputation of the financial aid office. He agreed — on one condition: that he could run both admissions and financial aid.

“I wanted to be director of admissions and financial aid,” Beacon said. “I was paving my way to my future, because nothing looks better on a resume at a Big Eight university than to manage both admissions and financial aid.”

Problem was Beacon didn’t know anything about financial aid. His boss told him it really didn’t matter, he’d do fine because it was a customer service issue.

“Not true! You have to know about financial aid. My first day on the job, a bunch of angry students were lined up to see me, and I was trying to explain to them, ‘I’m not an expert in financial aid,’” Beacon recalled. They replied, “It doesn’t matter. You’re the director, aren’t you?”

Two weeks in, complaints were still piling up. Beacon invited the worst complaining students from every category imaginable to meet with him one afternoon.

“They all showed up and had something to say that was not positive about the office. I listened for about an hour. ‘Can you come back tomorrow and we’ll continue this conversation?’ They said yeah, and they all came back.”

The next day, they talked until they wore themselves out.

“Anything else?” he asked.

“No,” they said.

And Beacon had discovered the root of the problem.

“This was before sophisticated computers, and what they printed out every day were called green sheets. So, the information was two days old when counselors talked to students,” he said. “No wonder all the information they were giving the students was wrong. By the time the new green sheet came out, the information had changed.

“The solution was to buy real-time computers that were faster than green sheets.”

He asked students to go with him to a finance committee meeting to make a case for buying the computers. “Nobody ever turns students down,” he said. “I told them, ‘If you come with me, state your case, we’ll set what we need.’”

The meeting resulted in a commitment of $225,000 to buy a new system.

Beacon then literally broke down walls between the admissions and financial aid offices and created one living room-type reception area for both offices. He took the financial aid counselors off their stools, out from behind the bank teller setup and put them at desks equipped with a computer screen students could see.

“Previously, the office was not warm and welcoming, and receptionists sat on stools higher than the students. (The new setup) was all about customer service — ‘We care about you,’” he said. “Within two years, we were the best financial aid office in the Big Eight.”

And after that quick learning curve, “I actually found I loved financial aid. I did it for 11 years. I love the detail, the deep detail that’s involved with interpreting federal law.

“However, after about 11 years of doing that, I became bored. I’d done all I could do at Nebraska.”

So he applied for a job at University of Maine, where he would run admissions, the registrar’s office, financial aid, counseling center, career center, international programs, graduate programs and academic advising.

What he found in New England was a large public university among a sea of well-known private colleges. “We were the land grant institution. I thought, we have to act like it.”

He created a new marketing strategy, which included advertising in outdoor magazines. “We sold the school on the adventure — the whole idea of get a great education while you’re having a great outdoor experience.”

They opened an office in Portland, Maine, where the population base was, and opened a career center right next to the advising center on campus so advisers could walk students over. Enrollment surged.

“I got bored there after seven years.”

Beacon was offered a vice president position at Western Michigan University. It was at the start of the 2007 Great Recession, and the university had already lost millions in state appropriations and enrollment was dropping fast.

“They were looking for someone to save the university,” he said. “I thought I could do that, but not in one year.”

The university was suffering from poor perception. Beacon assembled a “great staff” and designed his first welcome center.

After three years, two presidents and three provosts, he started looking around. “I realized things were not improving as fast as necessary, and I had a big bull’s eye on my back. If I didn’t produce, my days could be numbered.”

A vice president position at his alma mater caught his eye — not because it was Indiana State, but because it included his love of marketing with enrollment management. He returned to Terre Haute in 2007.

“The rest of it is history. We’ve had a lot of success.”

So much success that the university won’t let him retire. As his official days wind down, Beacon will stay on in an interim capacity until a new president is hired to replace Bradley, who will retire in January. The new president will then find Beacon’s replacement.

“I’m surprised I’m 71 years old. I don’t feel 71. I can’t believe my life went by so fast. It seems like it accelerated toward the end. I would have guessed I’m 60, but I’m not. Suddenly, I realize life is coming to an abrupt end. I have a lot of friends who are no longer around. I’m beginning to think maybe I ought to do something else.

“I have tons of interests. It’s not like I’m going to sit in the living room with a shirt and tie all day long.”

Q&A with SVPJB

John Beacon is infamous for his off-beat questions and keeping job candidates on their toes. His Communications and Marketing staff jumped at the chance to turn the tables on him.

 

What’s one thing on your bucket list that you haven’t done yet?

I haven’t seen Alaska. It’s the only state other than Mississippi that I haven’t run in.

 

How many coats do you have? Do you have a favorite?

I have an embarrassing number of coats. I’ll give you a rough estimate: probably between 70 and 80. The one I want to be buried in is a sheepskin, three-quarter length with a hood that has beautiful fur trim. It looks like something a mountain man would be comfortable wearing.

 

Where do you get your glasses?

A company in Keystone Mall in Indianapolis.

 

What’s your favorite hobby?

It’s one I don’t do very often, but sailing. There’s nothing like it. It’s majestic, it’s quiet, it requires skill. You can’t get from point A to point B unless you know what you’re doing. To get the maximum amount of wind out of a sail is thrilling. I don’t want to sit out there and play a ukulele. I want to race the thing — make it go as fast as it can go.

 

What’s your favorite creation you’ve made woodworking?

Flintlock rifles since I put so much time into making them. The last one I built in January was the best one I’ve ever built, and it’s the last one I’ll ever build. It easily took me 400 hours. I’d never attempted to do any carving into the stock. It’s risky, because it’s the last thing you do and you stand to wreck the whole rifle if you make a mistake or your chisel slips.

A gun maker once told me it’s not how many mistakes you make, it’s how you cover them up.

 

Who is the most fascinating person you’ve met?

I had lunch with Stephen King.

(When Garth Brooks was a “was a skinny little kid” and graduate assistant at the advising center at Oklahoma State, Beacon turned him down for an admissions job. “He owes me for not hiring him! He’d be some admissions director now, if it weren’t for me.)

 

What is your first post-retirement project?

I have some really cool, gnarly wood that is probably black walnut. I’ve looked at it 8,500 ways, and it’s just big enough — if I cut it the right way — to become a small keepsake box.

 

What contribution at State are you most proud of?

Hiring all the people I’ve hired. Although the Welcome Center is near the top of the list.

 

If you were a cookie, what would it be?

Lemon bar

 

What’s your favorite book?

“Robinson Crusoe.” I remember staying home from school if I had a cold and reading “Robinson Crusoe” time and again.

 

What is the key to closet organization?

A filing system. My sweaters are in plastic bags and are labeled. If you think I have a lot of jackets, I have more sweaters. They’re all lined across the top of the closet, five high. My dress shirts and pants are all hung according to color.



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