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Donald R. Keough: 1926-2015

Donald R. Keough, one of the giant figures in the history of a company that has had many larger-than-life characters, died early Tuesday at the age of 88.

Keough served as president of Coca-Cola from 1981 to 1993, which was a period of unprecedented growth for the company. But his tenure with the organization really stretches from 1950 through 2013, an astounding 63 years. His legacy includes shaping The Coca-Cola Company as it is today, along with his service to countless other companies and organizations.

We took a look back at some of the major moments in Keough’s life, from his early days on television in Omaha to his later role as influential philanthropist.

Omaha Days

Keough was born Sept. 4, 1926, in Maurice, Iowa, and grew up in Sioux City. After two years in the Navy during World War II, he returned to the Midwest to attend college at Creighton University in Omaha. After graduation, he started a career as a talk-show host on television in Omaha. He had a TV show called “The Coffee Counter.” It was followed by a program featuring another newcomer: An entertainer named Johnny Carson, who would become more than a little famous. Keough grew tired of the TV business, though, and in 1950 took a job with Paxton & Gallagher, which made Butter-Nut Coffee, a sponsor of his show. From then on, Keough never worked for a different company ever again – Butter-Nut was acquired by Duncan Foods, which was purchased by Coca-Cola in 1960. Keough remained friends with another former neighbor from Omaha’s Farnam Street: Warren Buffett. Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway owns a major stake in Coca-Cola, and Buffett was a longtime Coke board member.

Keough and Goizueta

Keough rose through the ranks at Coca-Cola and, in 1981, took a key leadership post that made him part of a unique duo. From 1981 to 1993, the company was led by Keough, as president, chief operating officer and director, and by legendary Chairman and CEO Roberto Goizueta. In 1993, when Keough retired, Goizueta joked that their great business partnership “was built on the fact that we have both always been very unhappy with The Coca-Cola Company. We live unhappy.”

Keough added, “I’ve never been anywhere that’s perfect. I’ve never seen a market or a store or a presentation that couldn’t be improved.” Keough stayed involved with the company post-retirement, and returned to a formal role on the board of directors in 2004. He also held many other leadership roles in business, including as chairman of the board of Allen & Company, a New York investment banking firm. He joined Allen & Company the day after he retired from The Coca-Cola Company.

Keough Intensity

Keough was famous for his warm speaking style, his ability to connect with audiences – and for his toughness. Some called it the “Irish wind.” One journalist described him as having a “jet engine voice.” Keough said he was “absolutely intolerant” of mediocrity or a lack of ideas.

“I have always believed that most humans operate at about 10 percent of our true capacity,” he said. “So with my close associates I’ve tried to turn up the dial on that to about 95 percent.”

New Coke

Coca-Cola remains famous for one of the most controversial decisions in the history of business – the introduction of New Coke. That move, in 1985, sparked a firestorm of protest. It didn’t take long for Goizueta and Keough to reintroduce the original formula. Keough was tapped to deliver Coca-Cola’s mea culpa at a press conference and in a national TV commercial, and it made him something of a star.

"Some critics will say Coca-Cola made a marketing mistake," he said. "Some cynics will say that we planned the whole thing. The truth is we are not that dumb, and we are not that smart."

Notre Dame

Keough had a very close relationship with the University of Notre Dame. Five of his six children went to Notre Dame. Keough received an honorary degree from the school in 1985, followed by the university’s highest honor, the Laetare Medal, in 1993. His wife, Marilyn “Mickie” Keough, received a Notre Dame honorary degree in 1998. In 2014, Notre Dame announced it would create the first new college or school at the university in nearly a century: the Donald R. Keough School of Global Affairs. The establishment of the school, along with the construction of Jenkins Hall to house it, was made possible by gifts totaling $50 million from the Keoughs. Notre Dame said the Keoughs rank among the most generous benefactors in university history. Construction of Jenkins Hall is expected to begin soon.

Leadership Academy

When Keough retired from Coca-Cola’s board of directors in 2013, the Company decided to develop a new leadership program modeled on his legacy. The six-week program is called the Donald R. Keough System Leadership Academy, and it started with 26 Coca-Cola executives from 17 countries.

At the kickoff of the academy, Coca-Cola Chairman and CEO Muhtar Kent said: “Don knows our business like few have ever dreamed of knowing it, and he has a passion for the specialness of Coca-Cola that’s unmatched. In other words, he has all the ‘head’ knowledge and all the ‘heart’ knowledge.”

Click the graphic below for a full-screen photo gallery honoring Keough's life, career and impact:

Watch a video tribute here: