Interview with Dan Brestle, US Air Force
Name: Dan Brestle
Military Branch & Rank: US Air Force, Captain
Dates of Service: October 1967 – May 1973
Date of Interview: February 26, 2020
Interviewer: Michael D. Brown
Audio Producer: Laura Bang
Length of Interview: 47 minutes
Transcribed by: Nicholas Coscarelli
Edited and annotated by: Meg Piorko
MICHAEL BROWN (INTRO): Thank you for joining us today. My name is Michael Brown and we’re here today at Villanova University, recording another installment of the Voices of Villanova’s Veterans.
BROWN: Good afternoon. It is two o’clock on February 26th of the year 2020, and we are here at Falvey Library in the Rare Book Room on the second floor. And today I am joined by Dan Brestle, who is a Villanova graduate, and also an Air Force veteran. So, thank you for joining us today, Dan, and we’re going to talk a little bit about your time here at Villanova, and your time in the service and post-service, if that’s all right.
DAN BRESTLE: That’s fine.
BROWN: All right. So, talk to me about when and where you were born.
BRESTLE: Well, born in 1945, Atlantic City, New Jersey, one of four boys. Born and raised and lived in the same home until I left for the military when I was 21 years old. I was a member of the church called St. Nicholas, which at that time was the Augustinian church on Jersey Shore. So, I became associated with the Augustinians from all to four years right on through high school. So, I’ve known them and had met, before coming to Villanova, many of the priests that eventually I developed relationships with here. So, not very exciting formative years, I don’t think. At least in my mind, not exciting. I went to Holy Spirit High School in Atlantic City and not much of a student, unfortunately. Maybe a solid B on a good day, but maybe not so solid on a bad day. But played three sports: football, baseball, basketball. And all my life, I thought my life goal was to be a schoolteacher and a football coach. That’s all I wanted to do with my life and I would have been a tremendous success in my own mind. At that time, there were two major teaching schools in New Jersey. One was called Trenton State Teachers College and the other was called Glassboro Teachers College. Everybody got into a teachers college. Everybody. No one got denied. So, I had my personal interview for Trenton State Teachers College. I guess it was April of my senior year in high school. One of those days in Trenton when it was 95 degrees, in a suit and tie being interviewed with 60 other kids in a classroom. And the interviewer said, “Let’s go in reverse alphabetical order.” So, my name’s Brestle. So, two and a half hours in, something like Saturday detention, I get my interview, and I would go sit down and the guy said, “Well, Mr. Bristol, why do you want to be an educator?” And I said, “Well, I want to be a football coach and a lifeguard, and both of those give me the summers off to do that.” I got a letter two weeks later saying, obviously, my attitude wasn’t what they were looking for in future teachers. They didn’t want lifeguards and football coach to be the motivating factor. So, I was denied admission. The irony was my brother – who had gone to Villanova, and he’s five years older so he had just graduated Villanova and was presently in the Air Force in Germany – said, “Well, maybe a couple of calls, maybe we can go to Villanova,” which was not even a thought in my mind. But there was a very great family here named Ortliebs, who had at the time Ortlieb’s Beer, and a man named Manny Flick helped me get an interview for Villanova. And I got into Villanova on a conditional interview and ended up being on Dean’s List when I graduated, and had four of the best years of my life.
BROWN: So, what year was this that you went from the Teachers College? What year is this?
BRESTLE: This is ‘63 when I graduated in high school.
BROWN: In 1963, you’re looking to go to be a teacher and a football coach.
BRESTLE: That’s all. And lifeguard, don’t forget the lifeguard part.
BROWN: That just been shattered. So, what now do you want to be?
BRESTLE: At this point, I decided to go into business school. Doing very well. I was a marketing major. You heard me say earlier, everyone in school at that time earned a B.S. in economics. And I always thought I’d go into marketing. And coming into my junior year, my roommate in college, a great guy named Ned Trombley, his father was a lawyer, we started talking about law school. And Ned eventually went on to Albany Law and is a lawyer to this day. And I applied for Villanova Law School thinking that maybe I wanted to be a lawyer.
