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DRUNK, SOBER, SAVED: Gary Schneeberger #100

Warwick Fairfax

January 18, 2022

Have you ever found yourself laid so low by a personal struggle that satisfaction starts to seep out of your life? Have you pondered, even fleetingly, ending the pain permanently? That’s the story of Gary Schneeberger — the show’s cohost who steps into the guest chair this week for BEYOND THE CRUCIBLE’s 100th episode. He and Warwick talk in detail about how alcoholism upended his journalism career and could have ended his life. But he found hope in AA, which led him to seek forgiveness from those he had hurt — forgiveness that, little by little, he was able to extend to himself as he embraced faith in God. He also discusses the Hollywood dream job he lost just after he turned 50 – and how that crucible has actually been a springboard to a dream life with a new family and a new business … and renewed significance. 
To learn more about Gary Schneeberger and his PR firm ROAR, visit www.weroar.la

Highlights

  • The surprising effect of divorce on Gary’s early life (5:34)
  • How his mom set him on the path to a writing career (7:54)
  • His struggles with alcohol worsen during his journalism career (13:02)
  • The true cost of his alcoholism (16:36)
  • The crucible that almost destroyed his career — but triggered his pursuit of sobriety (20:36)
  • Turning to rehab (26:08)
  • Finding hope in AA (27:33)
  • The meaning and purpose he found in Christianity (29:32)
  • The role forgiveness played in his rebuilding his life (32:01)
  • Finding significance in a new nonprofit career (35:21)
  • A new life, and vision, in Hollywood (38:26)
  • Losing his “dream job” — and the blessings that have sprung from it (43:45)
  • Starting his own business … and getting the family he’d always wanted (45:38)
  • Gary’s lessons from his life for listeners (52:07)

Transcript

Warwick F:

Welcome to Beyond the Crucible. I’m Warwick Fairfax, the founder of Crucible Leadership.

Gary S:

I was what I would call a highly functioning alcoholic. I was someone who could go to work, work all day, stay up all night, party with my friends, get up in an hour and a half or two hours and go right back to work again. And I actually had to let people go, when I was a managing editor of a newspaper, who were good friends of mine, who would go out with me at night, drink all night and could not get themselves up and get into work. And they’d miss too much time and I had to let them go. And it was like, “Look, I can do it. Why can’t you?” So that was the attitude that I had in terms of being highly functioning.

Gary S:

My work was good and my attendance was good. I wasn’t falling, stumbling, falling down. Where things eroded was morally, things eroded for me ethically, things eroded for me in ways that are true crucible. That leads you to those things where after you’ve had the big party and you’ve gone out with your friends and you’ve had a great grand time, you lie in bed and you think, “Is this all there is?” Have you ever asked yourself that question, found yourself laid so low by a personal struggle? Maybe it’s alcohol, maybe something else entirely, that satisfaction starts to seep out of your life?

Gary S:

Hi, I’m Gary Schneeberger, cohost of the show. And for this week’s episode, our 100th, I’m also Warwick’s guest. He and I talk in detail about how alcoholism upended my journalism career and could have ended my life. But I found hope in AA and the forgiveness it led me to seek from those I had hurt, forgiveness that I was little by little able to extend to myself. We also discussed the Hollywood dream job I lost just after I turned 50 and how that crucible has actually been a springboard to a dream life with a new family and a new business.

Warwick F:

Well, Gary, thank you so much for coming here. Because this is the 100th episode, is it?

Gary S:

One hundredth episode.

Warwick F:

Which is amazing and we thought, what can we do that’s special, that’s different? And obviously, listeners have heard a lot about my story but they really haven’t heard about Gary Schneeberger’s story. Who is Gary? He’s the cohost. What’s he about?

Gary S:

And why is he involved in something called Beyond the Crucible? Does he have crucibles?

Warwick F:

Yeah. And because Gary is human like the rest of us, surprise, he has crucibles. I don’t know too many people that doesn’t. Life is not easy. But Gary has some amazing challenges that he comes through the other side to indeed live a life of significance. I think, in all honesty, we can learn from your story, from Gary’s story. And it’s a story of hope. And so that’s why you’re here. So as we always do and you spent some time in Hollywood, we’re going to get to the main event. But let’s hear a bit of the origin story, the backstory of Gary Schneeberger. You obviously grew up in Kenosha, Wisconsin. So tell us a bit about what life was like growing up and kind of the early years.

Gary S:

Yeah. And thank you for that. And thank you for the opportunity to be a guest in addition to being the cohost. It was a bit of a gimmick on our part when we said, “The 100th episode. Let’s do something completely out of the box. You interview me.” So we thought that would be interesting and we hope it is helpful as well. My origin story, my backstory, as you said, born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, youngest of five children. There’s some interesting age differences in my family. My oldest brother, Dean, he is 71. So he’s 14 years older than me. And my closest sibling, my sister Jill, is seven years older than me.

Gary S:

So, there’s a wide range in ages. And when I came around, after seven years after my closest sibling, not only did she likes to point out, not only did I steal her babydom, she was not the baby of the family anymore and she has still not gotten over that completely. I was raised on my own in the sense that my brother Dean was long gone out of the house. He was in his late teens, early 20s by the time, I was kind of ambulatory and my middle siblings, there were three in the middle, seven years, eight years, nine years apart from me, they all kind of hung out together and had their own pack.

Gary S:

So I was kind of raised separately from them. So their experience growing up, their childhood and my childhood, differed a lot because we were raised in different environments, different circumstances. And the main circumstance that made that different was that our parents divorced, if I’m talking about my siblings, our parents divorced when I was 9 or 10 years old. So they grew up with mom and dad, I grew up with mom and dad but not in the same house, under the same roof with the same last name.

