My Brush With Greatness

It’s the end of the year, once again.

As the college school year has come to a close, I thought I would finally share a story about something that occurred to me during my college senior year. My brush with greatness.

Milton Glaser is an American graphic designer, 1929–2020, that is considered to be one of the greatest designers of our time. His influence is found all over the world. Arguably, the piece of work everyone knows about is his I❤NY design.

It’s so iconic. Hearing him talk about the story behind that design enamored me. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

The back of the program from that night.

It was the senior year of my undergrad studies. Our group of graphic design students had become quite close. There were very few of us. After the first two years of general studies in almost the same classes and the last two years in the same classes (more specifically, the exact same classroom—small campus program, at the time), what else would you expect? It was a great group. Still, senior year brought a grand senior trip to a grand exhibit at Brigham Young University: An exhibit of the work of Milton Glaser.

While I was liked by my classmates, I was older, married, and had children, while most of them were still young and single. This set me apart, socially. As a result, at the end of a day—after classes—my friends would hang out and do their social thing, while I went home to help my children with homework, do my homework, and spend time with my wife. I never really hung out with my college friends. This was not good or bad, it just was. Again, I had friends, and still remain in contact with many of them. But, the reality was, I was the odd man out. This is important to the story.

Our little group of graphic design students all loaded up into different vehicles to begin our drive North to see the exhibit and hear from the great Milton Glaser. Once all our vehicles had arrived, the group gathered up and plans were made. There were going to be a few hours before the lecture. I didn’t understand why. I figured that if we had arrived when we did it was because events were going to begin when we got there—not hours later. And yet, there we were.

The professors that came with us were quick to admonish us to NOT GO ANYWHERE ALONE so that no one could get lost. Got it. Nobody should get lost—alone. I assume they didn’t think that we could get lost in groups. Whatever. As a note, nobody did. This little gathering took place in a building on the BYU campus which has a name that I cannot recall. What I do recall is what happened next.

With the word given, bodies went off in all different directions. People were excited to go and explore the campus and see what they could see. There was, after all, a few hours to kill. I was left alone.

That was fine. I didn’t mind being left alone. I can keep myself entertained. No worries. I looked about the room and noticed a nice widow seat that I could occupy. I say a window seat because it was just that. It was a window with a base wide enough for a person to sit in. With the sun flooding in through the glass, it was too inviting to pass up. So, I wandered over, sat myself down, opened up my bag, and took out some art supplies to keep myself occupied for the next while. When I looked up, that’s when I noticed a small crowd.

The crowd was gathering about the entrance to what appeared to be the entrance to an art exhibit. And, in that crowd, I noticed two of my friends—one of which I would go to work for many years later. What this group of about twenty people were about to head into looked interesting. And I reasoned that if two of my friends were going into this event, I figured: Why not me? With that thought in my mind, I headed over and maneuvered to where my buddies were in the mob. I recall specifically that there was one person who kept looking at me as though he was bothered by my presence. The guy had a nametag on, so I just figured that he was a host or a supervisor and he was just trying to do his job. Like, maybe he thought I didn’t belong. Or, maybe he thought I might be one over the tour limit. I didn’t know then. I know now—and I will tell you later.

Now that I was integrated into the gathering, I understood what made this activity so special. It was a tour of Mitlon Galser’s exhibit at BYU, hosted by Milton Glaser, himself!

My first thought was, “Why aren’t there more people from our group here?” Followed by, “Why aren’t there just more people here, period?” As I was pondering these thoughts, looking about, and listening to Mr. Glaser discuss some of the anecdotes about each of his works hanging on the walls, my friends and our graphic design professor meandered over to me and asked what I was doing there.

“Same thing you are. Why? Am I doing something wrong?”

Apparently, I was. I was not supposed to be part of the tour. My two friends were the President and the Secretary of our college AIGA chapter (American Institute of Graphic Arts). And, the professor was the… what’s the word…? Counselor? I can’t think of the term for the faculty that helps with a college organization. So, I am going with Counselor. At any rate, as the President, Secretary, and Counselor, they were part of the privileged few that were to receive the personal tour. All the other bodies in the group were the other college AIGA chapter presidencies and their professor counselors. I was not supposed to be there. That’s why the one dude was looking me over. He was scanning me for my name badge (that I didn’t have) and to see if he recognized me from the roll call that took place before the tour began. But, there I stayed.