BROWN And this is post-graduation from—
BRESTLE: This is my senior year. So, I’m now accepted to Villanova Law School for September, and this is the end of my senior year. But at that time, it was $1,500, I believe it was tuition, for the first semester and I just didn’t have that kind of money. My dad was a classic blue collar; he owned the Vista gas station. All four of the boys, which between my younger brother, Robert, and myself, and my older brother were 17 years apart. So, we were forced labor in the gas station for a long, long time. [laughs] But we had no money. So, I had to defer and ask them to defer to make some money and go in February, which I did. And two weeks later, it was the Vietnam War, I was drafted. And I had to make the decision in which I did to go into the Air Force. I went into the officers training program in San Antonio, Texas as an Air Force officer. And that was October ‘67.
BROWN: And so, talk to me about your time on campus. What was Villanova like back then compared to today? Talk a little bit about, obviously, there’s a few more buildings probably around. But this, the campus culture, were there a lot of, was it co-ed? Was there, you know, what was it like?
BRESTLE: Yeah, tremendously co-ed. I think there was 4,000 boys and 52 women. The only women on campus were the nursing school. And it was unusual to see anyone female. So, it was a lot of machoism in the school, a lot. It was in all guys. And we sort of populated the weekends and trips to Rosemont and Cabrini and Harcum and all the other local schools around. But the relationships, I think, are the probably the most important thing. I still, now this I graduated 52 years later, I’m still once a year playing golf with 12 of my good friends who I see once a year, in most cases, maybe twice if we have a holiday lunch. But we’re all Villanova fraternity brothers who get together and still talk about basketball and all the other things that they are experiencing Villanova great. So, I enjoyed it here. I actually became a student, which was unusual for me. I never thought I was a student, graduated with the honors. So yeah, it’s an unusual place. It was a place that was a lot of bonding. There’s a lot of camaraderie that I was lucky to feel, not only here, but you do the same type of relationships when you’re in the service. To a lesser extent, although it’s probably more joke able. Even as a lifeguard, when you get with a group of guys that, you know, have the same job, same primary responsibility. So, I’ve been fortunate to be in organizations my whole life that probably male-dominated, which is ironic, because I spent 35 years of my life in the cosmetic business with 90 percent women. So, how I got there is really a long story. [laughs]
BROWN: [laughs] And I heard rumors that you worked at the pie shop here on campus. So, talk to me about what exactly is the pie shop? Where was it, and what were your job responsibility at the pie shop?
BRESTLE: Well, I was very important. I made milkshakes.
BROWN: Well, that is very important.
BRESTLE: And flip burgers. But you know, this is a time, it’s hard for people to realize. Now this is a time when McDonald’s was just starting, and you know, the quarter-pounder with cheese was the biggest thing to come out. And the pie shop was a burger place. It was the local place where, when you got so sick and tired of Villanova cafeteria food, you just had to have a good milkshake. You had to have some place to eat junk food. And my roommate, the man I mentioned, Ned Trombley and I, we worked here, and we worked split shifts between, you know, we went between classes, and we both made money to pay for our –
BROWN: Books. [laughs]
BRESTLE: [laughs] Books, that’s right. We made money to pay for books. Books, beers, and broads. I think it was a word, but I don’t think that’s very edible, though.
BROWN: Well, good. And so, the pie shop. Was it a popular place?
BRESTLE: Yeah. No, no, it was sort of like the student union. I mean, it didn’t have a student union at that time. So that was where everyone hung out. It really was. So, you know, once from 10 o’clock to 10 o’clock at night, everyone would just come to the pie shop and hang out and, you know, have a soda or have a milkshake, have a hamburger. So yeah, it was very popular.
BROWN: And what was the basketball team like, and the sports teams like, while you were here? Were they dominant powerhouse like they are today?
BRESTLE: No, I wouldn’t say dominant powerhouse. It was obviously all Division One at that time. Football was much bigger then, because football played my freshman year or year before I got here; they played in one of the owls out west against Oregon. So, I mean, there was some big-time football. There were, the class ahead of me, I think had four guys recruited into the NFL. So, football was a bigger sport then. And I think they played larger schools. Basketball, you know, wasn’t a Big East. Basketball was a lot of the Catholic schools. St. John’s was the biggest rivalry. Georgetown. We had some terrific players while I was there. Right before I was there, Jim Washington went to NBA, the Melchionni brothers. One was ahead of me and one was behind me, Bob and Billy. One of my best friends to this day, Joe Turk, was a guard for Villanova and P.D. Coleman. So, they had great teams. The interesting fact was that the NIT was bigger than the NCAA. And teams, as Turk would explain to me, teams made a decision if offered both. And most teams chose to go to the NIT, which was always held over St. Patty’s Day weekend in New York City, which brought hundreds and hundreds of students from all over the country into New York City on St. Patty’s Day weekend, which was never a pretty sight. Never a pretty sight.