Warwick F:

That’s obviously pretty impactful. But I think as you’ve mentioned to me, it’s not like life was totally different. It’s not like you never saw your dad or he wasn’t around. You had a good relationship with both your parents even though they were divorced.

Gary S:

Absolutely. And that’s not to say that that wasn’t a crucible. My parents’ divorce, it wasn’t like when you’re 9 or 10 and your parents get divorced, you think it’s your fault. What did I do? You’re the last kid left in the house, the last child, they didn’t get divorced through the four children they had before that, it was you, when you were little, you were a problem. So there was a little bit of that that I struggled with. But I didn’t last that long because was I ahead of my years in maturity, I don’t know, that it just sort of the stars aligned and I was like, oh, I get that. I saw when my parents split up, as difficult as that was on me in some ways, not having them under the same roof, I saw that their lives individually improved. And as a child who loves his parents, you want to see them live the best life that they can. So there were some not great things when they were together. There were fights and arguments and those kinds of things. Home didn’t always feel like the safest place in the world. So when they divorced, I still saw my dad, as you said, I saw him every Sunday. More than that, he take me to ballgames and take me to do things. So I lived with my mom. They didn’t fight. They didn’t argue over me. There was none of that stuff going on.

Gary S:

And I began to see at a pretty early age that they were happier humans. Not an endorsement at all of divorce, but they were happier people no longer married to each other. And in fact, as I got older, as I grew into my teens and then into my 20s, I saw that the spouses that they met after they divorced were actually perfect fits for them. And they were both inordinately happier, which made me happy. But as a young kid, I did see that home wasn’t as stressful. As much as losing dad from the home hurt, home life wasn’t as day to day moment by moment as stressful as it was before that.

Warwick F:

There’s another interesting beat to the story as you’re growing up. Your love of writing and journalism was fostered at an early age. And I think there’s something I believe your mom did for you that was a help on that path. She gave you a gift.

Gary S:

Absolutely. What you’re alluding to is that my mom noted that I liked to write. That was like my favorite subject in grade school. I still have in the bookshelves behind me here, I still have the very first story I ever wrote in first grade called The Pig. And it begins with like once upon a time, except I spelled once O-N-E-C. So it begins onec upon a time. But I learned to spell later. So my mom saw this in me. She saw this incipient desire to put words into sentences to arrange them into sentences and to build stories.

Gary S:

So she bought me when I was still 10, 11 years old an electric typewriter. Listeners, if you’re of a certain age and you have no idea what an electric typewriter is, look it up on Google and you’ll see. It’s the precursor to a computer that you can do writing on, word processing on. She bought me an electric typewriter, which unlocked for me an entirely new world. Out of the ashes, if you will, of her disappointment in her marriage failing, she was able to pour into me something that ignited my spirit. And I started writing. I can remember Warwick sitting in front of the television set, watching Monday Night Football and typing out the play by play, every incomplete pass.

Gary S:

And, at that time in the ’70s, the Packers stunk, so I was writing lots of interceptions and fumbles and stuff. But I was just typing so I could get the feel of what it was like to create words into sentences and paragraphs. But I eventually began to use that typewriter and I still have them again in this bookcase behind me, I still have them to this day, scripts, ’70s were the height of super cop shows. So I wrote scripts where my buddies and I were super cops and we saved the city from… I still remember the name of one of the villains from JoJo Maroney who was a bad guy mobster in our city, and we save the city from that. And they’re full of misspellings.

Gary S:

One of the weird things that we did is that we fought with monkey wrenches. I didn’t even know what a monkey wrench was. I think I had it wrong. I saw it as like this big pipe wrench thing that you hit people with. But every episode I wrote, there was monkey wrench work going on to get us through. But what that did is create in me a place where as I was going through things that felt like something was missing. My dad wasn’t there all the time when I wanted a hug right there in the house. He lived away a bit.

Gary S:

I was able to sort of pour myself into those worlds I created and I came to be able to craft stories, craft plots, do things like that. And that was a place where I escaped to, again, not run away from something that was truly horrendous. The first 99 of these shows, 70 plus have involved guests who most of them had far more incendiary crucibles than I did. But it still was painful and I was still able to go in there and put a little cool water, put a little salve on that pain by writing. And that’s where my love of writing took off and I’m still doing it today.

Warwick F:

And so you began down a journalism career, it seems like there were two paths in your life. One was you love writing and you worked a number of different papers and worked your way up. But at the same time, there was something else going on in your life that was a challenge. I don’t know quite how you want to unpack this but there were two tracks. You were doing well as a journalist working your way up, but then there was this other track going on that was a challenge. I don’t know how you want to unpack that. But it’s sort of there’s two tracks going side by side throughout 20s and 30s, if you will.

Gary S:

Yeah, from my teens and what you’re referring to is like many people do, we had a bar in my basement. So I’d sneak down there and grab a little drink and go, okay, that tastes terrible. But I feel a little lightheaded or whatever afterwards and it makes me feel older and cooler. And so from my mid teens into my late teens, with my buddies, I began to drink and I began to drink to excess, quite often. And then as the journalism career went on, one of the vices that they tell you… There are three vices of journalism. And I know this because I served in journalism, one, cigarettes, smoked those, did, don’t anymore. Two, coffee, never drank that but I’ve got a Diet Mountain Dew inside this. And then three is alcohol. And that’s one of the things that in journalism stereotypically can become a problem for people. And it became a problem for me. The more I moved on, the further I got away from home and the influences there that stabilized me, the more I tried to find joy, meaning, answers fun, excitement, adventure in the bottom of a bottle and never quite captured it.

Warwick F:

But I think you’ve mentioned before, you were a pretty functioning person. It wasn’t obvious during the day that Gary Schneeberger had a problem. I mean, you talk a bit about this was going on, but your career was doing pretty well. I mean, so talk a bit about that career in newspapers as you began working your way up in journalism. I know there’s a subtext there but talk about that journalism career.

