I was a Covid layoff I couldn't leave the job, so the job left me.

Our whole office got cardigans, I believe I was the only one who wore mine regularly.
Our whole office got cardigans, I believe I was the only one who wore mine regularly.

My job was Senior Web Content Specialist at Western Michigan University—I designed, developed, and maintained websites central to the University’s mission.

No one else did what I did—it was the only job of its kind—and after two years under new management, my position was completely eliminated “due to the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic crisis.”

Once upon a time, there was a day.

I’m a creative hayseed from the small village of St. Philip, Indiana. Before I came to Western, I was collecting two college degrees: a Bachelor’s of Science in Fine Art with an emphasis in sculpture, and an Associate’s of Science in Visual Communications.

My brother Bryan had similar degrees and interests, very often we were hired in tandem—our best gig was with our friend David Meyer’s cutting-edge media company Exit 7, Inc. Our client list was substantial, but there can be only one king: Gaylord Entertainment (now: Ryman Hospitality Properties, Inc). Some of my responsibilities were for Grand Ole Opry, The Ryman, Gaylord Hotels, WSM radio station, Wildhorse Saloon restaurant—anything Gaylord owned, we worked on. The work was fast-paced and dynamic. Unfortunately, our account executive killed this golden goose, Exit 7 closed its doors, and I was back to freelancing.

Eventually, I scored the Western job and relocated to Kalamazoo, Michigan as their University Web Designer (2001) and subsequently promoted to University Web Manager (2004)—a position that evolved into Senior Web Content Specialist. Great steady pay, good benefits, numerous perks.

What else am I supposed to do with my business cards?

I had six different bosses during my tenure: Bryan Husk, Michael Stilson, David Smith, Thom Myers, Tonya Durlach, and Dan Lobelle. Each of them had a boss, and we had three of those transition through over my 19 years at Western: Matt Kurz, Cheryl Roland, and Tony Proudfoot—Matt was usually playing golf; Cheryl was nice, but never ran an office before; Tony, to his credit, came with an actual strategy.

The office went through a name change, as well, from the Office of University Relations to the Office of Marketing and Strategic Communications—one of Tony’s ideas.

The rudderless ship.

At 50-thousand feet, the University looked like a duck on the smooth water; however, just below the water’s surface, we were thrashing, splashing, sucking in water and spitting it out.

We focused on news creation and dissemination; although we also did print work and websites. Compared to other institutions, we were extremely understaffed—this usually left us collectively underprepared and scrambling on a regular basis. Knowing the stakes, we held onto each other tightly and helped out whenever we could, with whatever it was.

Putting in 40+ hours a week at our jobs was typical. There was a compassion for each other that inspired you to work hard, to impress. When I started, I was doing everything from systems administration, to networks, to purchasing, print, and the web—I had a hard time telling people, “no” and it is still a weakness of mine to this day.

Our office never really offered marketing services beyond what news stories we’d feature. We lacked legitimate leadership in this department until 2012 when we hired a full-time marketing director.

Now, our office was starting to deliver a consistent on-brand messaging to internal and external audiences; unfortunately, we were still completely buried with work—and like the saying goes: no ideas without bodies.

A paradigm shift.

In 2018, a new face stepped-in to run our entire office: Tony Proudfoot. He wanted to turn our University around and he breathed new life into our daily routines. He challenged us to redefine our roles, to take risks, and he trained us in ways to break from wasteful habits—I loved it.

I was a champion of Tony and I told everyone, “we needed him 10 years ago.”

Tragically, Tony seemed outmatched when it came to handling some of our inability to change many of our deeply-rooted habits, behaviors, and opinions. He bemoaned in one of our first all-staff meetings, “I wish I could just replace the entire office.”

Many were aghast at how he spoke to us openly as a group. I remember huddling in a co-worker’s cubicle post-meeting and she whispered, “What was that all about?”

We all say the wrong thing sometimes. I reassured my co-worker it was going to be fine—I thought our jobs were safe—however, within a year we started seeing an exodus of the old guard, and even effective trend-setters were pushed out.

That “Lebowski” look

Many of us took Tony’s playbook and excitedly ran with it. He stepped in and started smashing things up a bit, and I liked it—our office needed restructure and refocus but there was also a lack of compassion.

Six months before Covid hit, I noticed myself being excluded from meetings I had participated in—or even led—my entire career. I saw more 3rd-party vendors coming in and making decisions. Even though this was happening, I had no shortage of work to do.

I had a big ring of keys, and was more than happy to hand them off to responsible folks once I trained them.

My last day of work was my birthday.

The first round of Covid cuts came and went. On the second round, I was surprisingly let go.

My work was either outsourced to marketing and branding firms, it was put on the shoulders of other people, or abandoned completely. All they wanted was my keys. They never even asked for the 19 years worth of files, notes, images, meetings—almost two decades of unwanted WMU-specific knowledge haphazardly tossed to the wayside.

It was a great business decision for Western because now, the University didn’t have to pay my salary, match my 401k, supply my benefits, dental, classes, gym membership, etc. A fair estimate is two-million saved over nine years (my retirement date was 2029).

“What Tony did to you was really, really sh*tty. You’ve always had such a kind soul, it breaks my heart that you were treated so poorly. Especially when you thought all of the changes were good.”

—Text message from a former co-worker at WMU

Silver-lining and upshots.

Maintaining a consistent web presence and training every department on campus to manage its own website content was a taxing job. There were days I had to search out for the happiness.

Where I found peace was realizing my beautiful opportunity: I worked with everyone from the President’s Senior Staff to the lowly Administrative Assistant of an obscure department. Groups of individuals from different backgrounds, pay grades, egos, agendas, and technology-levels—and getting them all to agree on a solution by obversing, listening and using design as my main tool for communication set this job apart from any other. My exposure to diversity was dense—and my 19-year takeaway working in higher-education is this:

People are the best asset—give them responsibility and authority, hold them accountable, participate together, and things get better.

My next career was short: becoming a caregiver.

The morning after I got my layoff notice, my wife and I were signing paperwork for a new house on the hood of our car. Covid was in full-swing, and we were desperate to her mother, Laurie, out of her assisted living situation as soon as possible; so, we sold our house, sold Laurie’s house, and bought a new house.

A month later, we successfully moved Laurie out of assisted living and into a place with wide hallways for the wheelchair. She suffered from ALS and we cared for her until she passed in March 2021. My job was to be the Hoyer lift and “bring the sunshine”—but it was hard watching someone lose an inch each day. We did our best and we showed up.

We spent another year recovering from our trauma and grief. I started my own business (BTAT LLC) and picked up a lot of freelance and contract work.

Eventually, we had a choice to make: “move up north” like many Michigander’s do, or head to Vermont. We chose the latter. A lot of my wife’s family lives here (she was even born here); her cousin Stuart and family are a mile down the road; her brother’s family lives nearby and she’s a great auntie.

Tell yourself a different story.

Getting laid-off from Western was a real kick in the nuts. When times get tough sometimes we can sabotage ourselves with bad thoughts. My good friend and life coach has a great saying for these moments: tell yourself a different story.

Instead of lamenting on losing a job that didn’t love me back, I choose to focus on the beauty of extended visits to see my folks without worrying about using up too much vacation time—and as far as relocating from Michigan: you don’t lose friends by leaving.

Now, here we are in rural Wolcott, VT writing the next chapter in our lives. I’m getting involved with the Town, I’m loaded with work, I have my lovely supportive wife and I could not be more happy.