‘Get out there and challenge yourself to be better’: Building on decades of business leadership through education
For many people, it can take years to find the right career path. They may try their hands at all sorts of work, realizing time and time again that it isn’t the right fit before finally discovering the career for them.
That’s not the case for Dan Wooldridge. He got it right on the first try.
“No one grows up saying they’re going to work at a restaurant for 40 years,” Dan says. “I wasn’t even going to work at a restaurant. But I found a cute little company that’s been around a hundred years — they’re family-owned, they treat you like family, and I just found my niche.”
At 17 years old — still in high school — Dan took a job at a relatively small but growing family-owned hamburger chain whose name you have no doubt heard: White Castle. The chain had only recently begun using a new innovation in fast food, the drive-through, and would soon hit national and mainstream pop culture by being name-checked in songs by the Beastie Boys and the Smithereens, according to its website.
Meanwhile, Dan would find near-immediate success in the organization, receiving promotion after promotion and settling into a decades-long career as he moved into the corporate side of the restaurant business, eventually pursuing his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business from Maryville University.
For both Dan and White Castle, times were good, but the best was yet to come.
I should model the behavior I expect
When Dan graduated from high school, he already saw his career arc ahead of him. He was excelling in his job and was poised to move on to bigger and better things in the company’s corporate structure. A college education wasn’t immediately necessary, so it wasn’t a priority. He enjoyed a fruitful career that had an enormous impact on his life. In fact, Dan met his wife while working at White Castle.
“She was my trainer back then,” he recalls. “And she’s still trying to train me.” They’ve been married for 30 years and have raised three daughters.
As time went on, Dan moved up to become a senior training and development manager whose responsibilities include helping open new locations and training employees at all levels of management — from store-level through vice president. He decided it was time to upskill.
Dan began to wonder what insights, information, and strategies a college degree might bring that would help him reach his full potential in the organization. Ultimately, he found inspiration in his daughters, each of whom had a successful college career — two becoming doctors and one going into digital marketing.
“At the time, I was putting my kids through college, so I thought I should model the behavior that I expect. I always preached to them graduating high school was a stepping stone,” he says. “That’s what really encouraged me to go back to school and get my degree. I saw them being successful at it, so I thought I should do it too. And then my wife went back after me, and she got her degree as well.”
He needed a university that would give him the high-quality business education to grow in his career while also working around his personal obligations. Maryville fit the bill.
“Fifteen to 20 years into my career, I realized I was missing that education piece, and I was exploring schools that would fit with my scheduling,” he says. “Maryville had this wide variety of class offerings for weekends and evenings. And that worked out really well for me.”
Maximizing his time with Early Access
As he was earning his bachelor’s degree, Dan benefited greatly from the personalized attention he received from his counselor, Jeannie DeLuca. She helped him decide on business administration as his major — he had also considered criminal justice and computer science — because it fit in with his career trajectory and goals. She also helped him find the right classes that would work around his schedule and give him the most benefit. She was an invaluable advocate for his academic and professional success.
“I’m not sure I would have made it through that program without her assistance,” he says.
Jeannie also introduced Dan to Maryville’s Early Access program, which helped him plan the next step in his academic career. Through Early Access, Maryville undergraduate students can take up to four classes — 12 credit hours — that count toward their bachelor’s and master’s degrees simultaneously. Dan knew he wanted to pursue his MBA, and Early Access allowed him to finish about one-third of his graduate-level coursework before completing his undergraduate degree.
Dan initially had reservations about the program, concerned that the graduate-level courses might be too advanced for him. But his hesitation was quickly abated after just one class.
“At first, I thought, can I do this? How much tougher are these classes?” he says. “But after the first one, I thought, gosh darn, what a great opportunity. It provided some financial relief, it got me ahead in my MBA, and I got through my MBA program in a year and a half.
“It’s just a great program, and I think, looking back on it, it gives people the incentive to continue their education.”