Gary S:

Yeah, I was the typical itinerant journalist. I was the typical guy who every two, two and a half years left for a different paper. So I started close to my hometown in Wisconsin, then I moved to Iowa. But I never lasted more than three years because I got restless. I wanted a better opportunity. I wanted better weather. From Iowa, I went to Palm Springs, California. I ended up in Victoria, Texas. At one juncture, I ended up in Wichita Falls, Texas. I ended up in Scottsbluff, Nebraska for a cup of coffee that lasted about six months.

Gary S:

So, I moved around to different places, not because I didn’t succeed per se in most cases. Sometimes jobs got cut because newspapers had troubles then too and I had to find another job. But as I was going to those places, the way that you connected, the way that you fit in, as you moved into a new community and a new newspaper, you started to run with the pack in the newspaper. And I was one of those people that in addition to growing in both the stature of my reporting nature and then I became an editor, I was one of the ringleaders, if you will, that pursued the extracurricular activities.

Gary S:

So in the same way that while I was at home, in my teens and early 20s, softball became, the game lasted an hour and the drinking lasted five, newspapers were put out, the paper we put it to bed, and then we didn’t go to bed for the next four or five hours when we went out. So that just started to ratchet up. But I was, indeed, I was what I would call a highly functioning alcoholic. I was someone who could go to work, work all day, stay up all night, party with my friends, get up in an hour and a half or two hours and go right back to work again. And I actually had to let people go when I was a managing editor of a newspaper, who were good friends of mine, who would go out with me at night and drink all night who could not get themselves up and get into work. And they’d miss too much time and I had to let them go. And it was like, “look, I can do it, why can’t you?” So that was kind of the attitude that I had in terms of being highly functioning. My work was good and my attendance was good. I wasn’t falling, stumbling, falling down. Where things eroded, though, was morally things eroded for me, ethically things eroded for me in ways that are true crucibles, that leads you to those things where after you’ve had the big party and you’ve gone out with your friends and you’ve had a great grand time, you lie in bed and you think, is this all there is? And that was where I was treating people poorly. It cost me a very early marriage, it cost me friendships, it cost me girlfriends, it cost me friends. The way that I behaved, even though I could do great at work, I was not a very nice human being many times. I wasn’t honest. I wasn’t to be counted on in certain things. Beyond work, I was a mess.

Warwick F:

That’s interesting, because some of the guests might struggle with alcoholism but some won’t. And so, they might have friends, family, but it’s hard to understand something unless you’ve gone through it at a deep level. There’s levels of understanding. And so, I think what I hear you saying is it obviously caused health challenges and just being able to function on all cylinders, that make sense. But just this sense that not only did it cause that but it caused more than that in terms of you talked about moral, ethical, character erosion. I don’t know that your average person thinks of it quite like that, that alcoholism can do more than just cause you health challenges. To me, that wasn’t obvious to me. But that felt like it was true for you that it caused far more than just health challenges. Maybe that even wasn’t the worst of it.

Gary S:

Oh, absolutely. And let’s be clear, alcohol didn’t cause my character deficit. It spotlighted it. I had a character deficit anyway. Alcohol just invigorated it and made it easier to do. It made it easier to not have to face the consequences of your things and deal with it. One of the things I learned when I went into AA finally and we’ll get to that point, I’m sure, one of the things I learned then was what makes you an alcoholic is not how much you drink. It’s not drinking an entire fifth of bourbon that makes you an alcoholic, when I was told in rehab was what makes you an alcoholic is why you drink.

Gary S:

And I looking at myself and realized I drank to change the way I felt. I felt like the kid that wasn’t quite worthy of dad living in the home a little bit, way in the back of my head that was there. I was overweight as a child so I dealt with that. I felt like the guy that got rejected by girls when he dated them and they went out with somebody else. I drank to change what I felt. If I was happy, I wanted to get happier. If I was sad, I wanted to get happy. If I felt guilty, I wanted to feel free of that guilt. And those are the things that got alcoholism hooked in me and continued to go on until there was finally a rather explosive crucible that sent me on the right path.

Warwick F:

So let’s talk about the switch. There’s a pivot point that you had mentioned to me in 1997, a journalistic conference in which it seemed to be on if you hit a wall, or somehow you hit a point at which I can’t ignore this. So talk about that day, which I know is a very challenging day. But I guess you could say some good came out of it, because out of that day came maybe one of the turning points in your life.

Gary S:

Absolutely. It was in 1997, in April of 1997. And I was working in Wichita Falls, Texas and there was a journalism conference every year, the Associated Press has a journalism conference where they give away awards for the best journalism in the state. And it was in Corpus Christi, Texas, which is on the coast, which was a fun place to go, and I was there representing my paper as the managing editor. My journalistic mentor who taught me everything I really know about journalism, he was there as well.

Gary S:

As the awards were handed out, my paper won a whole slew of awards. His didn’t win any. It was like the mentee surpasses the mentor. It should have been a great moment of celebration. It wasn’t. It was a great moment of degradation. In these conferences, they have hospitality suites where the journalists all gather and play games and play poker and drink. And it started out with me arrogantly bringing a bottle of my favorite top shelf whiskey. I didn’t want their cheap whiskey, I brought my own. I’m shooting my mouth off. I’m flirting with a married woman who’s at the card table with me.

Gary S:

I’m just acting in such an obnoxious way that this is what happened. The managing editor of the Dallas Morning News, the largest paper in Texas, every year at this conference ran a poker game in the hospitality suite for 25 or 30 years, he would deal. I sat at the table to play that game. I was so obnoxious in the way I acted from my arrogance about the whiskey I was drinking to the way I was treating people who were there. Jack Welch was his name, the ME of the Dallas Morning News, got up, took his cards and left the poker table.