BROWN: [laughs] But I’m sure it was fun.
BRESTLE: Oh, it was great fun.
BROWN: Yeah, absolutely. So, let’s go back to your law school decision. So, you’re graduating, you have a degree, you’re actually a good student, you’re thinking law school. But all of a sudden, it’s draft decision time. So, talk to me a little bit about what that. What does that feel like when you get that notification?
BRESTLE: It’s interesting. And I think it’s in hindsight, it’s easier to talk about in hindsight than it was then because it was a draft. I mean, it was a government draft. I just have all the respect in the world for today’s military because it’s voluntary. And people who really want to do it, sign up for it. The difference back then was the draft brought a lot of people into the military who wanted nothing more than to get out of the military. So, the motivation and a lot of branches of the service, especially the Army back then, was different than it is today. The life expectancy for a second lieutenant in Vietnam, I think back then was eight weeks, nine weeks. And the odds were that you’d be shot in the back as much as you’re shot in the front. I mean, that’s sort of the taught conversation. But my choice of the Air Force was because I just thought that was a safer way to go. And I was planning on getting married that same year and just seemed like a safer route. The difference was in the Army, it was two-year commitment, and the Air Force was a four-year commitment. So, you’re making the decision of whether you’d put off your career or whatever that career would be for four years. That was probably the most difficult decision.
BROWN: So, you’re, again, you’re turning away from law school and you’re entering the Air Force. Where did you go to basic training?
BRESTLE: Yeah, basic training was in Stanton, Texas. And I went to my specialty, which in my case was called transportation back then, now it’s logistics. And that was in Wichita Falls, which if you haven’t been to Wichita Falls, Texas, just watched the movie The Last Picture Show and that’s Wichita Falls. I mean, the sidewalks are like 18 inches because of the water running down the streets.
BROWN: And how long was your schooling?
BRESTLE: Six months.
BROWN: And this is what year?
BRESTLE: This is now early ‘68. So, originally my first orders coming out of that school was to go to Scotland on a non-uniform tour to run the Air Force contingent on that civilian airbase. And primarily all they were doing was feeding the Navy into the submarine bases up there in Scotland. But the gentleman who had the job decided to stay and re-up. So, at the last minute, I was transferred to the Azores in Portugal. And back then, this is now 1968. A lot of the Reserve Air Force, and a lot of the Air Force, still couldn’t fly non-stop across the ocean. So, the Azores was a refueling stop for a lot of the Air Force reservists and a lot of the smaller Air Force planes, as well as a naval base for the P-3, the submarine hunters that the Navy uses. They still operate out of it, the same thing. So, I went there for two years. After four months, I brought my wife over, lived on the economy in Portugal, which was really interesting. Very primitive. Finally got base housing for a year. And I very much enjoyed it. In today’s world, I think it would be a little different because we are two now 22, 21-year-old people put in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and having a child without the support structure of family and friends. But in the Air Force, our most of the military, military becomes your friend. And the friends we met there were terrific, and everyone helped each other out.
BROWN: And so, what was it like for your wife being over there? Was she enjoying the time?
BRESTLE: Yeah, she enjoyed it when she got over there. I mean, she was 21, pregnant. You know, it’s tough without mom around, without sisters around. But I think she enjoyed it, and we met fabulous people. My commanding officer thought I was doing a good job and he put me in for an award. And that award was the outstanding transportation officer in the Air Force. Very nice award.
BRESTLE: And I won it in 1969. And they offered me to go to the University of Tennessee to get my master’s in logistics. The hook was for every month I went to school, I owed him three months of active duty. Now, I already have a four-year commitment. The two-year program at Tennessee would have given me six years on top of four. So, at 22 years old, I was making a decision whether I would stay in the service until I was 32. And I accepted the nice trophy. But I refused to go to school. So, a little bit of a hub bug.
BROWN: Sure. But most people then would take that. They would say, oh, thanks.
