A Growing Field: 9/11 Remembered - An Interview with Mark Hoog

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by Linda M Potter

Once you meet Captain Mark Hoog, it’s unlikely you’ll ever forget him. As a 22-year veteran of United Airlines, Hoog was personally and professionally impacted by the events of September 11, 2001. But this charismatic, upbeat man with the infectious smile doesn’t want to talk about that day — not because of the painful memories, but because he consciously chooses to not look back. He’d rather focus on the future, he says, on the good that can come out of the rubble of one of the most devastating disasters in U.S. history.

The author of a series of empowering inspirational books for children, and a nationally sought-after motivational speaker, Captain Hoog walks his talk. His enthusiasm and optimistic view of the future, for both our youth and our nation, is more than just contagious: spending an hour with Mark makes you want to go out and change the world. And that’s exactly what he’d like you to do.

LP: It’s been ten years since 9/11. It grabbed our attention like no single event had done in most of our lifetimes. There was so much focus on what we could do to change, to make sure something like this never happened again. But then time passes, people go on with their lives, and we miss the opportunity to learn something from the experience.

MH: You are 100 percent right about how people quickly forget. It’s human nature. I don’t think you can change that. But you can raise awareness; you can raise consciousness. At the end of the day that’s my hope with my children’s book series. People want to go back (and the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 won’t be any different) and relive the fear, the anxiety and emotion. My hope is that we finally say, HOLD IT, and ask, how do we take what happened and use that bad event as a catalyst to move forward and evolve. That’s the challenge.

Linda Potter: Your story is powerful; your association with 9/11 is personal. Could you share some of the backstory, your connection with the late Captain Jason Dahl, and how things played out that September ten years ago?

Mark Hoog: It all started years earlier during a check ride. They’re usually always very technical — about airplanes and procedures and policies, etc. However, Captain Dahl opened the check ride with two questions. “Mark,” he says, “my life experience tells me that people talk about other people for one of four reasons: because you’re dying, because you’re dead, because you’re one of the best in your field, or because you’re one of the worst. No one cares about the middle. My question for you is, why don’t I hear people talking about you? You’re the youngest guy we’ve hired at United, the youngest captain. There’s a chance for you to make a huge impact everywhere you go. Yet, I’ve never heard of you. How come?”

When he saw that I didn’t have a good answer, his second question was, “Why should you get to stay? You’re in a leadership position, and you’re choosing not to do anything with it.” His questions were meant to get me to look at things differently, to choose to make a difference, to make a contribution somewhere. I started doing things differently as a result of those two questions.

LP: You later ended up working with Captain Dahl, didn’t you?

MH: Yes. I was asked to become an evaluator. When I showed up for training, I found out that the same man who had asked me those two questions early in my career, and inspired me to do things differently, was going to be my mentor.

LP: Did those questions you say so profoundly impacted your life, continue to come up as you became closer friends with Captain Dahl?

MH: Yes. When we were working together, it didn’t matter what we were talking about; it could have been family; it could have been community; it could have been coaching kids’ sports teams. His question was always the same. “What are you doing?” Then he’d say, “Maybe I can use some of your best coaching ideas with the kids I coach.” Or, “What about your community? Maybe I can use your best ideas down here in Denver,” and so on. Every time you saw him, he talked about how to do things better, how to make a difference.

We worked together for a number of years, and in August of 2001 he came to see me. I’d just been promoted, and he was the first one to knock on my door to say, “Congratulations.” Then he added with a smile, “People are talking.” And I asked him, “Do you have any idea the difference you made in my life so many years ago with your two questions?

He responded, “You know what, we’re all dying; it’s just that some of us know that and we’re doing something about it. Most people can’t be bothered.” He talked for a while and then left. But before he walked away, he stuck his head back in to say one more thing: “Don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them. You never know when it’ll be your last chance.” Two weeks later on September 11, 2001, he went down. He was the Captain of United Flight 93, the one that crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.

LP: September 11, 2001, is one of those days where people remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when the news of the attacks broke. How did that day unfold for you?

MH: On the morning of 9/11, I was getting ready to fly to Seattle when my boss called and asked me to pack a bag for two weeks and fly to New York to dig through the rubble with the fire fighters. When Jason’s plane went down, they took me off New York and sent me to his house to tell his wife and son he’d gone down.

LP: Captain Dahl clearly inspired you in so many ways. Did 9/11 motivate you to take what you learned from him one step farther?

MH: My company, the Growing Field, was named after the crash site of Flight 93. I felt the point was to learn and grow from the crash. So, that’s where it all started. At the funeral, his son read a Dr. Seuss book to eulogize him. It was called the Sleep Book. This teenager could have talked about cars, flying lessons, nice vacations, a big home. Instead, he took the stage and said, “My father never ever missed a chance to read to me. Every night he was home, we read a book together.” So he reads the Sleep Book cover to cover for everyone, and then says, “Good night, Dad,” and walks off the stage.

What I think he was saying is his dad never missed a chance. As a parent, a spouse, a boss, an employee, a member of a community — don’t miss a chance to do whatever it is that you’re here to do. Too many people get caught up in what’s not working, what could have been, might have been, should have been… And because of that we miss our chance.