Gary S:

I drove away the founder…He was a dean of Texas journalism and I drove away the founder of the most fun thing about the Associated Press managing editors conference in Texas. I drove him away from the table. I knew when I got back to the office that was going to get back there. People still talk about this in the state of Texas 25 years after it happened. And I knew that was going to happen, that was going to come back and that was probably going to be the end of my journalism career in Wichita Falls. So I went back to my hotel room. And this is the important part of the story that really pushed me over the line and helped me see I had a problem. And that was many was the time when I was drinking and I was depressed. Remember, I said, what makes an alcoholic is why you drank, you tried to get happy, it doesn’t always work. The more you do it, the less it works. And it wasn’t working for several years up until that point. And there were many times I would call friends in the middle of the night. We used to call it dialing while intoxicated, DWI.

Gary S:

I would call friends up in the middle of the night and I’d say, “Oh, my life is terrible, I’m going to kill myself.” I would say that. Now usually speaking when you say that, it’s a cry for help is the general consensus. But I remember lying in my bed in the hotel in Corpus Christi, Texas that night knowing I’d just blown up my journalism career, thinking that I wanted to end my life but not calling anybody, just sitting lying in my bed. And that scared me deeply. Because I didn’t want to reach out for a lifeline as it were. I was just sitting there. And somehow I got through that night, lots of tears. The next day I flew home. Somehow I knew it was going to be my last drink because I took one at the airport on the way home. This is the last drink I ever had. And got back to the newspaper, quit the paper that same day and checked myself into rehab.

Warwick F:

I mean, that’s amazing. I mean, I do appreciate you sharing us because that’s a very scary moment when it’s one thing to say, okay, time for the lifeline, let’s call some friends. But when you don’t call friends, I don’t know if it’s like being in an airplane and an old-fashioned plane and like, okay, you’re used to hearing the sound of propellers have gone, there’s no propellers, which means your likelihood is you’re going to crash, and the nose is going down.

Warwick F:

So if you don’t hear the propellers, you get really nervous. If you hear the propellers sputtering, you get somewhat nervous. When they stopped, that felt like it was almost that kind of moment, if you will, in which the silence, the no noise and no voice meant that a bad thing maybe was about to happen. So, some people reach that point and just say either do the ultimate, take their own life, or just say, look, I just got to keep going with this life and whatever, keep drinking. But you didn’t. So, do you have any idea why? Because not every alcoholic makes the choice that you did but why did you choose to check yourself into rehab and then AA? Why did you make that choice?

Gary S:

Clearly, I mean, the biggest reason is I did not want to die. So that was a big thing. And it’s interesting Warwick. I mean, we talk a lot on the show about the phrase that you first turned on the podcast here where you say it could be your fault and not your fault. I was tired of living the life I was living but there was just enough of still wanting to live a life of something. I didn’t know what that was going to be but I knew that it couldn’t include alcohol, which it was like I said goodbye to it. I had the one drink at the airport, like I said, and I went back and checked myself into rehab. And that was the last drink I had, April 27th of 1997.

Warwick F:

And it seems like AA was a springboard to a deeper spiritual journey, because that really maybe potentially the pivot point in your life. So talk about AA and that spiritual journey how the direction of your life from we talked about the bottom of the pit, it felt like 1997 might have been close to the bottom of the pit for you. I mean-

Gary S:

Yeah, for sure.

Warwick F:

Because we’re dealers in hope here, then hope sprang. Maybe it didn’t come with a huge horn but a little ray of sunshine, little itty bitty ray that grew brighter and brighter. So talk about AA and that really path to a deeper spiritual awakening.

Gary S:

Yeah. Backing up to my growing up years, we didn’t go to church. I’ve been to church maybe three times in my life growing up. And that was to go with girlfriends on holidays. So I didn’t have any experience in that area. So in treatment, they take you to AA meetings, and we all love them because even before we knew what the content was, because it was only time we could smoke, so we sat there and lit one cigarette after the other and smoke during the meetings. And that was the smokiest things in the world are AA meetings, probably still to this day.

Gary S:

But I remember the concept that clicked in my head was when AA talked about the idea of a higher power. And it was the first time truly in my life growing up non-churched, not really understanding religion at all. It was the first time in my life when it occurred to me there was a power higher than me. I wasn’t sure who that power was, what that power was. But the idea that I wasn’t the ultimate highest power in my life kind of cracked open a window that let some breeze in, let some sunshine in. And that began a process in which I did lean into the god of my own understanding.

Gary S:

And then that’s another way that AA puts it. And that kept me sober for several months but there came a time in my life where I had to ask the question. Logic for me didn’t dismiss God as there’s no way that could be. Logic for me told me if it’s a god of my own understanding and my own understanding is what got me lying in the bed wanting to die and not wanting to call a friend to say I wanted to die, if that was what got me there was my own understanding, how is a god of my own makeup going to help me?

Gary S:

And that was when I was open to the idea of something beyond that. That was when I started a new job in Palm Springs, California. I met a young woman in the newsroom. I wanted to date her. She didn’t want to date me. She wanted to tell me about Jesus. She did over the course of several weeks that led to me accepting Christ and that that was the one two punch. AA got me on the on the on-ramp and then Christ got me to a place where true healing could then from the inside out occur.

Warwick F:

I think you’ve talked about this, but I just want to go one step deeper. So AA talks about you mentioned that a god of your own understanding, but yet it seemed like you had a deeper search for meaning and purpose but it wasn’t enough. So just talk about, in your case, why was your faith in Christ, why is that such a pivot point for you in terms of finding meaning and purpose beyond, at least again, this is your journey, your truth as we say, nothing against AA but for you, there was something about your faith in Christ that just offered so much more.