BRESTLE: To your master’s degree for free. It would’ve been very nice. But I turned it down. Unfortunately, or fortunately on hindsight, I don’t know how to measure it. I won the award next year. So that quote, the headline was, “The only guy to win it two years in a row.” It must have been my commanding officer was a good writer, I guess, because I don’t think I was that good. But he certainly made it sound that way. Anyway, this time was to the University of Illinois, same program. A two-year MBA program and a six-year commitment. And after my wife and I talked it over, my daughter now is just being born. We decided not to take it. And two weeks later, I got a TWX, which was the before email was a way to communicate from the cheapest after the Air Force. And I still have the letter at home saying that obviously, the tenant breast law, you need an attitude adjustment in the year in Vietnam should serve you well. And I was, as far as I know, I was the only guy ever to go from a European tour to a Southeast Asia tour without coming back to the U.S. Usually it’s two years in Europe, two years in the U.S. If you’re in Asia, two years in the U.S., two years in Europe.
BROWN: So, I think hearing this story so far, you went to be a teacher and the person interviewing you said you needed an attitude adjustment. And then you receive an award two years in a row and the person says you need an attitude adjustment. [laughs]
BRESTLE: No one ever put those two things together before. I’ve never been interviewed before like that. But putting those together, my wife would probably still say I need an attitude adjustment.
BROWN: All right, so now we have three people. [laughs]
BRESTLE: That’s probably the conclusion here, although I’m not appreciating you getting there. [laughs] It is probably the conclusion.
BROWN: So, you’re going now, again, I want to talk to you about how that made you feel. You’re now in the Azores, which is, you know, overseas duty, but it’s certainly not, you know, harmful to now being sent over to Vietnam. What’s going on?
BRESTLE: It was probably the scariest time for my wife more than me. Now my daughter, she’s one when we’re leaving the Azores in 1970 to go and I’m going to deposit them back in my hometown. So, they did on their own for a year. Again, it was the time before you had, you know, all the today’s conveniences for, you know, talking to people or emailing people or texting people or even all the FaceTime and the lack of communication. So, it was scary for her. I felt somewhat safe being Air Force versus in the Army. I have all the respect for the guys in the Army. They were out in the jungles that, the jungles of Vietnam, the darkness at night and things are just indescribable. But I started Bien Hoa was really my first assignment. And that was a primary responsibility was to bring all the troops in and then send the troops home and they were there after a year supporting the Army, which was a big, big base. Bien Hoa base was a big base, as well as two prisons. The Vietnamese prison and the U.S. prison. And did that. But no place was really safe. I mean, we would spend in a week, we would probably spend two or three nights a week in bunkers because at that time, I don’t know what the proper term is, but sappers. Guys would penetrate the base, plant bombs all over and you’d hear explosions all over and put your helmet on and dive into a bunker. And that’s the way you would sort of spend your night. Some bad scenes there. I must give kudos to the South Vietnamese, or South Koreans. We had the Vietnamese doing our perimeter for my first two or three months and we would get hit three or four times. I said two or three times a week. My second, third month in, the South Korean Armed Forces came in and they became the perimeter and separate, tappers stopped almost immediately. They were terrific. They were so much advanced to what the Vietnamese were as far as protection. I was doing that, and I think my attitude got better because I was requested to come down and visit a guy in Saigon named General John Herring. General Herring was in charge of all airlift aircraft in Southeast Asia. So that’s everything minus the fighter jets and bombers. He does all the airlift throughout from Japan all the way through. And he asked me to visit him, and he asked if I would be his aid to camp for a month because this Air Force, regular Air Force pilot who was his aid to camp went home for emergency leave. I think his mother died or someone died. So, I went down there to do that for a month. The officer came back, and General Herring put him on a plane and said, “You go get another job. I’m keeping Brestle as my aid,” which was a terrific experience because every weekend we’d jump in his jet and we would fly to Bangkok. Go to Philippines or Hong Kong. He had been in country for two years and wanted to see these places and visit some of his other commands before he went back to the States. So, we did that. Had some interesting experiences there. If there’s time, I’ll relate one to you.
BROWN: Yeah, absolutely please.
