Gonzenbach: Educator of Today, Leader of Tomorrow

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Posted: November 27, 2014, 1:00 p.m.
by Connor Fox.

For any students in The University of Alabama’s nationally acclaimed public relations program, their academic and professional career begins with Dr. William Gonzenbach. The UA professor has taught the “introduction to public relations” course for years, and his prolific career both inside and outside of the classroom spans more than 25 years. Through sharing his experiences, he has become an invaluable resource for students.

Mike Ragsdale, a UA alumnus and the founder of 30A, vividly recalls Gonzenbach’s “refreshing” style of teaching. “His candidness immediately struck me, and [he] became one of my favorite professors because he just has a way of being extremely practical,” Ragsdale said. “He leaves a lot of theory at the doorstep, and instead really gives you hardcore, real-time advice.”

Gonzenbach’s decision to go into public relations stemmed from many experiences throughout his undergraduate career at the University of Notre Dame. Initially, he was a pre-med student and even worked at a hospital in St. Louis, which he described as an “eye-opening experience,” in more ways than one. His mind wasn’t set on this career path, though.

From considering law school to becoming a priest, Gonzenbach contemplated many professions before selecting communications. He said his enjoyment of writing pushed him toward this choice, and at Notre Dame, his chosen program combined American studies with communications in a broad approach.

“When I was at Notre Dame, I never took a course in public relations; I learned how to write,” Gonzenbach said. “What was really helpful for me there was being thrown into the lake and made to swim, in terms of working for the media.”

His experiences included working in radio news, as a reporter for the newspaper on campus, as well as serving as the news editor of the school’s magazine. Although Gonzenbach said he really didn’t want to work in the media at that time, he attributes these early experiences outside of the classroom to helping shape his career path.

Upon graduating, Gonzenbach had a formative five years of learning and working in different facets of the industry. He found himself working with the South Bend Symphony in his first year, having no particular background in music. Gonzenbach said working for the 501(c)(3) nonprofit was one of his favorite experiences.

“I always enjoyed doing that and thought it was such a nice product. The symphony was always fun, working with kids and programming, and was a good thing,” Gonzenbach said.

After one year of working closely with the symphony, Gonzenbach transitioned his work with the organization to an account with Markmakers, a smaller advertising and public relations firm in South Bend that hired him the following year. However, after a series of changes at the firm, Gonzenbach decided to launch his own business in PR consulting, taking the symphony and a few other unwanted accounts with him. For the next three years, Gonzenbach and Associates specialized in commercial work and marketing PR mostly, serving the omnipresent RV industry in northern Indiana.

These years of PR consulting and various experiences helped convince Gonzenbach to return to academia to specialize in the research aspect of the industry. At The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he received his master’s degree and a Ph.D. in mass communication research, completing both degrees in just a little over three years.

A fellow colleague of Gonzenbach offered him a teaching position at East Carolina University. In addition to already being a full-time student working on his Ph.D., and maintaining consulting work for various clients, he added the extra 116-mile drive every Tuesday and Thursday to teach every week. “Once I taught at East Carolina that first semester, I loved it,” Gonzenbach said. “I started as a pure practitioner, [but] looking back on it now, I don’t think I had found what I really wanted to do.”

In 1991, Gonzenbach arrived at the Capstone, where he has taught ever since. After 27 years of teaching, he’s earned a multitude of accolades, serving students and faculty alike as the chair of UA’s Department of Advertising and Public Relations for seven years; as associate director of the College of Communication and Information Sciences’ Institute for Communication and Information Research for 12 years; and being named a fellow in the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations.

“If there’s one person in my career that was my mentor, that’s Dr. Gonzenbach,” Ragsdale said.

Ragsdale’s experience with Gonzenbach extends across his undergraduate and graduate career at UA. He learned from Gonzenbach as a student and assisted him with clients, such as Southern Living and Cooking Life, research, graphic design and other projects. The two worked closely for years, and Ragsdale considers Gonzenbach a lifelong friend.

Gonzenbach said some of his family members are educators, too, but he didn’t always consider teaching at first. While he said he would’ve preferred a few PR courses under his belt in the beginning of his career, he’s enthusiastic about sharing his learned experiences in the classroom now. “I’m glad I have what I have to fall back on, to give people some context,” Gonzenbach said.

One of the key lessons Gonzenbach instills in his students is gaining the experience now rather than later. His last lecture of every course is famed and presents dozens of realistic pieces of advice to carry students through their college years and be successful.

“It’s necessary to learn that stuff [in the classroom] but it’s not sufficient. You’ve got to go mix it up doing internships, jobs — whatever you call it, it’s Karate Kid: wax on, wax off,” Gonzenbach said. “I watch a lot of kids that catch on to that and do it, and other ones that just go through the program and they’re not getting it; you have to do both — it’s part of the game. The ones who do it get jobs.”

Mike Little, a UA professor in the public relations and advertising department, has worked and taught alongside Gonzenbach for many years and said he admires his ability to be efficient and hold students to a higher standard. “If you have a future in the field, you love him,” Little said. “If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be teaching here.”

Gonzenbach’s tenacity and accomplishments continue to inspire his colleagues and students, while cultivating the next generation of public relations professionals. His endearing commitment to the profession as a practitioner, educator and researcher impacts numerous lives every day.

“Ultimately, some of the best advice he ever gave me was don’t turn down any opportunity, especially early in your career. Even if you don’t know how to do it, go get a book that night and figure out how to do it,” Ragsdale said. “He made me passionate about accomplishment, and that’s what’s carried me through virtually every opportunity I’ve had since then.”

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