I had already accidentally infiltrated the tour, so, I kept going—pretending like I belonged. I ended up hanging out with my professor for most of the tour. He was a great guy (still is, we email). It was this same professor that would later offer me a job. At the conclusion of the tour, my professor and I found ourselves alone in a section of the exhibit. As we talked about what Mr. Glaser had shared with us, he came around the corner. HE. Milton Glaser walked around the corner and it was now just me, my professor, the great contributor to the world of design (basically a graphic design superhero), and the BYU liaison that was there to guide Mr. Glaser around. Milton stopped and said hello to my professor and me, and then, I got gutsy.

About two months before this whole event, our graphic design class was tasked with interviewing three well-known graphic designers. THREE! Now, email existed but was still not in everyday use. Snail mail was still a thing. Every day in class it was, “I got another ‘No’.” or “I still haven’t heard anything yet.” or “I’m so gonna fail this assignment…” I had reached out to over twenty different designers or design firms and had not even received a response—some of which were the same designers that my fellow classmates had and they got a response. I never even got an “I’m sorry, I will have to decline.” I got nothing. For two months! So, I asked Milton. He was there. Worst case: He would say “No”.

“Mr. Glaser. My name is William Bagnall and this is my professor…”

“Don’t you drag me into this,” and my professor walked away. We had been discussing how I still had not had a single interview yet—despite all my efforts—and my professor (or maybe I) had jokingly suggested that I should just ask Milton Glaser.

I then briefly explained the interview assignment to Mr. Glaser and how I had yet to have any responses. I then asked if I could interview him. He said, “Sure. Call my secretary and she will set something up.” We shook hands and he walked off. I did it. I got an interview! It was the only interview I got, and for whatever reason (because I was supposed to have three interviews), I still got an ‘A’ on the project. But, the day wasn’t done yet.

As Dave (my professor) and I walked out of the exhibit, he asked what my lunch plans were. I said I didn’t really have any. So, somehow he asked if I would like to join him for lunch without actually asking me. We were just walking and talking and then we sat down at the table set for the AIGA college chapter presidencies. Already waiting for us were the President (Terral) and the Secretary (Deanna). They asked what I was doing and I told them that Dave had invited me. Dave just smiled and said, “Sure.” Looking back I don’t know if my autistic mind misread the lunch ‘invite’ conversation or if he really did invite me. Regardless, nobody sent me away. It was a cozy table set for four. Perfect.

The food arrived and Deanna asked if I was not going to eat the asparagus side dish because there were three of them. I told her that I wouldn’t because I don’t like asparagus. Then, I cut into one of the two small steaks on my plate and told Deanna she could eat the meat. She was grateful for my checking for her and happy that I had two steaks (we all did, but still). Dave was confused and Terral just chuckled. Then, Terral explained that because we had all spent so much time together over the years—during class, after class, outside class projects, events, etcetera—we knew each other very well. Deanna knew that I eat foods in even amounts (it’s complicated. I have a system). I knew that Deanna only eats meat cooked through to a certain color. The things our group knew about each other… Like a little family. Lunch was fun.

After the meal, it was time for the key speaker of the evening: Milton Glaser.

In the auditorium, there was a section roped off for the presidencies. My friends invited me to join them since I had accidentally made it that far in the day already what was there to lose by trying? We all figured I should go all the way. So, I did. The three of us found a nice spot with an excellent view of Milton. Dave got preferred seating as well—the kind set aside for the professors. While we were waiting, one of our classmates had spotted us and came over to ask if they could join us since I was sitting there too. He was ushered away by an usher. It was for presidencies only.

At the end of the night, everyone was a little jealous that I had had the guts to ask for an interview but even more excited for me that Milton had agreed to it. A few weeks later I had my short ten-minute phone interview with Mr. Glaser. He was so kind and genuine. He is perhaps the most truly humble and genuinely gracious person I have ever met. If you search him out online and listen to the way he speaks, he just loves to learn and never thought he was an authority on anything. He was kind, teachable, and willing to discover new things. Truly a great human being. A wonderful man. My life is better from having met him. He was the kind of designer I would like to be more like, as well as the kind of person I know the world needs more of.

It was a brush with greatness.

The program cover from that night.

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