Dirk Whitebreast faced a turning point in 2003, one borne of tragedy. His 18-year-old sister, Darcy Jo Keahna, committed suicide. Whitebreast returned to his Iowa hometown of Tama, ready to turn his life around to honor his sibling.
“The day that I got the phone call about my sister was the last time I touched alcohol,” he says.
Whitebreast got work with the Meskwaki Bingo Casino Hotel. He went from players club to surveillance to a supervisory role to marketing, the latter stemming from his successful bid to win a seat on the tribal council in 2009.
“My public relations, communications and campaign-building efforts came in handy for the digital media strategist position,” says Whitebreast, who enjoyed marketing and hesitated before submitting a resume for a leadership development program. His acceptance opened the door to an appointment as general manager of non-gaming, alongside Joe Papakee, his counterpart on the gaming side.
“The fact that there are two of us has greatly improved our company’s ability to meet the needs of guests and team members,” he says.
Whitebreast had his share of problems: self-doubt, lack of patience, and an over-reliance on technology.
“Coming from a generation where technology provides me with answers and solutions as quickly as an issue arises, I know all too well that the real world doesn’t always move at the same speed as my phone,” he says.
The tragedy surrounding his sister impacted more than Whitebreast’s career.
“Each day I’m sober is the same amount of time my sister has been gone,” he says. “The two things are intertwined. This ultimately led to some soul searching, looking for an outlet to grieve, and eventually heal.”
He turned to running.
Whitebreast went from walking to jogging to running three miles nonstop. He lost weight, his mentality improved, he gained confidence. In 2005, he ran his first half marathon, and six months later a full marathon. “I felt good about myself, and learned discipline. Since 2006, I’ve run 45 marathons in 22 states.”
In partnership with his wife, Lannesse, Whitebreast created the Red Earth Running Company, a firm devoted to marketing not only running apparel, but running itself.
“She is the backbone of the business,” he says. “The goal is to take our experiences to change lives through running. It’s a passion project we feel worth pursuing.”
In addition to Lannesse and his grandmother, Whitebreast has leaned on tribal elders like Donald Wanatee Sr. and casino execs like Papakee and former GM Dan Stromer for guidance.
“It’s less about actual mentorship and more about people I look up to. I’ve learned a lot about and developed my own style of leadership by observing and listening,” he says.
The future looks bright. “I believe it’s important to have a larger strategy rather than approaching areas in need of attention once they become an issue,” Whitebreast says. “We’re undergoing a major renovation of the hotel. My goal is to see the entire facility upgraded.”
If Whitebreast’s career is any indication, newcomers to the industry have a lot of latitude. “I don’t know any other place where you can start out washing dishes and decide you’d rather deal cards or learn to be responsible for a bank holding in excess of $50,000 at the cage.”
Experiment, he says. Explore, be curious and practice patience.