BRESTLE: You might find it interesting. This is we’re in fatigues. We fly into Taiwan and we’re there Friday night and I get a call from the ambassador’s office of Taiwan saying that the chief of staff of the Taiwanese Armed Forces would like to have dinner with you and General Herring, you’re coming the next night. And I said, “We’re sitting here in fatigues.” I mean, we can’t have dinner. He said, “No, we’ll have a tailor show up tomorrow morning. So, at eight o’clock next morning, the tailor walks in fits suits, what all the measurements necessary, and by four that afternoon General Herring and I have suits, ties, shirts. Amazing. And we invite to this dinner and if I can only describe it, if you’ve ever seen sort of the old Charlie Chan movies when this in your whole image of a Chinese general that weighs probably 220 pounds and is five foot nine. Six of these guys are sitting across from us and they all have their big fu man shoes and that’s the chief at it’s the head of the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Home Protection, whatever that was, plus the commander-in-chief. And we’re sitting down, it’s a 12-course meal around the—there’s 12 of us at the table. There are six guys with this white, Saki-type substance, which I’ve never drank since, but and so you couldn’t even get your glass out of your hand before you started filling it up. But before we sit down, we’re milling around, before we sit, we just sit down and the Chief of Staff asked, “Before we start dinner, we’d like to make a presentation.” Now that’s 1970. I’m 25 years old. And a board opens, probably the size of a small movie theater movie screen. And on that is the map of China with 50 white lights blinking, and General looks at me and I look at him and said, “What is this?” And this guy who’s my age, who’s described as an ace of the Taiwanese Air Force, because he has three big kills over the China Straits; and I didn’t even know that China and Taiwan were fighting but they were over the big straits. He starts a presentation on how Taiwan wants to invade mainland China. And the theory in 1970 is China is a country of peasants, and if you control communications, you can control the country. And each of these 50 dots represented newspapers, TV stations, radio stations around the country, and some military installations. They also claimed at that time that there’s still had one general who was still loyal to Chiang Kai-shek, and they thought that once they landed, he would turn for them. So, they were asking this, my general, again, in charge of all these aircraft, if they could have 120 C-130 aircraft for their power troopers and their advance force to land these guys. And I’m sitting there saying – can I curse here? Like, “Holy shit.” Like, we’re in Vietnam and it’s not going well, and these guys want to invade mainland China with a billion people, and I just started drinking more of that Saki stuff, if you can imagine. It was like crazy, crazy, crazy night. But I just I still have the picture of the ace of their Air Force that made the presentation. He’s probably the prime minister or something by now. And the dinner menu; it was just the most amazing experience that, listening to these guys who seriously thought that if we would give them the airlift capability to drop their power troopers, they could take over China. That was one of the I guess more interesting stories, but it was it was an experience. We got back in country and it was coming up to the general leaving and I’m probably now three years and two months in my commitment.
BROWN: And what’s your rank at this point?
BRESTLE: I’m captain. I became a captain and the general said, “You’re going to discharge you down when we land in San Francisco.” I said, “I have a wife, I have a child, I have $125 in the bank, no opportunity to interview for a job or get a job.” I said, “You can’t do that,” and for two weeks they sort of let me sit around sending messages back to my wife in these old tape recorders. We used to do tapes and she would have a tape at home, and I’d have a tape and play the tapes. And the finally brought it back in and said, “But if you agree to be a regular officer, that will give you your choice of any three bases in the United States, but you have to guarantee us at least two more years.” So that’s how I ended up spending seven years, almost seven years in the Air Force, because I accepted that so I could get back and at least get my life in order before I got out of the service. Oh, they also told me that if you have your arm blown off or die, you get double the benefits because you’re a regular officer then a reserve officer. So, now I am in the same status as an academy grad, that’s basically what it is. Only the academy grads – Air Force, Navy, Army – get to be regulars.
BROWN: So, let’s go back to Vietnam quickly. I want you to talk about what’s the climate like. What is your experience with that? Where are you living? In, you know, tents? Are you in barracks? And then talk to me about what you were eating on a daily basis, other than your 12-course meal that you had.
BRESTLE: It’s different which base. You know, if I talk about Bien Hoa, the Air Force officers were in single rooms in a barracks type environment. You know, you had your cot and an overhead fan, and the bathrooms down the hall, much like Villanova dormitory back then.
