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Joe Clayton: His Resume Only Tells Part of the Story

My Uber began to get close to Bellarmine University in Louisville. Or as its website instructed, and the late Joe Clayton, its most famous graduate and benefactor would have told me – “It’s BELL-er-mun in LOU-a-vuhl" – I wondered if we were going the right way.

I was going to Bellarmine for the wake of a consumer technology industry giant, who died too soon from cancer at age 69. For those who didn’t know Joe, here’s just part of his resume: He headed RCA consumer electronics sales and marketing when it was the leading color TV brand and introduced what became DirecTV; he entered the communications business as the head of Frontier which became Global Crossing; he became Sirius XM’s president/CEO and made it a hit; and later, in the same roles, joined DISH Network where he introduced the Hopper, DishNet and Sling TV.

Joe’s accomplishments were mentioned by his longtime friend and colleague Jim Meyer, CEO of Sirius XM, in his heartfelt eulogy during the wake. “Everywhere he went he was successful. How many people have done that with four different companies? And he left a legacy at each one.”

This is all true, but his resume doesn’t tell the whole story. It doesn’t completely convey the measure of a person and the impact Joe made on so many lives.

As we reached the gates of the independent Catholic university, I knew we were in the right place. As Bellarmine’s president Susan M. Donovan said in her remarks during the wake, “Joe's impact is everywhere on our campus.” I passed by Piazza Clayton (named after Joe’s father Paul) and the Joseph P. and Janet A. Clayton Field (named after Joe and his wife Janet). He graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in business administration from the university in 1971 and funded scholarships for 19 deserving students of Bellarmine over the years. In recognition of his efforts, the School of Communications building was named Joseph P. Clayton Hall because the guy really did know how to communicate.

But even though I knew Joe for more than 30 years, I did not know he was a major contributor to his alma mater until I interviewed him when he retired from DISH in 2015. That’s because for Joe Clayton, the master marketer and salesperson in technology, it was never about him. It was mostly about his family, friends and colleagues who worked hard and helped him along the way.

He was big, boisterous and passionate about life, especially his family, his friends, his hometown and Kentucky bourbon. He also loved basketball, bluegrass music (he was a lifetime member of the International Bluegrass Music Association), and all the companies and colleagues he worked with.

Joe always went the extra mile and shined especially when there was nothing in it for him. For instance, when Bob Gerson, TWICE’s founding editor, retired in 2000, we at TWICE organized a reception in Manhattan. Joe, working in the telecommunications business at the time, was invited. The TWICE staff got there early to greet Bob. But Joe was already at the bar, Kentucky bourbon in hand, reminiscing with him about the industry. A couple of years later I got calls from Pam Golden and Dave Arland, Joe’s public relations mavens for several companies where Joe worked. An “Irish wake” for RCA’s public affairs VP Frank McCann and the CE media was being held in midtown Manhattan. Joe, still not in the consumer tech business, was our host. He organized it and picked up the tab to celebrate his colleague.

So, when I got to Knights Hall, the home of Bellarmine’s teams and the site of Joe’s wake, I wasn’t surprised by the arrangements. As Meyer said, “It was pure Joe.” The wake was held from 3 to 8 pm and his open casket was laid out at center court, with tons of flowers and plenty of family pictures. But beyond center court, underneath a basket near the stage, stood some tables and chairs, a few appetizers and a bar that practically ran from one sideline to the other. There was an “Irish Wake” for Joe. Even this white wine drinker broke down and had a top-flight Kentucky bourbon served in Joe’s honor. (Thank goodness for Uber.)

His wife Jan, his children, brother, sister and brother-in-law were at midcourt next to his casket greeting everyone, sharing a laugh, a tear and thanking everyone who came. It took me a half-hour or so to greet the family, since the line was so long.

Joe Clayton accepts his 2008 CT Hall of Fame award

But Joe picked a lousy week to die. Many of his friends from CTA and the industry couldn’t attend his wake or funeral because they were in Manhattan to attend an event Joe usually appeared at over the years: the CT Hall of Fame dinner (Joe is in the 2008 Hall of Fame class); CES Unveiled, the New York press event to promote the show; and the annual Anti-Defamation League dinner. While Joe wasn’t in New York he was on the minds of many at those events.

However, there were a couple of hundred people there from Joe’s life in all its facets. Co-workers and colleagues from all his companies were there that night and the funeral the next day, such as Sirius XM’s Jim Meyer; DISH’s Charlie Ergen; Vivek Khemka; Stan Koslowski; Guy Johnson and Mark Redmond (who were pall bearers); as well as Gil Ravelett, Lou Lenzi, Greg Bosler, Rich Dinsmore, Jim Gatman, Larry Pesce, Ian Geise, Dave and Pam, and so many more. What other senior executive of any major corporation would have that kind of a turnout by so many former co-workers?

I won’t quote anyone directly but some of Joe’s colleagues told me at the wake, “He made my career.” One person, who worked with Joe at several companies, said, “He kept hiring me and stuffed money down my pockets.” I reminded that guy, and a few others, that while Joe was a wonderful guy, he was driven and a tough taskmaster, as well as an expert recruiter. If Joe found out that you had talent and could keep up with him, he made sure you’d stick around.

Sirius XM’s Jim Meyer said a few things that illustrated his friendship with Joe and his friend’s character. “I trusted Joe and he trusted me. He was the most loyal person I have ever met. In today’s management style loyalty by executives seems to be weak and old school. Well, I guess you can think of me and Joe as being weak and old school. And I thank him for that.” Meyer added, “He had a true sense of character. He cared about your well-being, how you are feeling and how your family is feeling.”

I got that firsthand when I retired as editor-in-chief of TWICE in 2014. My phone rang and I heard a concerned voice, “Steve! How are you doin’? Are you okay?” He was concerned as to why I was leaving TWICE. I said I was retiring and had planned it for a while. After I said that his attitude quickly changed, and he said he couldn’t have been happier for me.

Meyer said that he received 100 notes and emails from Joe’s industry friends and came up with some key words in all those communications. Here are the words: “Bigger than life; driven; one of a kind; great leader; big shoes to fill; really cared about me,” the “me” being the authors of those notes and emails.

At the end Meyer quoted Maya Angelou. “I’ve learned that most people will forget what you said. I’ve learned most people will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” He went on to say, “That’s Joe to me. That’s the way, at least for me, the way Joe would want to be remembered.”

But since this is about Joe I’ll give him the last word. In my 2015 interview I asked him, “How has your Catholic faith shaped your business approach?” He answered, “I try to treat everyone the same way I want to be treated. I hope they put on my tombstone: ‘He was tough, but he was fair.’”

More about Joe Clayton:
"Spanning TV, From Color to Streaming"
"Another 'A Cup Of Joe' Clayton That Is"

Steve Smith