Gary S:

Yeah. And I’m glad you said nothing against AA because I’m the biggest proponent still for AA. If it wasn’t for AA, I don’t think my life would have been saved. I think my faith in Christ has made my life worth saving, if that makes sense. There was the stain of my hand, the stain of the self-destructive behavior, and then there was living in a way that made my life something that reflected goodness, not self-indulgence. But what was that for me, it was a longing for I said earlier, I would come home after hanging out with the guys in the newsroom and lie in bed and go there’s got to be more than this.

Gary S:

And when I was introduced to Jesus and I was introduced to people who followed him, that was when I discovered that there was indeed something more than this, there was something more than just getting by day by day, there was something deeper well before, long before, decades before. While you were still trying to bounce back from your crucible and find your life of significance, I began to understand without calling it that. What I wanted was a life of significance. And I didn’t have it and I wanted to find a way to get it.

Warwick F:

And I want to shift to the next at a point in your career, which is interesting. But one of the things we talk about a lot in Crucible Leadership and indeed on this podcast Beyond the Crucible is as you begin to claw your way back from the bottom of the pit, find meaning and purpose and a life significance, a life on purpose dedicated to serving others, one of the things that’s absolutely critical is the word we call forgiveness. Sometimes it’s forgiving other people, sometimes it’s myself, for me, it was more forgiving my own stupidity. But I have to believe you would not be the person you are today without dealing with forgiveness.

Warwick F:

Because I could potentially understand when you said what I went through is my own fault, how did you deal with the whole issue of forgiveness? I mean, we get the Christian faith says is because Christ died on the cross for our sins, we are forgiven. Those are nice words. It’s one thing to read it in the Bible. It’s another thing to believe it. How did you deal with this whole thing of forgiveness of, frankly, forgiving yourself?

Gary S:

It started for me anyway with forgiving others. One of the things AA is very good on is making amends as what AA calls it. And that is the people that you look through your life, seriously, they have you do homework, you go and you write down, here’s the people you’ve hurt, here’s how I’ve hurt them, and then you go to them and you ask them for forgiveness. And one of the things that blew me away was how many people just without hesitation, “Yup, I forgive you. Hug me.” I mean, I didn’t deserve it and they gave it to me.

Gary S:

And there’s some kind of transference I think as you go through that experience, as you reach out to people. And there are still people where, there are still people to this day in the last year who encountered me during my alcoholic years who I’ve had the opportunity to apologize to, for the way that I behaved in that time, and it’s healing every time. But the more you go through that, the more momentum you build, the flywheel turns and you begin to find little ways to forgive yourself to go, okay, if this person who I treated this badly and I did this to can say I forgive you, maybe I’m worth it myself.

Gary S:

You say it on the podcast all the time, aren’t you worth forgiveness? Forgive yourself. Aren’t you worth that? And I had to come to a place where I felt worthy of forgiving myself. And the key to that in a large part was how many people who I truly wronged. And again, we’re not talking anything criminal or anything like that but who I had treated abruptly, I had treated poorly, I had lied to, cheated on, they almost to a man and woman forgave me. And as those things build up, it becomes, to use another phrase of yours, a balm for your soul. And you’re able to go, okay, maybe I’m not a black hat, maybe I don’t have a black heart. Maybe there’s something good inside here that someone could forgive me for that I can forgive myself for that. And that was a real turning point for me.

Warwick F:

I want to get to you shifted after being in Palm Springs to work to a very famous large faith-based nonprofit. That was a totally turning point in your professional life. So, talk about those years at that organization.

Gary S:

Yeah. It’s two stories will sum that up. So the organization is Focus on the Family, founded by Dr. James Dobson in the 1970s, very high profile Christian leader. Two stories will sum up my experience there for the purposes of this and the purpose of I’m still doing my cohost job here and I’m watching the time. So I want to make this go as expeditiously as possible. But the first story is so Focus has chapel service, still does. Every month, there’s a chapel service. And I got my job at Focus on the Family six months after I became a Christian.

Gary S:

And I remember the end of the Christmas chapel service, Dr. Dobson prayed for all of the staff. And I walked out of that. We called it the Chapelteria, because it was also the cafeteria. They still do. The Chapelteria. I walked out of the Chapelteria crying, because I realized that I’m getting paid for James Dobson to pray for me. That’s a whole lot different than chasing news stories. And that’s rewarding but it’s not with a capital R rewarding or underlined rewarding or with any eternal significance rewarding.

Gary S:

So that was when I realized, boy, my spirit was going to come alive in this place. So that was the first telling story there. And then, there was just something about being able to help people with their marriages, their parenting, with their walking out their faith in the public square, it’s the same thing, I think, that you think that you feel Warwick when guests say how they felt heard, when guests say, boy, that really helped me when you hear from someone from one of our listeners that something has offered them hope.

Gary S:

We were extending to people hope in difficult times, hope that marriages could be saved, hope that children who may be wayward weren’t going to be that way forever. And hearing those stories every day, being involved, being able to be in the midst and help with those stories, yes, it was rewarding to break news as a reporter. But at the end of the day, not all the time did anything really change for eternal significance. These are things when I was involved with these things in Focus on the Family gave me a sense of fulfillment that went beyond just job well done. It went to the things we talked about focusing on legacy and significance and those kinds of things.

Warwick F:

So let’s move on here. I know you had a stint in Hollywood from 2012 to 2016. So tell us a little bit about that and how that happened, because you moved from journalism to Focus, and now you go to Hollywood. So that’s another shift. So talk about that shift.