BROWN: Sure. [laughs]
BRESTLE: We were living in that, and if you looked across the street, you saw the Army guys living in tents with their latrines outside. So, that was right across the street, and we used to trade or hutch with them, and they used to trade with us taking us in the up in the helicopters on their night missions when they were doing their business with their Gatling guns, which was an experience. But on base was never that, you know, that much of an issue. Food was decent, food was decent. I had a lot of control and realized that as a captain running passenger service, I controlled who got on a plane and who got off a plane. So, I’m sitting there one day, and this marine captain walks in. And he has bolts, everything, he has M16. He has his gun, he said, “I want to go on the next plane home, Captain. Here’s my orders, I’ve been here 18 months. I want to go home.” I said, “Well, you have to go through the processing center. It’s over there in Bien Hoa army base. It takes about four or five days and then we can get you on a plane.” And he said, “Wait a minute.” He goes out and he comes back, and he puts a case of frozen steaks on my desk. I said, “Captain” – another captain – “I’m really, I just can’t.” He said, “One second,” goes out, comes back in, and puts a case of lobster tails on my desk. And I said, “There’s the three o’clock flight leaving.” [laugh] And he goes on the plane two hours later and got home that same day I think. But that’s the way things happen Vietnam. The difference, reflecting on today’s military and those military, is so many of the people back then were drafted. And there was no clear direction on whether we were going to win a war, could win a war, should win a war. Unfortunately, the motivating factor for most people in Vietnam was to survive 365 days and get you get back on the plane. So, everybody that got off a plane would be greeted by someone in their company with what they called “a short-timers calendar,” and usually it was a picture of a woman or some type of painting that had 365 blocks in it, and every day guys would fill in the blocks. And when that painting was done, that was their time to leave. So, it wasn’t like you were there to do a great job; you were there to survive 365 days and get home. And unfortunately, that was a prevailing attitude for an awful lot of people in Vietnam, an awful lot. I mean, there were some fine officers, fine enlisted guys. I mean, there were really career military, but so much was filled in by the drafted individual that, unlike today where everyone’s a volunteer, it was a different environment and obviously, it didn’t turn out very well for us or for the South Vietnamese.
BROWN: Correct, so I think now you’re giving them another two years, right? At the end. So, where did you go and why did you pick— you get a choice of three bases.
BRESTLE: Yeah, three bases. One was in Tampa, one was in Homestead Air Force base, and one was in the Carolinas. And I selected Homestead Air Force base, right south of Miami, which has now been wiped out. I think one of the hurricanes wiped it out. Maybe it’s a NASCAR track or something now, but I went to the Homestead Air Force base, and my wife and I moved down. I did, like most ex-officers at that’s done, you start to start the interview route, get back into the real world. And I interviewed with a half dozen companies, and finally selected Johnson & Johnson, which is headquartered in New Brunswick, New Jersey. That was the closest company that offered me a job close to a beach and you know, having the roots of Atlantic City, I just really feel like I need to have an ocean near me. So, I figured if I was successful at Johnson & Johnson, I’d always be in New Jersey, and therefore near the beach. So, I took the job with Johnson & Johnson and their distribution. I think I had a decent career there. I was promoted five times in five years. I went from distribution to an industrial engineer, I ran one of their plants that made all their test market quantities of things. I ran their band-aid mill; we used to make 17 million band-aids a day.
BRESTLE: I was one of two mills. So, that was in ’73, ’74, they were making 34 million band-aids a day. One guy and one lady pulling the band-aids off the feed would make a thousand band-aids a minute on these machines.
BROWN: Wow, that’s impressive.
BRESTLE: It was like machine gun bolts. I mean, these things were coming out at a rate so incredible, but Johnson & Johnson I have nothing but great things to say. Great company, great people. Every place I looked; they looked like me. I mean, their theory back then was, if you were an Air Force officer, if you’re a military officer, it was a leg up. And if you had kids, it was two legs up because they know they could work you to death and you couldn’t walk away because you had responsibilities. So, everybody I worked with for the first couple of years were all, you know, guys who looked just like me: Marines and Army, Navy, and they all had a couple of kids and worked there. A lot of bitterness at the beginning, realizing now I’m 27, 28 coming out of the military. A lot of people had reasons not to be drafted. You know, they had psoriasis, they had a trick knee, they had a doctor, and they had a father who was a mayor. They had a lot of different reasons to you get out. I usually describe Vietnam as a poor man’s war because people who had money figured out ways to get out of it. You know, they joined the National Guard. And back then, the National Guard was never deployed. You know, the National Guard just sat home and drilled every couple weekends. So, every boss I had for probably the first five years of my career was all five and six years younger than me. The only thing I had on them was my hair started to grey early, so I looked older than I was. But everything worked well, it really did. They treated me nicely and