POSTED ON DECEMBER 15, 2010:
Interview with a Wise Man
Ken Greenwood's legacy of loving life, learning and giving back
One of the more challenging assignments of his long and distinguished career as a radio executive, educator and conservationist, Ken Greenwood said, was the time he taught a class called Creativity in Advertising at the University of Tulsa in the fall of 1977. The reason he got stuck doing it, he recalled, was that nobody else on the faculty wanted to try it.
"I didn't have any idea how the hell you would go about teaching creativity," he said. "How would you teach creativity? Can you imagine?"
Greenwood gave it some thought, and by the time the first class convened to start the fall semester, he had developed a plan. Calling the class to order, he asked the 32 or 33 students who had signed up for it to take a few minutes and work the room. The purpose of that exercise, he said, was for the students to select a partner they would be working with for the rest of the semester.
"One of the things that I think is valuable to appreciate or know is that two people, if they really are in harmony with each other, can be as creative or more creative even than one person can be because they feed off of each other," he said.
After several minutes of awkward socializing, and a fair amount of grumbling, the students had paired off. Greenwood then told them what he had in mind for them.
"OK, here's your assignment," he said. "Between the two of you, you're going to build a kite. That's your assignment. And your kite has to fly or you flunk. The second thing about your kite is, it has to portray a children's fairy tale. And you can pick any fairy tale you want to. And for your mid-semester examination, we're going to go out here on the practice field, and we're all going to fly our kites. And the other students will give you a one through five (score) for creativity. So if your kite flies, you get an A-plus, and if it doesn't, you're totally dependent on your creativity."
Greenwood recalled that the students, despite their initial reluctance, quickly warmed to the assignment. They had to assemble the kites themselves, either by copying the design of a kite they had seen in the store or by developing their own design. Each week when the class met, the instructor and his students would discuss creative concepts while work on the kites progressed.
Finally, one evening at mid-semester, the class assembled on the practice field adjacent to Greek Row at TU. As the projects were unfurled, a few curious onlookers emerged from the fraternity houses. Then a few more strolled out of the sorority houses. Before long, Greenwood said, there was a big crowd of Greeks gathered in front of their houses watching the action. One of Greenwood's students finally walked over and explained to the crowd that the students were taking their mid-term.
"They thought that was kind of wild," Greenwood said, recalling the reaction of the onlookers. "And every time a kite would fly, they'd all cheer. And we had a marvelous time. Had a few catastrophes. Fortunately, there was wind enough that they could fly them pretty well."
The winning kite, Greenwood said, depicted "Jack and the Beanstalk." The kite's tail was a vine growing up to the top, and at the end of the tail clung young Jack, holding on for dear life.
"This kite was a box kite, and boy, did it fly," Greenwood said, content in the feeling that his students had learned a valuable lesson about how to incorporate creativity into a practical task.
That might have marked the end of the story, were it not for the fact that Greenwood got a call in his office the next day from the dean.
"I'd like to talk to you, Ken, about what was going on -- the big party you had on the practice field," he said.
"Sure," Greenwood said, "I'd be happy to talk to you about that. That's my proudest accomplishment."
Greenwood agreed to meet him in his office. The dean's question was short and to the point.
"What were you trying to do?" he asked.
Greenwood didn't flinch.
"Well, to be honest, I was trying to figure out how the hell you teach a class called Creativity in Advertising, and this was the only thing I could come up with," he replied.
Greenwood went on to explain the whole concept -- how the class met once a week and the students never cracked a textbook, just exchanged ideas and worked on their kites.
By the end of his explanation, the dean looked satisfied, Greenwood thought.
"He thought that was really something," Greenwood said. "He said, 'I'll have to agree. I don't know if I had to teach a course on creativity in advertising how I'd do it, either.' "
Greenwood tells the story to illustrate how he's taken an unorthodox approach to a number of challenges throughout his career, whether it was a matter of teaching a hard-to-grasp concept, making listeners feel like they were part of a radio station community or raising millions of dollars to help establish a preserve for an ecosystem that was on the verge of disappearing from the North American landscape.