Gary S:

Yeah, I’m a career chameleon. But I was 12 years at Focus on the Family and I was there when Dr. Dobson left and the new president Jim Daly came in and my job as the vice president of communications was to navigate in the press the transition from the founder, Dr. Dobson, to Jim Daly, the next generation leader. Had to put Jim on the map, had to get him in the press, had to make a name for himself, had to do a bunch of things to make that happen. That over the course of time did happen over the course of three years. Jim was established. He had just released a book. My last day of Focus on the Family was when Jim’s book called ReFocus, which was his manifesto on how Christians should engage the public sphere, the public square. The day that book came out was the day that I left Focus, because I felt like my calling there, my job there was done. I had turned around the Titanic, the big ocean liner that is hard to turn around to go from founder, enormously popular famous founder to a lesser known but enormously talented second generation president. I raised a profile of that second generation president. He became one of CNN’s top Christians to watch. Other magazines did the same sort of thing, he got identified and recognized. We did well there. So I decided, okay, I’ve always liked movies. Remember, I wrote scripts when I was 10 for my buddies and I to act out. So I took a job with a marketing firm in Hollywood, which faith-based marketing firm was marketed films both faith-based films and secular films with faith-based content, or that would appeal to faith-based press. The example I use all the time, people would ask me, we worked on the Superman reboot Man of Steel. People ask me, “Well, you’re a faith-based marketing firm. Why are you working on Man of Steel?” And I say, “Well, it’s the story of an otherworldly father who sent his only son to earth to save mankind.” I read that in a book somewhere. I mean, that’s a Jesus story in some sense, right?

Warwick F:

Absolutely.

Gary S:

So I went there and did that job over the course of three years and learned much and accomplished much and continued to feed this idea that we were, it was more than box office receipts that we cared about. It was more than that. It was people picking up their Bibles and reading them after a certain show came out. That was the rewarding part. That was the legacy part for me.

Warwick F:

There is an interesting story that you told me about the movie Noah. And sometimes it gets a bit of flack because the Bible isn’t always full of all the details of the story. It just puts what God thinks is necessary for us to know. So it got a bit of flack but yet it definitely had a spiritual impact. I think it’s just a fun story when you talk about the impact of movies spiritually that people might not know.

Gary S:

Right. I mean, Noah starred Russell Crowe. The biblical story of Noah, he doesn’t speak until the ark lands on dry land. You’ve got Russell Crowe as your star. If you’re going to do an absolutely biblically accurate account, Russell Crowe is in his first silent movie. He doesn’t talk until the last third of the movie. So we can’t do that. So there were some additions taken. As I would argue, they were extra biblical, not in the Bible but not contra-biblical. But the good news, despite all of the rancor that came from some in the faith community is that when that movie came out in 2014, and I’m reading this out of my book right now, the website biblegateway.com, the weekend that Noah premiered, reported a 223% increase from the previous weekend in the number of people who looked up the Noah story in Genesis chapter 6 through 9.

Gary S:

Also YouVersion, which is a Bible app, the number one Bible app for smartphones in the country in the world, saw a 300% increase in users opening the biblical account of Noah in the US and a 245% increase globally. My argument then, my argument now is how does a movie that drives people to read the Bible, how is that a bad thing? This was at a time, remember, that every movie was about a Harry Potter book or a comic book. This was the good book getting read by people because of a movie. That was a good day at the movie PR factory for me.

Warwick F:

Absolutely. So I want to talk about maybe one of if not the most recent crucible that you went through in which we were talking recently about blessings coming out of crucibles. Perhaps this is a good example. Talk about you had a crucible in Hollywood but it did lead to the blessing and what you’re doing currently. So took about that last shift.

Gary S:

I was head of publicity for a PR firm that represented and promoted several movies. When you’re like that in Hollywood, Hollywood operates like pro sports. When you’re in charge of something and you have three or four movies that don’t do well, the box office is disappointing, the studio is not going to shut down. The owner of the company probably isn’t going to run away but somebody who’s at the highest level of leadership in the publicity side of things, it just so happened I was let go because what the owners of the company had to do is be able to tell studios going forward, okay, this guy is no longer here who was running our publicity department, we’ve got new blood in place. And that helps you then get more contracts and get more things going on.

Gary S:

So no one ever said I was terrible at what I did. It was just they were good movies, the movies didn’t do well at the box office. The numbers were disappointing. So they decided let’s get some new people in here, like Gabe Kappeler got another job after he got fired. That’s kind of what happened. And I was at a crossroads. I was at a place in my life where, oh my gosh, I’m 51 years old, I’ve got to find a job, what do I do? And that was when it struck me that I was going to start my own business.

Gary S:

I started my own firm in 2016 after this occurred. And I never would have had the guts to do it with a cushy Hollywood job where they give you a Lexus leased car and you get all this, that never would have happened for me. I never would have been able to leave that. But when that was removed from the table for me, it gave me the opportunity to say, you know what, I’ve learned a lot over the course of these years I’ve been doing this, let me put that to use. Not just in Hollywood, although I still do work for promotion of Hollywood films, but also for a variety of clients across the way including you Warwick in Crucible Leadership.

Warwick F:

So that’s fascinating that it brings you to the current chapter you’re on with ROAR that sometimes, I don’t know, with me as listeners would no, I never would have been able to leave Fairfax Media if the company hadn’t gone under in late 1990, I could never have left. Similar but different, it sounds like you, Gary, how can you leave Hollywood if you’re helping to promote faith-based and secular films to a faith-based audience seemed like a pretty good calling. It was kind of fun. It was cool. Nothing wrong with having fun and you’re making a difference but yet, if you believe in a sovereign God, for whatever reason He had another plan, and this plan wasn’t just professional, it was personal. So talk about, because that really brings you to where you are now, which I think I would hazard a guess to say you feel pretty blessed I would say these days, if that’s an accurate word. So, talk about how it was a professional and personal shift for you leaving Hollywood.