then I had the opportunity, this is probably – I’m getting lost on my dates here – in the early ‘80s, late ‘70s, and they offered me a job in charge of customer service for Johnson & Johnson for their band aid and other divisions. But it was in Illinois, but it was a big promotion. I am 30 plus years old; I can’t afford a home because I never had any money for a down payment. New Jersey never had the GI Bill, so my wife and I decided if we go to Illinois, they honored the GI bill, so I could get a down payment, get a home without a down payment, and what’s what we did. We transferred and took the job in Illinois. We lived in a place called Bowling Brook, outside of Chicago, got our first home, and experienced the first terrible Midwest winter I’ve ever experienced. And I worked there for 18 months before my wife looked at me and said, “There’s no ocean here.” I said I know. The lake’s a nice lake, but that’s a big lake; it’s not an ocean. And the winters were so brutal, we just decided to see what we could do to get back to the east coast. And headhunters are calling me, and this guy called and said he had a job as a distribution manager for a company named Aramis. And I had no clue what Aramis was, who it was. My wife, to make extra money, was an Estee Lauder contingent during holidays at Christmas, and she would go and work the Estee Lauder counter. So, she whispered in my ear Aramis was the men’s division of the Estee Lauder company. I took the interview, came back, their offices were in northern New Jersey, as close as I could get. So, in 1978, I joined the Estee Lauder company as the head of distribution for the men’s division, thinking that – there’s the attitude issue again, I’m not sure on hindsight –
BRESTLE: But thinking that when I got back that I would then start interviewing again, get a real job with one of the big pharmaceutical companies like J&J. But 34 years later, I never got a real job. So, we still live in the same town, which is like three miles from the plant in Oakland New, Jersey. So, it turned out to be a tremendous career, interesting career. I mean, when you’re in ladies cosmetics and, you know, nine out of ten people work for you, work with you, are women. And you come out of a lifeguard, all boys basically, an all-boys school, military. If I got asked once, I got asked a million times, what’s the difference in having all these women and all these men work for you. It’s just crazy, I’m not sure I can tell you the difference. [laughs] But the way I explain it sometimes, in all due respect to the ladies in the office, if you have a problem. Let’s say the guy and the woman make the same mistake. You walk in the guy’s office, you rant and rave, you argue, argues with you, “You made a mistake.” Okay, walk out, it’s over. Walk in the lady’s office, same argument, more polite, less swearing, much gentler, and you think it’s over, and you walk away, everything’s fine. Two weeks later, she walks in your office and says, “I want to tell you why I did that,” and you say, “Did what?” Because, in my experience, many of the women I work with let bad decisions linger and didn’t sort of dismiss them and get rid of it. And now again, this is early, early. Sort of one of the trends that ladies sort of have guys don’t. They don’t have to go quick enough. I’ve pondered why for years. I realized this is Gloria Steinem, this is women equality; the woman who started our company is still running our company. If I’m president of division, there’s two other presidents, different division, all women. So, I mean, I’ve worked with women in my whole senior life, and it certainly has changed over the years, but there was a difficulty with that.
BROWN: Sure, so what were some of the things that you did from, you know, an Estee Lauder standpoint? I’m sure you’re getting questions about, you’re in a women’s cosmetic industry.
BRESTLE: Let me tell you what I did; and you won’t understand it because you won’t know any of these brands. See now, if Leanne was interviewing me, she’d go, “Oh yeah I know that brand,” but you don’t. I was in their manufacturing and did some good things there. I built a computerized warehouse and did a lot of good things there. But a gentleman I met, who was the general manager of the Aramis division offered me a job doing sales and marketing. And coming out of Villanova, that’s what I thought I was going to do. I thought I was going to go in sales and marketing. So, in ’82, I picked up my family and we moved to Florida and went into sales and marketing; and was fortunate, eight months later, promoted back to New York City to be the head sales manager for a new brand they were starting called Prescriptive. And that sort of set me off of my career in sales and marketing. So, I got into that in ‘82 and left in 2011, so that’s how long I was there. I went from sales manager in Prescriptive to the president of Prescriptive. And I was the president of a brand called Clinique for eight year, nine years. I was president of a brand called Estee Lauder for three years. Then became a group president, which meant I had multiple brands working for me. They included MAC, Bobbi Brown, Creme de la Mer, Jo Malone. When I joined Estee Lauder, there were three brands doing 320 million dollars worldwide; when I left, there were 17 brands doing six billion dollars. So, I’d lived through that whole growth of that company and the acquisition of a lot of brands.
BRESTLE: After that, I became chief operating officer for the corporation and my last few years, I was chairman of North America. So, everything happening in North America came under me. So, nice career great people, all had had a lot of good times, and obviously it worked out for me, and I hope I did a good job for that company.
BROWN: Sure. If you were to say to someone today, who were to ask you, “Do you think I should join the military,” what would you tell them?