At first, I thought, can I do this? How much tougher are these classes? But after the first one, I thought, gosh darn, what a great opportunity. It provided some financial relief, it got me ahead in my MBA, and I got through my MBA program in a year and a half.
Fast food burger chain White Castle celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2021, and Dan has built his career with the iconic brand for almost 40 of those years.
Dan has turned one of his favorite hobbies into a successful side gig — and a relaxing retirement plan — by starting his own lawn services company.
A business education with real-world results
For Dan, one of the best aspects of Maryville’s Master of Business Administration program was the fact that the classes were taught by experienced practitioners from the real-world business landscape.
“I absolutely had some fantastic instructors,” he says. “I think I could relate to them because they were working professionals as well. They did their Monday to Friday, 9-5 job, and then they’d take their time in the evening to teach me. I respected that and I appreciated it.”
As a long-term professional within just one company, Dan found their breadth of knowledge and expertise refreshing and insightful, and he was able to take what he learned and bring a new perspective to his teams at White Castle. In fact, one of his financial services professors changed his perspective on what finance could be — and opened up a new interest in the subject.
“If I would have taken her class when I was 19 or 20 years old, it probably would have changed the course of my career, because she made finance so interesting,” Dan says.
Dan also benefited from other professors like Tim Burke, who was his capstone professor during both undergraduate and graduate studies. Professor Burke is a longtime industry practitioner who was able to bring his many years of experience into the classroom to inform Dan’s views on business and inspire him to bring new concepts to his team.
But his professors weren’t the only ones from whom he learned. Dan says his interactions with his colleagues and classmates, many of whom also hailed from the business world, helped refresh his understanding of what his business could and should be. Dan was able to bring what he learned into his work with new ideas and strategies all the time.
“We created some new programs, we changed our thinking, we strategized a little differently,” he says. “My company was probably exhausted when I was in my MBA program, because I had five new ideas I was pitching to them every week.”
Even with so much experience and knowledge under his belt, Dan still found plenty left to learn, and his time working with his professors and colleagues was instrumental in helping him become the well-rounded business professional he is today.
“Getting my degree at Maryville really taught me to think more globally,” Dan says. “When you work at a company for so long, you think within the four walls of that company. Getting my degree really opened my eyes to what was going on in the world and other businesses. It was a very enlightening experience for me.”
Preparing for the present — and planning for the future
Dan has always been driven to succeed. His skill at motivating teams, interest in strategy, and passion for working with people help make him a consummate professional — in both his day job at White Castle and his side gig running his own lawn service company.
Today, he even teaches an organizational behavior course for Maryville informed by his own experience and what his professors once taught him. He says two words that stuck with him from his Maryville education are “rigorous” and “relevant” — words he uses to guide him any time he trains staff at White Castle or teaches a new class at Maryville.
He also brings his people skills to his classes.
“That people side of business – if you don’t know how to manage people, excite people, motivate people, you are going to have a hard time being successful,” he says.
Now with his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, Dan has a wealth of new business knowledge from which to draw as he continues his career. Of course, he’s eventually eyeing retirement to spend time with his family — and stay active with his lawncare business. It’s a fitting reward for four decades of service and dedication to his career and the people whose careers and lives he touched.
“The respect that I’ve earned and how people interact with me and value my opinion – that’s important to me,” he says. “I want to leave a little bit of a legacy behind when I leave my career: Dan helped us move the needle on these projects or made the company just a little bit better.”
Dan has devoted his career — and his life — to helping others improve. From training management and helping build teams at White Castle to supporting his daughters through college and encouraging them to be successful, he’s left his mark by helping others be better.
To him, it’s all part being brave.
“If I had to define being brave, it’s just don’t be afraid to take chances. Be yourself, but get out there and challenge yourself to be better. Challenge yourself to be around people who will make you better.”
If you’re ready to see how Maryville Online can help you be brave and pursue your educational and professional goals, we’re here for you. Check out our online bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and doctorate degrees, or schedule a call with an advisor today.
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