Gary S:

One of the crucible moments in life at Focus on the Family, Focus on the Family, marriage, parenting, helping people walk out their faith. I had my wife at the time who was by the way I mentioned, there was a young woman in the newsroom in Palm Springs who talked to me about Jesus, I ended up marrying that young woman. So we’re in Hollywood and it over time became a rocky marriage, it became a difficult marriage. So I was dealing with that. I was dealing with not having a job. I got to a point where the marriage was not salvageable. I’ll say only this To those of you who are Christians who are listening in, there were biblical grounds on my part to end the marriage. And I did. At the same time, as that was going on, I’ve had this weird habit my entire life. You’ve indicated Warwick, there a lot of stops on my journalism career track. I’ve worked a lot of places. I like social media. And so periodically over the years and many times it’s been done to offer it and amends as AA would say or to apologize to people who I haven’t seen who I used to work with. So I would be sitting around if I was bored and go, hey, I wonder whatever happened to Joe Smith who worked at this newspaper that I worked at in Victoria, Texas. And I tried to find Joe Smith on Facebook and say,” Joe, what’s going on?” We became Facebook friends. Sometimes I was able to run into the women I knew that I dated in those situations and say, “Hey, sorry about that.” It’s kind of this fun thing that I’ve done over the years. And on February 13, 2016, two days after my birthday, my mind just floated back to this reporter I knew in college who was, at the time, a young girl. She was 17. And I was editor of my college newspaper here in Wisconsin in Kenosha.

Gary S:

And I recruited her out of high school to come work for me. And she was so good that I promoted her to be an editor and I didn’t know much about journalism at the time. I’m 21 but I’m trying to mentor her. I found her on Facebook, sent her a message. Could it be the one time ace journalist at the University of Wisconsin Parkside, Kelly McKissick, if so, wow, what’s going on? How are you doing? Within like 12 minutes she responded back and said, “It is me, Gary.” And she had been married and she was in the middle of a divorce.

Gary S:

In the course of the next several weeks, we discovered through messaging back and forth the way, the way that we first learned who each other was. And we never dated in college. I was her mentor. We were friends. So much so that when she graduated, I gave her my pen, because I want to encourage her to continue writing. We discovered that we were still friends. We discovered that we still had a lot in common. And more than that, we discovered that we were in love. So that was February 2016. By spring of 2016, a couple of months later, I moved back home from Hollywood to my hometown in Wisconsin where I courted her and we got married in 2017. So that story’s come full circle.

Warwick F:

And you now have a wife and a family and kids?

Gary S:

Right. Yeah, being on Focus on the Family, not having any children, it was like, what do I have to offer now that the transition is over? And here’s the funny part. All those 12 years I was on Focus on the Family and listened to all the broadcasts about raising kids, that stuff sticks to you. You learn that stuff. So I have two beautiful stepchildren, my wife Kelly, her two children, my stepchildren, Alyssa and Hunter. All that stuff I learned there has come in handy here and I’ve discovered that my desire to have kids, now that I have them is everything that I wanted and stuff I didn’t realize I could want. And that’s been an inordinate blessing for me.

Warwick F:

Wow. So obviously I’m sure you feel truly blessed. So as we bring things to a close here-

Gary S:

Yeah, the planes got to, the captain’s got to turn on the fasten seatbelt sign.

Warwick F:

Absolutely.

Gary S:

I think I’ve heard it.

Warwick F:

And I think maybe the managing editor is about to put the paper to bed. And I think I can hear the press. It’s almost about to start to roll those big turbines as the speaker about-

Gary S:

Good job. Good job.

Warwick F:

For those of you who’ve never been where they print newspapers, it’s pretty cool. Late at night, 2 AM in the morning, whenever it is, and the presses roll. But as you look back at your life, at the challenges and maybe the blessings, what are some lessons? And you’ve had some really tough experiences, challenging experiences, gut wrenching crucibles. Few people have had easy lives. You certainly have not had an easy life. But what do you feel about the lessons, I know you’re a person of faith and maybe you think of that God has taught you, I’m not quite sure how you put up it, but what are some key lessons as you look back at your challenges and some of the blessings that you feel like you’ve learned?

Gary S:

First thing would be in 2005, Peter Jackson, who’s in the news now because he made a documentary about the Beatles from the footage from the movie Let It Be. But Peter Jackson did a remake of King Kong in 2005. And I really liked the movie, but there’s almost a throwaway line in there. Jack Black, the actor, plays this kind of shyster film director trying to fast talk his way to get to Skull Island to get Kong. And he keeps running into things that don’t go right, don’t go right, don’t go right. Talk about crucibles. He hits him every time he turns around.

Gary S:

But he says to his assistant at one point, and this line always stuck with me. It’s not a big line in the movie but he said this, “Defeat is always momentary.” So I think that my life is a lesson about that. I bumped into a lot of brick walls. A lot of them I ran into myself head first with a running start. But it’s always momentary. That’s one of the things we talk about in Beyond the Crucible all the time. It doesn’t have to be your worst day. Your worst day doesn’t have to define you. So defeat, as Carl Denham, the character played by Jack Black said in King Kong in 2005, defeat is always momentary. That’s number one.

Gary S:

Second thing I would say is it was funny, we were on a call the other day, Warwick and I said this to someone about you don’t have to tell us the stuff that we do right, just tell us what we can do better. And you were like, well, I kind of like hearing what I can do right. It helps me. And I was like, oh, I felt bad. But from my perspective, you learn more about what’s vital in life and the life you want to live from what you struggle with than where you excel.