LP: It’s interesting that instead of writing a book about your 9/11 experience, you chose to write inspirational books for children.

MH: I didn’t choose anything. It chose me. It came to me about two years after 9/11. During those two years, we [pilots] took big pay cuts and lost benefits. As a result we lost the home we were living in and had to start over financially.

I just woke up one night during this time when my life was falling apart, and I had a quote in my head: “Show me a man who has lost all he has, and I’ll show you all that he is.” So I went to my computer journal that I keep for my kids and I went through 600 pages of quotes from Aristotle to Plato, to… you name it. I couldn’t find it. It turns out the quote was my own. So I closed my eyes and about 15 minutes later book one was done. Over two months, all six books were written. The only thing I take credit for was listening.

LP: You’ve become somewhat of a celebrity since 9/11. Has the continued focus on the tragedy of 9/11 helped or hindered your ability to spread your message of hope, possibility and empowerment?

MH: A while back, I got a call from a reporter at a Denver television station. They had done a story on me years ago. And she says, “We want to do a feature on you. Are you speaking anytime soon?” So she comes to hear me speak with a bunch of third graders, and when I finish she pulls me aside and says, “You didn’t talk about airplanes crashing or buildings coming down or anything.” Well, yeah, they were third graders. My mission is to get them thinking about their possibility, not the drama of a few of years ago.

She called me again after Bin Laden was killed, wanting to know if I have a statement, and I said, “You know what, tomorrow will be a day on the news where everyone talks about 9/11 and fear, anxiety and uncertainty, and that’s still not my message. I am still talking about possibility and hope and the fact that every one of us has a gift to give. When the news cycle decides to make 9/11 and capturing Osama Bin Laden about that, give me a call. Until then I have no comment.”

LP: As someone who was personally affected by 9/11, how would you like to see this event remembered?

MH: First of all, my story is not unique. There are plenty of people who have used 9/11 to basically say, life is short at best and now I get it. They’ve found a way to move forward with their life dream as I did. Wouldn’t it be neat if 9/11 became about sharing those stories, about moving forward, about how an event like this evolves us, how it moves us, how it inspires us? What a great day that would make 9/11.

LP: I know you have “no comment” on Bin Laden’s death, but do you think that maybe this is at least an opportunity to get closure and focus on what’s possible rather than what’s been?

MH: Maybe in the short term. The path I’m on now is figuring out what we can do to change people long term. Where the book series has taken me is figuring out a way to start changing our youth. What if we start working with kids when they’re three or four years old? What if we helped them understand, explore, develop their own “possibility” and learn how to pursue that?

LP: How do you think we can accomplish that?

MH: The self-help industry is a 15-billion-dollar industry focused on 35-45 year olds. This whole demographic has sons, daughters, nieces, etc. dying for this same message. My mission is to start creating a new industry around youth self-help. Let’s serve it with excellence and start helping our youngest generation become our next greatest generation. It’s time to start inspiring them, encouraging them, showing them their greatness and what they’re capable of. What I’m doing is not just about books for kids. Our mission is to become the company that identifies and serves that message for youth.

LP: The focus of your company seemed initially to be totally on kids. Your book series has been lovingly called, “Tony Robbins meets Dr. Seuss.” Now that you’ve expanded your message to include adults, is the adult message any different?

MH: I’d say it’s 50-50 right now between schools and corporate America, which includes educational conferences. Do I have a different message for them? Yes and no. My message is always the Growing Field message.

I started speaking in elementary schools. Then junior high schools started calling, then high schools, then colleges. I didn’t change my message, but you can’t talk to a college freshman like you talk to a third grader. My message matured. Then corporate America started calling. So I took it up one more notch, and I call it conscious leadership. My corporate message is the Growing Field message on steroids. Do I have more than one message? No. Do I have different deliveries? Yes.

Mark Hoog makes his home in Northern Colorado. To date he has released four of the books in his six-book series for children: Your Song, Dream Machine, Field of Dreams and Treasure Island. (Magic Mountain and The Gift are still to come.)

Accolades for his book series include an endorsement from President William Jefferson Clinton who commented on Hoog’s second book, saying: “Mark Hoog’s book delivers an important message to young readers: if a dream is worth having, it’s worth working for. If you believe in yourself and are dedicated to achieving your goals, you can accomplish anything – all it takes is hard work and determination. I encourage you to follow the example of the children in Dream Machine and make your dreams come true.”

Richard Riley, U.S. Secretary of Education wrote: “A Walk through Mark Hoog’s Growing Field series is a wonderful and creative way for any adult to help grow a child’s self-esteem, character and love of reading. Everyone can benefit from the seeds to be found in the Growing Field.”

Hoog’s product line for youth has taken root in the Growing Field as well and now includes a personal growth and leadership book series, Growing Field Greeting Cards, Growing Field leadership journal and Letters from Katrina.

Linda M. Potter is a popular speaker and the author of the newly released book, If Only God Would Give Me a Sign! available at your local book store, through Amazon.com or at wordkeepersinc.com. You can contact her at lindampotter@comcast.net, www.lindampotter.com.