Michael Gates Gill ’63 was a stereotypical Yale boy — white, wealthy and raised in a Bronxville mansion in New York. After college, he spent 26 years at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, making six figures a year. But nearly five decades after his days of final papers and Gothic lecture halls, Gill has found himself a world away from the Ivory Tower.
At age 67, Gill now works the morning shift at Starbucks.
But Gill is not shy about his green cap and apron, a far cry from the Brooks Brothers suits he once donned on a regular basis. Instead — as he divulges in his unlikely story, New York Times Bestseller “How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else” — the part-time barista gig transformed Gill from an entitled Ivy Leaguer to a humbled, happy man.
Surrounded by prestigious family — his father was the eminent writer Brendan Gill of the New Yorker — and similarly high-achieving friends, Gill said he had an ideal childhood with many advantages. At his college interview, for example, the interviewer asked for the spelling of his great uncle’s name, rather than test scores and extracurricular interests.
“I realized late in life that I was trying to create a life based on other people’s expectations,” he said. “I was living up to those of my family, friends and Yale.” But by age 63, Gill had fallen far from the life for which Yale prepared him. Fired, divorced and diagnosed with a brain tumor, Gill stumbled into a Starbucks one day.
Bright college years?
Gill laughed on the phone from Bronxville as he recalled his University years: memories that range from sipping sherries with Robert Frost to decking out in a mask and St. Patrick’s Day green for a photo that ran in the News’ 1962 Halloween issue — a photo shot by his peer, Joe Lieberman ’64 LAW ’67. And once, as the editor of the Yale Literary Magazine, he remembers asking boxing champion Mohammed Ali, who was sitting in a towel among professional reporters, for a poem.
But, according to friends, such actions were all classic Gill.
Roger Squire ’62, a college friend, said he remembers when Gill wore an overcoat that he had made with an unusual number of buttons, perhaps 6 or 8 on both sleeves.
“He always did things that he felt were amusing,” Squire said. “In some ways he was like Oscar Wilde — much larger than life.”
Gill said he did not want to give up the childlike playfulness of his undergraduate years, knowing that leaving Yale would have meant growing up. He was not rushed to get his degree and leave, and so he said he decided to drop out of Yale a semester or two short of graduation.
Even without his diploma, Gill wrote in his novel that he was introduced to an advertising job at J. Walter Thompson by his friend in Skull & Bones, James Brewster IV ’62.
After nearly three decades with the company, he was fired at age 53 following a company decision to hire younger employees at a lower salary, a common management practice in the corporate world. Gill suddenly found himself middle-aged, jobless and broke, with most of his connections lost.
Looking back, Gill said — happily now — that the troubles that piled up after losing his job eventually pushed him off the “escalator” he had been riding his whole life. And this escalator to higher incomes and bigger titles was accelerated by Yale.
“Yale gave me an illusion that I can be master of my fate, but fate is not that way,” he said. “It is more exciting and fickle than that.”
Indeed, 10 years after he was fired, Gill accidentally entered Starbucks during a “hiring event,” where he was casually asked if he wanted a job by a young woman named Crystal. He now excitedly recalls the scene as a small example of divine intervention — an act of “random kindness.”
Kevin Buckley ’62, who lived on the same floor with Gill in Berkeley College freshmen year, said Gill had always been conscious of people fulfilling their destiny.
“He was aware of surprise, in either career or personal life,” Buckley said.
Buckley said while no one could have predicted that Gill would be working for Starbucks at this stage in his life, at the same time, he conceded that Gill never followed an ordinary or predictable path.
Gill said he himself was shocked to discover his knowledge of art history and talent for renaissance poetry did not give much for practical jobs.
“Yale did not prepare me for the real world,” he said.
Before Starbucks, Gill said he had never filled out a job application form or handled a cash register. More importantly, he said he was working with people of different backgrounds for the first time.
“Looking back on it, now I realize diversity is not just a rhetorical word, but it’s fun,” he said.
While suddenly the visible minority — white and past middle age — Gill said he was treated as an equal among his mainly young, black coworkers. Describing his newly-discovered modern reality as both confusing and exciting, Gill said he felt liberated by the “egalitarian necessity” of his workplace. Even into his fifties, Gill admitted that he asked people where they had gone to college. Now, he said he feels relieved to be in a world where questions of academic background simply do not come up.
“It surely doesn’t matter that I went to Yale,” Gill said. “Just matters that I got the coffee right.”
The greatest satisfaction, he said, came from a new ability to control a part of his life. This is why, he said, he enjoys making a perfect latte, or a toilet sparkle.
Nehemiah Luckett, a manager of the Bronxville Starbucks where Gill works, said the coffee shop had an environment that allowed people to be themselves and show who they really are.
“When you become an expert at a task, you let yourself go,” he said. “It’s not about a task, but it’s about yourself.”
And while Gill feels more comfortable in his Starbucks outfit than he ever did in his suit at Yale, he said the friendships and intellectual awakening from Yale last a lifetime. Just as his first job in advertising was made possible through a friend at Yale, another friend, William Lyon ’62, encouraged him to publish his story in a book. While he felt Yale did not prepare him for the real world, Gill said he was fortunate to have made friends at Yale who he could lean on in hard times.
“The gift from Yale is that you meet people you love for life,” he said.