Gary S:

Chances are, in fact, you already know what you do well. Pay more attention to those things you can do better, because the attitude that you can do better is the very reason why you will do better. Yes, it’s good to hear you did this right. Absorb those moments. But really dig in. When we talk about learning the lessons of your crucibles, dig into those things where you stumble, dig into those things where you’ve hit that wall. And learn the lessons of that because as you get feedback from that, we talk about it all the time on the show, when you get feedback from people about what you can do better, that’s fuel to actually do better.

Gary S:

And if your heart, mind, spirit is open to the fact that you don’t have it all together, that helps you get it all together because you have the right attitude going forward. And the third thing is the biggest thing I learned when I was in Hollywood, all movies come in three acts. There’s a first act, second act, third act. The third act is always the most exciting. That’s when the big crisis happens. The couple who’s been together for acts one and two has a conflict, they break up, something bad happens. The cop loses the bad guy and it looks like the bad guy is going to win the day. Something’s gone wrong. That happens in act two. And then the action ramps up, the hero rises to the occasion. And then in the last act comes the conclusion, that third act, the conclusion comes, cowboy rides off into the sunset. In Die Hard, John McClane gets in the limo and drives away. I mean, it’s where all the action happens and all the happy endings happen. And all of the legacy, goodness, satisfaction, all of those things, significance, all of those things occur.

Gary S:

When I was in Hollywood and lost my job as the senior vice president of publicity for that firm, I was 51 years old. I was just at the start, if you believe actuarial tables, I was just at the start of act three of my life. And since that, I’ve moved back home to Wisconsin from Los Angeles. I’ve married a woman who was so kind and sweet and supportive. I have two wonderful stepchildren. All of those things happened at just the start of the third act of my life. So that’s my story of the third act of my life. Always remember, listeners, that life comes in acts, and each act wraps up. So no matter where you are, if it’s first act, second act, or third act, there are always plot twists. There are always opportunities to move forward and end in a place that is better than the place that you started. Even if you’re in the last act, the third act of your life and it seems like it’s ending on a bad note. Speaking of Peter Jackson, I think of the third Lord of the Rings movie, that movie had like five false endings. Just when you thought it was over and you’re gathering the popcorn, there was another ending.

Warwick F:

Right.

Gary S:

The ending doesn’t have to be the ending. I’ll go back to Die Hard, which we have a blog. We have a blog about Die Hard and the crucible lessons you can learn that’s on crucibleleadership.com. When we think that movie is over, John McClane’s dropped the terrorist out of the top of Nakatomi Plaza, oops, another bad guy shows up, throws off a coat and is almost going to shoot him and John McClane’s cop buddy, Al Powell, saves him by taking out the bad guy. There can still be false ending. So even if you think it’s ended on a note that hasn’t been great, keep going one step forward. One small step at a time as Warwick says, because that can be a false ending. You can write your own ending. The great thing about that, all movies have three acts, you’re the screenwriter of your story.

Warwick F:

Wow. Well, that is a great place to end. I think I can indeed hear the managing editor or production manager, as the case may be, hit the button and someone is rolling and the-

Gary S:

The presses are rolling.

Warwick F:

And so just as we close, and then you can close this out as you always do, I just want to say just personally, you’ve been such a blessing to me, to Crucible Leadership. We brought you on board originally because we felt like it was time for public relations. But you do that great but you do so much more than that. As we’re in the third act of getting this book published, you’re sort of my wing man as we went through the last edits to make sure it was true to the story and the message and you get Crucible Leadership at a deep level, the cohost of Beyond the Crucible. We’re different personalities, actually common faith but different people, certainly different upbringing, that’s for sure.

Warwick F:

But yet sometimes, different traits, different backgrounds can make for really a great complementary team, which I think we are. And yeah, I mean, we wouldn’t be where we are today without you. So you’ve been certainly a great blessing to me personally and to Crucible Leadership. And so, thank you for helping make Crucible Leadership what it is today. And yeah, it’s been a blessing to hear your story. There’s so much in it that I think listeners can really find hope as you’ve charted through your challenges to live what is an amazing life of significance. You’ve kept moving forward and you are blessed and have been blessed and look at what you do now with ROAR and a wonderful family. And those are times when you wake up and you think, thank you, Lord, I’m just blessed. Is that like a fair summary?

Gary S:

Yeah. I mean, I don’t think about it all the time. And that’s why this is a great opportunity to talk about those things because I don’t think about the moment in the hotel in Corpus Christi lying in the bed not wanting to go on. I don’t think about that every day. I don’t think about that hardly ever. So to go I was there 25, 26 years ago and now I’m here, those two people aren’t the same people. They don’t have any of the same values. They don’t have any of the same emotions. They have none of those things.

Gary S:

So yeah, that’s an absolutely fair summary. And it’s all been because taking one small step and learning to move on and learning to say I’m sorry and learning to say I forgive you and learning to yourself and to others, and learning to do those kinds of things. We say it all the time, I’m going to say it here in a minute. It doesn’t have to be the end of your story. And all of those things that happened, all the things that happened to you, listener, that are crucibles could be the end of your story but you have to let it be. And I’m surprised myself sometimes when I say all life’s in three acts, all movies are in three acts, your stories in three acts, you’re the screenwriter. You can write the way every act goes, no matter what act you’re in. You get to write your own ending. And that is a beautiful thing.

Gary S:

So until the next time we are together, listener. Now I’ve put on my cohost hat. I’m no longer the guest. Thank you for spending time with us here at Beyond the Crucible. And do remember, as I just said, those crucible moments in your life are not the end of your story. I talked about all kinds of things that could have been the end of my story. And I write stories. So I know they could have been the end of my story but they weren’t. So, you don’t have to be at a place where those things become the end of your story either. In fact, if you learn the lessons of your crucibles, as you move forward, they can be, those moments can be the start of the best chapter of your story, the best act of your story because where they lead is where they led for me. And that is to a life of significance.