I remember when I first arrived in Raleigh in June of 2000, I was starting as a novice...not only in the industry but as a public relations person. During my working life, I had been a radio announcer, a job developer for people that had been in trouble with the law, a play-by-play sports announcer for everything from basketball, football, professional boxing, rugby and pro rasslin’. And when I started working for John Deere, actually the HMO the company owned at one time, I became a communications generalist. Graphic designer, media buyer, brochure writer and singer. Singer? Well, without singing, I wouldn’t be here today.
The new president of John Deere Health Care (JDHC) John Jenkins had started when the company was on the ropes. His goal his first year was to make a one-dollar profit. But John knew it was important to invest in people...and people having fun. So, when the holidays came up that year, he wanted to host a party but knew he wouldn’t have a big budget to work with. He knew I knew local musicians and asked if I could find people to play live music. So, I enlisted the help of bassist Charlie Abplanalp and keyboardist Anthony Watkins. But about two hours in, Charlie called me up to ask to sing a song because they had run out of seasonal music. Charlie had been to a number of our annual tree-trimming parties so he knew we could pull something out. And out came a scene from ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway.’ We took the tune Come Together by the Beatles and rewrote the lyrics on the fly – ending with Come Together right now...JDHC.
The song became a staple for each meeting we had for as long as John was our president. Tweaking the words for each ‘rendition,’ which is what John called these tunes.
The coup de gras came with a complete rewrite of American Pie for a rollout of a major initiative.
The day John took the job as head of the turf unit I wrote a press release announcing his replacement and John approved the release. That was late February 2000. As I was leaving his office, he thanked me for my help during his tenure as president and said that if he had a chance to get me on his new team, he would. Now, I’m thinking that was nice of him to say but the chances I’d be moving with him were small. That was the time I realized I should never doubt John. Three months later, I was sitting in an office in North Carolina.
John created two jobs...one for internal communication and one for external. With the work I had done at John Deere Health, I was thinking I would be in line for the internal job, but John thought I might be better suited for the external role.
I was so lucky to have people in Raleigh ready to help this novice in public relations. My boss at Deere, Bob Tracinski, was a master gardener and communicator, and also is a member of the TOCA Hall of Fame. He was instrumental in getting John Deere involved with TOCA and the Evergreen Foundation, now known as Project Evergreen. Bob took me to my first GIE Expo in Indianapolis in November of 2000. It was my first in-person exposure to the green industry and the first time I met some of you. The following Monday, Bob called me into his office. I was wondering if I had done something wrong. If people had talked to Bob at the meeting and said, ‘who in the world is THAT guy.’ Instead, Bob told me he was really impressed with how I had handled the weekend and because of that...he decided to retire. In three months...
That’s when I started my punctuation jobs. My first job in the Commercial and Consumer Equipment division (now thankfully know as Turf) was manager public relations. But after Bob retired, I became manager comma public relations. Small difference but much bigger payday.
Being thrown into the fire like that, I was so fortunate to have PR professionals like Catherine McCrary, McGavock Edwards, Kris Welsh and Ray Hornak at Epley & Associates showing me the ropes. Without them, I wouldn’t be standing here tonight. And it’s so special to have Catherine and McGavock here tonight. All were big proponents of TOCA. We made a great team. And teamwork is the key toward what we all do. And it is what TOCA is all about. None of us can do our jobs without the assistance of others.
In my job as a PR guy, I tried my best to make sure the information you received from us at John Deere was as unfiltered and informative as possible, because that’s what you wanted from us. That meant working with top-notch subject matter experts that knew their industries and were able to communicate their knowledge to people in simple terms. Greg Weekes, Gregg Breningmeyer and Gilbert Pena all got it. The two Greggs, unfortunately, are not with us anymore. Both were vibrant people who were passionate about their work and their lives. I remember being in Louisville with Gregg Brenningmeyer at OPEI. Catherine McCrary and I were ready to take him to the airport to catch his noon flight. Gregg had been raving about Steak ‘n Shake and Catherine said she had never been to a Steak ‘n Shake. Greg had us turn away from the airport and go to the nearest Steak ‘n Shake. It meant missing his flight but when I spoke to him Monday morning back at work, he said it was the best $75 change fee he ever spent just being able to see Catherine’s face light up with a great new experience.
And face it...we are all up for new experiences. I can’t believe any of us dreamt about becoming communications professionals in the green industry when we were growing up. But now that you’re here...aren’t you happy? And TOCA is a big part of that experience because of the chance to interact with like-minded people. The last couple of days have given me a chance to get reacquainted with old friends and have a chance to start new relationships. It has made me realize how much I loved ‘working green.’
One of my favorite songs is by the group Poco. It’s called Follow Your Dreams. The chorus says...
Give It Your best
Don’t worry about what some may say\
Follow Your Dreams
It’s really all that you can do
Give It your Best and remember that life is what you choose
Follow Your Dreams
And do what you love to do
I’m a fortunate guy. I’ve gotten to live several lives and I wouldn’t change a thing. I’d like to give a big shout out to Charlie and Donavan...my two boys who let me see life through newer eyes than my age would have normally allowed. And most of all, I’d like to thank my wife Amy who has tried her best to make me a better person. And sometimes she has succeeded, but I’ve probably frustrated her far too frequently. We are celebrating our 23rd wedding anniversary next weekend, May 11h...the same day as our oldest son Charles/Charlie/Chuck graduates from Iowa State University.
So...as I say thanks to Den Gardner, Cindy Code, Pat Jones, Larry Aylward, current members of the Hall and the board of TOCA for the honor of being added to the illustrious list of honorees in the Hall of Fame, I want you to remember to always give it your best, follow your dreams and do what you love to do.