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Alumni Profile: Allen Exner

If you want to know what the legends of rock and pop music are like in person, catch Allen Exner in a spare moment and he’ll give you the scoop. Exner, a Capitol alumnus and the university’s director of academic computing, has met many of them.

“Jerry Garcia was a great person, a very warm, funny, friendly kind of guy, who never held a grudge or anything like that,” Exner says. “He’s somebody I still miss.” He also knew Joni Mitchell (“I absolutely adored her”), the Jackson Five, James Taylor, Alice Cooper and Ozzy Osborne.

In those days, during the late sixties and seventies, music wasn’t the multibillion-dollar industry it later became. Independent labels flourished alongside the bigger ones that would later swallow them up. Record companies got their products into stores via music distributors; that was where Exner came in. Working for a distributor based on the East Coast, it was his job to find out what new, great songs were being recorded and to get those songs onto the radio and into stores.

Today, meeting Exner in the hallway or at his desk in the IT department, you wouldn’t guess that he once sported a 70s-style perm, or that he used to party into the night with Stevie Wonder. Exner today wears his hair short and is typically attired in a cardigan. He left the music industry Iin the 1980s, worn out by the lifestyle and disillusioned with the industry’s increasing commercialism.

“It wasn’t fun anymore,” Exner says. “It became less about the music, less about everyone having a good time, and more about how much money people could make. I had been a promoter, taking artists around to radio stations to do interviews, convincing people to listen to their songs, but now I was a salesman. And I didn’t enjoy that as much.”

The mom-and-pop record stores were disappearing, replaced by big chains; the independent labels were going under or being acquired by the majors, and Exner was looking for a new career. He took an electronics class at a local community college and saw a poster advertising Capitol Institute of Technology, as today’s Capitol Technology University was then known. He decided to enroll.

Capitol, as it still does today, placed great emphasis on helping students find good-quality jobs upon graduation. The school maintained close links with industry, including companies such as NEC. Exner’s Capitol connections helped open doors for him; he soon landed a job with NEC America and later moved to Patton Electronics, a local firm.

He worked at Patton for several years. And then, in another unexpected twist, he found himself back at Capitol, as part of the school’s IT department. With the digital revolution in full swing, computer and network facilities have played an increasingly critical role in the academic environment at Capitol, and Exner’s knowhow and experience have helped the school steer a steady course.

He is a strong believer in Capitol’s approach to education, saying that he himself has experienced the benefits. Although he had started a college degree earlier in his life, prior to working in the music business, he found the class sizes too large, the academic environment too impersonal, and the campus culture too full of distractions.

Capitol, he says, provides an environment that is more focused on the individual student and an educational philosophy that emphasizes practical and life skills.

“It’s not just a question of getting an education, as important as that is. It’s learning how to get along in life. Our graduates are in a better position to function out in the world, in society, in the jobs that they get, because we’ve done a better job than many of preparing them for life. And that’s an important thing.”

It may have been decades since Exner last rode in a limo with the Grateful Dead or shook hands with George Harrison, but music is still very much a part of his life.

His wife, Joy, is the music director at their church, and Allen and his son Andrew both sing in the choir. He still likes to play the guitar, and once cut a record together with former Capitol president William Troxler, an accomplished folk musician and maker of instruments.

“Music has always been a very important part of my life and I expect it always will be,” he says.