Longtime Spokesman Retires With Big Plans
January 14, 2011
- "I've enjoyed every day. It's great coming to work with a fantastic staff and fantastic leadership."
- "My wife and I love the area here. The people here are wonderful. I am really looking forward to retirement here. This is God's country."
- The Army "has evolved over the years and today we see a change to a military that is extremely proactive about getting the message out."
- "I've been told one of the best things I've done is hiring great people. We have a great staff here. I will miss them."
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- As one of the longest serving public affairs officers in the Army, Bill Congo is known for his work in preparing Soldiers and civilians for the media spotlight.
But while they shined in front of a camera or at a speaker's podium, Congo made it a point to keep his behind-the-scenes work at a low profile.
Congo preferred that low profile so much, in fact, that he wasn't much for putting awards and recognition plaques up on the walls of his office at the Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command.
With 42 years and eight months of civilian service, Congo is retiring with plenty of those types of mementoes. Though he appreciates every one of them, he didn't really like showing them off - except for one.
In 2004, the National Space Club-Huntsville recognized Congo by presenting him with their annual media award. The source of the award made it special.
"I was recognized by the community. That meant a lot to me," he said.
The media award, established in 1988, is given to an individual or group that has made a significant contribution to public knowledge and understanding of astronautics and its impact on the nation and mankind. With the award, Congo joined a select group that includes Miles O'Brien of CNN, Lon Raines of SpaceNews and Star Wars producer George Lucas of LucasFilms Ltd.
These days, Congo has his awards and other mementoes packed up in boxes and stored at home. He cleaned out his office in the last days of 2010, retiring from a career that spanned 10 general officers at SMDC/ARSTRAT and countless others he supported. It's been both a challenging and rewarding career for Congo.
"I've enjoyed every day. It's great coming to work with a fantastic staff and fantastic leadership," he said. "I have really had fun at my job and I really hate to retire. But we all sooner or later must retire. And I think it's time for me.
"I promised myself and my wife that in my mid-60s, I would retire so we can go off and spend the next stage of life doing other things. My wife and I just love the area here. The people here are wonderful. I am really looking forward to retirement here. This is God's country."
Although he will be giving up "coming to work," Congo does plan to stay busy. Two years ago, he was elected to the board of directors of the Audi Club of North Alabama, and now plans to spend time building up that group. He is also a drag racer, and plans to spend more time racing and working in the garage on his race car. He wants to travel with his wife to see his son and two daughters, and the grandchildren. And then there is his interest in being a poker player on a competitive level.
"I really have a desire to see how good or how bad I am at playing poker," he said. "With drag racing, well it's a fantastic sport. It's a sport for all ages, whether 15 or 50, and for people from all walks of life and all education levels. It's a surprising sport."
Congo's civilian career began in Laurel, Miss., when he was hired as administrative support for the Army Reserve's 3rd Battalion, 83rd Field Artillery. That job led to a recruiting position and his first association with public affairs activities.
"I provided support for a two-star general. I helped write speeches and I traveled with him some," Congo said. "One thing led to another and a public affairs position came up in July 1973, and I applied for it."
That decision led him down a career path that included public affairs stints with the Army Reserve headquarters in Birmingham, the Anniston Army Depot, the Army Materiel Command in Washington, D.C., and, in 1986, the Strategic Defense Command, which was the predecessor for SMDC. Along the way, he obtained a degree in communications from American University in D.C., and began a master's program that he hopes to finish in retirement. He also took an executive course in public affairs at Harvard University.
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan made his famous Star Wars speech, announcing his plan to develop a missile defense system that would make nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete" by building a "shield that could protect us from nuclear missiles just as a roof protects a family from the rain." As that program launched, so, too, did the work of SMDC and the opportunities for public affairs professionals.
"I thought it was the coolest thing a person could be engaged in with public affairs," said Congo, who served in the capacity as director of public affairs for SMDC, and later also for ARSTRAT. "I loved doing Star Wars types of projects. I really enjoyed that."
