Take Five with George Shea ’86

George Shea cropped
George Shea ’86 is a principal in Shea Communications, a New York City-based media relations firm specializing in real estate, events and consumer-facing clients. He developed the Nathan’s Famous hot dog-eating contest as a platform for free media coverage, and with his partners, Richard Shea and David Baer, created Major League Eating as a sports league for brand promotion. Shea is known for hosting live events and for his introductions of the Nathan’s competitors, aired annually on July 4 on ESPN.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

I grew up in Maine and was not particularly sophisticated when I got to Columbia. I quickly learned that I did not have the same academic foundation as the other students, many of whom had already studied significant portions of the Core Curriculum, including Hegel and Kant, who were completely foreign to me. It was a scramble to get up to speed. But I had a lot of energy and I was extremely focused on studying and having fun. I made several good friends and we traveled around the city, just messing around and visiting various hotspots. I didn’t understand the geography of New York at the time, or how the neighborhoods connected to each other. In my mind, Greenwich Village was a place that appeared when you climbed out of the Christopher Street station. Brooklyn might as well have been Mars.

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

The first thing that struck me, on my first day, other than the cinder block walls of Carman, was the city’s ambient noise. I was not used to the constant, low-level hum and it reminded me that I was in a new environment. I was a freshman in 1982, and as I recall, an on-campus bowling alley had been recently demolished to make way for the construction of a student center featuring “The Plex.” A fellow Carman resident found 10 bowling pins and three balls left over from the bowling alley. A group of third-floor students placed the pins at one end of the newly carpeted hallway and began bowling. Tremendous noise filled the floor each time the balls struck the pins, and students from throughout the building gathered to watch. At some point, an RA arrived and noted that bowling in the hall wasn’t a great idea because the balls created a dent where they first hit the carpeting, and made a line as they rolled toward the pins. We tried to remove the dents, kneeling and rubbing the carpet with toothbrushes to loosen the pile. This was not successful and we moved on with the day.

What class do you most remember and why?

I think my favorite class was Wallace Gray’s “Elliot, Joyce, Pound” seminar, not only because I enjoyed reading and talking about Joyce, but also because my good friends Kevin Pearce ’86 and Jim Sheil ’86 were in the class with me. After the seminar ended each week, most of the 10 students in the class would go to Cannon’s to talk more. One of our crew, who has since gone on to be wildly successful in finance, had a crazy theory about a mathematical formula that explained the text. My thesis was much simpler, but when it came time to present my paper to the group I had enormous anxiety. It seems odd now. I had spent dozens of hours talking about the same subjects to the same people, but I had trouble sleeping the night before. The presentation went off without incident and I learned the important lesson that people don’t really listen when you talk. I also loved Kenneth Jackson’s “History of the City of New York,” and the all-night bike ride.

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

Like everyone else, I sat on The Steps when the weather was nice. I remember meeting my friends there in the first few days of the fall semester, before there was any work to do, drinking Blatz beer from Furnald Grocery. I also liked the Postcrypt Coffeehouse in the basement of St. Paul’s because of one singer, whose name I forget, who used to play guitar and sing “Mr. Tugboat Man.” It was a great song.

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

I would take more science, and, in particular, courses like “Physics for Poets,” which did not require a deep background in math. As a student, I focused almost exclusively on English literature, and I now wish I had taken a broader group of electives. I also would drink less than I did. As fun as it was, it took too much energy and ultimately was negative. I also would take advantage of the career center and alumni network — I would get more clients and make more money!