BRESTLE: I think it sort of depends on their own circumstances, their own maturity level. How they feel about themselves. A lot of people don’t need the military, they don’t need that discipline; they don’t need that in their life. I, probably until I was 35, didn’t realize all the things the military did for me. I mean, there was a maturity to it, there’s an ability to present to people, there was a responsibility. I had millions and millions of dollars of responsibility, you know, before I was 23 years old. For me, it really took me from sort of this Atlantic City, small town mentality to I think seeing a bigger picture. Seeing that I could do a lot more with my life. For me, in hindsight, it was probably the best thing that happened to me. Going through it was the worst, but it sort of positioned me to be able to lead people. And I think that when you get into conversations about skills, one of the skills that people don’t respect enough is leadership skills. There’s a difference about leadership than just being smart. You don’t have to be the smartest guy in the room to be a leader; you just have to have a skill of motivating people to sort of march in the same direction, and the military gave me that. It really gave me that ability to bring groups of people, as diverse as you can imagine in the cosmetic business, all the backgrounds. You can imagine, I mean working in New York City for 30 years, but your ability to make them all move in the same direction with the same motivation, the same aims and goals, I think it’s a skill that the military helped me develop.
BROWN: And then today, you’re still connected to Villanova. You’re still loving the basketball team. Talk to me about what Villanova has meant to you as well.
BRESTLE: Well, it’s sort of a central focus because I was lucky enough to have my brother went here ahead of me. His two sons came here; my daughter graduated from here. So, it’s a sort of a central point for a lot of our conversations. Obviously now, since ’16, well since about 2012, basketball has been a big part of it. But it’s a sort of unifying thing that we have going out through my family. My wife is absolutely sick of Villanova basketball.
BRESTLE: I mean, she said if I bring one more hat home, she’s going to throw them all out. I have to have a special shirt on when I watch away games. You know, I mean it’s a little sick.
BROWN: Sure, sure.
BRESTLE: But the school has been that sort of unifying factor that it’s been part of my life, and I still have, as I said, I still have 12 friends. Excuse me, we have 11 friends now, one passed away that we get together every June and we play golf together. And they’re all fraternity brothers that all went their separate lives. We probably see each other once a year, maybe sometimes we’re lucky, we get together a couple of us for Christmas lunch or dinner. But it’s that one thing that kept us together and when you see these guys that you have so much in common with. As I said, we all did different things with our lives, but when we get together, it’s like you’re with your brother. You sort of pick it up and just go from there. And my wife is part of it. My wife didn’t go to school here, but we were dating the whole time I was here. So, my roommate’s wife and her best friend still, and she’s part of the whole Villanova scene. Although she doesn’t want to hear about basketball, she’s part of the scene.
BROWN: [laughs] Well, good. Well Dan, I appreciate you coming in here today and telling your story. I think it’s, you know, we teased about your attitude adjustment, but at the end of the day, what I heard was you have you learned a lot and took a lot from your time in the military. Even though maybe during that moment, you were you know – I’m not sure if this is the right fit— but afterwards, I think you took away from it like, “Wow this helped me define who I am as a human being.” It helped you mature and develop some characteristics that you took with you professionally, which is great. Also your love for Villanova, which is fantastic to hear, from the pie shop to the Finn.
BRESTLE: Yeah, I can still make a good milkshake, but my wife doesn’t let me drink them anymore, but I can make them good. Yeah, I think through life, different experiences teach you different things. And as Villanova was a four-year experience, and the military a six-year experience, I don’t think anyone can segment out what did what or what drove what. But it’s like a mosaic, and all of a sudden that’s who you become, that’s what you are. I think that Villanova and the military were just big, big part of developing what I became. And I made them proud. I don’t know, but I hope I did.
BROWN: Well, I think so. I think I’m glad that Taiwan did not invade mainland China as well.
BRESTLE: I’m glad too. I am, and I never had a glass of Saki since. I’m telling you, that was a bad night.
BROWN: [laughs] Well, thanks again, Dan for coming in. We really appreciate it and I hope you have a good rest of your day.
BRESTLE: Thank you, thank you.
BROWN (OUTRO): That concludes this installment of the Voices of Villanova’s Veterans, a joint project of the Villanova University Office of Veterans and Military Service Members, and Falvey Memorial Library’s Distinctive Collections and Digital Engagement Departments. Thank you for listening. For more information and to listen to more interviews, please visit us online at veteransvoices.library.villanova.edu.