In the 1990s, Congo oversaw both of SMDC's public and congressional affairs activities from D.C. In 1996, he moved to Redstone with SMDC's public affairs organization.
"This was a great opportunity and I never looked back," Congo said.
Congo has worked for 10 general officers at SMDC/ARSTRAT (with the newly appointed Lt. Gen. Richard Formica being the last by just a few days) and countless others during his career.
"Working for generals is different in a sense that you always have to be on your game," Congo said. "It's been a lot of fun. I've really enjoyed it. Once in awhile you will mess up. But there is a real sense of serving your country."
Excluding Formica, who he didn't get a chance to know with his retirement looming in the general's first days in command, Congo said his two favorite SMDC commanders personally were Lt. Gen. Robert Hammond, who served from 1988-90, and Lt. Gen. Kevin Campbell, who retired in December.
"I was promoted to a GS-15 under General Hammond, and that was very nice," he said. "With General Campbell, he and his wife are just down-to-earth human beings that really care for everybody. I can't think of anybody I would look up to more than General Campbell and General Hammond. For me, personally, those two gentlemen impacted my life in a positive manner with their leadership and caring."
During his career, Congo participated in significant changes in the way the Army approaches the public affairs function.
"In the early '70s, the military, because of Vietnam, was kind of shy about talking to news media," he said. "It has evolved over the years and today we see a change to a military that is extremely proactive about getting the message out, and the news media is very much a part of that."
Of course, there have been tremendous changes in technology, with Congo going from using a manual typewriter to today's computers. Communications technology and social media have revolutionized the public affairs profession.
"Today, we have social media, Facebook, Twitter, websites. We are out there on the worldwide web. Everything is technology driven, and we can get our message out there in a nanosecond," Congo said.
The key lesson he learned in his career was "you can never been too ready, you can never been too prepared." The best public affairs professionals, he said, are inquisitive, articulate, writers, speakers, anticipators and managers of stress. They have to be able to manage publication deadlines, leadership requirements, media relations, editorial considerations, communication challenges, employee relations and special events, most often all at the same time.
In his 20-plus years as a supervisor, Congo has hired about 25 professionals for his public affairs staff.
"One of the best things about being a supervisor is being able to hire people," Congo said. "It gives you a real sense of accomplishment to be able to hire good people, and watch them grow and mature. Public Affairs is a small organization, and you get to know each other really well. I've been told one of the best things I've done is hiring great people. We have a great staff here. I will miss them."
The SMDC/ARSTRAT public affairs staff of seven ranges in age from the mid-20s to the mid-60s, with three staffers in Colorado Springs, Colo. The staff is an "exceptional mix" of new ideas and experience, he said.
"I have always encouraged training, both formal and informal," Congo said. "As a manager, it gives you a real good sense of accomplishment to see these employees go off and learn, and bring back to the office what they have learned and apply it. When people go off to training, everyone in the office should benefit from it."
Working as a civilian for the federal government, particularly for the military, is a rewarding career that offers opportunities in a number of fields worth exploring, he said.
"I would truly encourage college graduates and people of all types of educational experience to put in for a job with the government," Congo said. "Public service is a very honorable way of going through life. It is a great opportunity."
And that's what it's been for Congo. All his federal employment opportunities - and especially SMDC/ARSTRAT - have made Congo's longtime public affairs career interesting, diverse and challenging.
"It's about missile defense, space and lasers. It's about supporting the war fighter with the best technology. It's never the same stuff every day," he said.
"It takes awhile to learn it. You work with engineers and scientists, with astronauts and people who are experienced in missile defense. You have to know what to do to help engineers tell their stories in a way that people who read newspapers and watch TV can understand it. There is a very wide range of skills that you have to learn and manage. You have to be on your toes. And you have to do all of that 24/7. It's not one of those professions that everyone can do."