Giving it everything you’ve got

Former Omaha World-Herald CEO John Gottschalk gives WSC students an insight to his life


Photo courtesy Wildcat PR

John Gottschalk poses for a photo with the Wildcat PR club that hosted Comm Day, when Gottschalk was the keynote speaker.

Amanda Krehbiel, Assistant Website Editor

John Gottschalk received a graded paper back from his high school English teacher.

“A+,” the red ink read.

But next to it was a note: “You can do better.”

Confused, the young man asked his father about the comment.

“‘You can do better,’” his father read. “Son,” he told John, “She wants everything you’ve got. If there is an opportunity or a responsibility to do well, give it everything you’ve got.”

John Gottschalk never forgot this.

Last Thursday during Comm Day 2015, “Emerge,” keynote speaker Gottschalk talked with a handful of listeners about his days as a young man through his days as the CEO of the Omaha World-Herald, giving a “quick skip” across his life.

In addition to being former CEO of the World-Herald, Gottschalk was the president of Boy Scouts of America from 2008-2010. He is a director of Cabela’s, Inc., the McCarthy Group, LLC, World’s Foremost Bank, Pacific Mutual Holding Company, and has served on the boards of Creighton University, the Omaha Symphony, the Henry Doorly Zoo, Nebraska Game and Parks Foundation, the Omaha Performing Arts Symphony and the Joslyn Art Museum. He also served the Kiewit Institute and is Chairman of Pheasants Forever.

Gottschalk was inducted into the Omaha and Nebraska Business Halls of Fame and was Nebraska’s youngest mayor.

Gottschalk’s mother, a Nebraska native, worked for a newspaper then graduated from the University of Missouri before taking a job as a reporter in the Great Lakes area. She was a “fascinating woman,” according to her son; a pilot who eventually conducted Civil Air Patrol in the Great Lakes area.

His father, who also attended the University of Missouri, was orphaned at birth and raised by his aunt. He later became owner and publisher of Gottshchalk’s great-grandfather’s Sheridan County Star.

Gottschalk’s sister has been named a top executive by Merrill Lynch three times.
His brother, whom he “admires greatly,” is a litigation attorney for Berkshire-Hathaway.

What made the Gottschalk family so successful? Determination? Drive? Genetics?
“We were raised into it,” he said. “There are certain principles of work and self-sufficiency that were drummed into us very well.”

As a young man, Gottschalk began to notice his grandfather providing poorer children with funds to go to college.

“Quiet philanthropy,” Gottschalk called it. “That was stunning to me as a teenager, and it lasted for quite some time.”

His grandfather’s generous giving inspired Gottschalk to do the same. He and his wife of fifty years, Carmen, have been awarded the Woodrow Wilson Foundation National Distinguished Public Service Award, and began the Carmen and John Gottschalk Foundation.

Gottschalk told his Comm Day audience that he and his wife have given away 50 percent of their earnings.

In the mid-1960s, Gottschalk was working at a bank in Sidney, Neb. The bank president, a Mr. Jorgensen, called him in to his office where he sat reading the Sidney paper.

“John,” he said, “why don’t you buy this paper?”

Gottschalk was taken aback, as he, being a young man—a newlywed with a baby on the way—had nowhere close to sufficient funds to tackle such a task. He explained his plight to Jorgensen.

“Son,” the banker said, smoking a cigar, “that’s what we’re here for.”
An astounded Gottschalk thought, He would lend $250,000—with no equity—to me, 23 years old?

“Well, seize the day!” he said on Thursday. “I took it.

“What an enormous change that made in my life: the responsibility of an instrument of public service (for 8,000 people). It was quite a load.”
It was shortly after, while he was still in his twenties, that he ran for mayor of Sidney. And won.

“[It was] an uncomfortable situation, publishing the paper and being the mayor,” he said.

So he designated a man called Frank Parch to the editorial page.

“Twice I picked up the paper and was excoriated as mayor by the editorial page,” he said.

Despite that, Gottschalk took his responsibility as a newspaperman heavily.

“You cannot have a self-governing nation unless you have people who engage fully in their responsibilities,” he told students and faculty. “How can they do that if they don’t have the information?”

“We took some risks,” he said of the Sidney paper. “We had some wonderful successes. But after 10 years, I got restless. I was 32 years old, and I really wanted to buy a daily somewhere in Nebraska. I spent nine months looking for one. Played 18 holes of golf a day.

“But who would want to sell a thriving newspaper at almost any price?” he wondered. He began to get his hopes down.

Since Gottschalk couldn’t find a nearby daily to purchase—he and Carmen wanted to stay in Nebraska and raise their family there—there was only one solution: they’d have to change their careers.

“So I began searching for a bank to purchase,” Gottschalk recalled. Then-publisher and CEO of the Omaha World-Herald, Harold W. Andersen, found this out and went to Gottschalk.

“Why is a newspaper guy looking for banks?” Andersen inquired of him, proving that, indeed, Gottschalk was meant to stay in the paper business.

Shortly after, Gottschalk received a call from prominent Omaha businessman Peter Kiewit.

“Andy (Andersen) says you can get this done,” he said, speaking of a job opportunity at the World-Herald.

“What do you say, ‘no?’” Gottschalk kidded on Thursday. “I said yes. And we did get it done.”

In 1989, Gottschalk succeeded Andersen as CEO of the Omaha World-Herald—a position he remained in until he retired in 2007.

The Omaha World-Herald “thrived under Gottschalk,” according to its website. The website also lists Gottschalk under “The Big Eight Who Built More Than a Newspaper,” alongside Peter Kiewit, Henry Doorly and William Jennings Bryan.

“If you’re doing something worthwhile that you love to do, with people that you respect and a loving family that is highly supportive, you’re going to have a great life,” he told listeners on Thursday.

“Equal opportunity is built into the system. But equal success is exclusively yours. Nobody can sell it or give it to you. You’ll end up on your feet just fine, as long as you know that this is important.’