Ken Greenwood has done all those things and more, building a reputation for himself as a bit of a legend in local circles over the last four-plus decades. Still as feisty and energetic as ever, he continues to take delight in shaking things up and finding a new way to solve a problem that would leave most of his peers stumped. There's virtually no way to overstate the impact he's had on many elements of life in northeastern Oklahoma since he first came to prominence as part owner and president of KRMG radio and Swanson Broadcasting in the 1960s after getting his start in the business as the play-by-play man for University of Nebraska football broadcasts.
"He is the grand old man of broadcasting," said Michael Dean, now the public relations director for the state Historical Society and a rock 'n' roll disc jockey in Tulsa in the 1970s. "He represents everything that is good about broadcasting. He's one of the main reasons I got in the business and stayed in the business as long as I did. Everybody who ever worked around him reveres him."
A foot in two worlds
Even if you've never heard of Ken Greenwood -- and there aren't many longtime Tulsans who fall into that category -- chances are you know about his work. Greenwood himself divides his career into two worlds -- human resources and natural resources. There's a lot more common ground between the two than most people realize, he said.
"The connections between the two are absolutely amazing," he said. "I just keep seeing connections all the time."
"I think in the case of human resources, a person needs to be careful to take care of their friends," he said. "You really can't count on your friends taking care of you. You hope they do. I've been lucky in that regard."
As for the connection to natural resources, "I believe it is our responsibility to take care of the Earth," he said. "But that doesn't fit the social ethics of American thought because primarily, we have seen the natural resources as a source of consumption and have consumed with little thought to our responsibility to take care of the Earth."
That's not just some idle philosophizing on Greenwood's part. In 2008, he wrote "Grassroots Ecology -- A Call for Help," a 336-page analysis of the conservation movement in America and many of the key figures behind it. The book was an effort 15 years in the making, but the result is likely as pure an expression of Greenwood's thinking as any project he's ever worked on. He hopes people will consider the points he makes in "Grassroots Ecology" and are moved to work past the collective apathy he sees in American culture.
"As I plodded along, I came to the conclusion that our land labors with at least ten conservation beliefs which I call 'ethics,' " he writes in the book's preface. "Many of these ideas are in direct conflict with each other. They range from the Pilgrim ethic that nature is hostile and must be subdued to the Native American idea of the 'spirit of nature.' They explain why our American culture has had difficulty establishing a conservation ethic."
The establishment of that national conservation ethic is something to which Greenwood has devoted himself increasingly over the past several years, though it's always been a part of his makeup. As early as 1967, he said, he was writing and delivering editorials on KRMG on the subject of the environment and conservation -- not the usual radio fodder in Tulsa in those days -- and in 1972, he received the Conservation Communicator of the Year award from the Oklahoma Wildlife Federation.
Then again, Greenwood didn't always take the most conventional approach to things. After attending a 1973 workshop in Tulsa led by noted landscape architect Lawrence Halprin -- best known as the designer of Ghiradelli Square in San Francisco and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C. -- Greenwood had come back to the station inspired by Halprin's assertion that Tulsa had a great unutilized asset in the form of the Arkansas River.
The radio executive was determined to change that.
"I went back to the station, and we had a staff meeting scheduled," he said. "Before the end of it, I said, 'Here's one for you. What could our station do to promote the river?' "
That set off a round of brainstorming. One member of the staff related how he had been reading Washington Irving's account of a raft voyage up the Arkansas River. Somebody else said, "Hell, if they could go up the river, you sure as hell could go down it, couldn't you?" And someone else chimed in with, "Hell, we could have a great raft race."
Thus was born the Great Raft Race, a Tulsa institution that made its debut on Sept. 3, 1973. An estimated 1,100 area residents piled on to approximately 300 homemade rafts in Sand Springs and set off downstream for Tulsa. Station officials had convinced the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to release enough water from the Lake Keystone dam to propel the rafts across the finish line, but the water was late in arriving.
"So the winner of the race actually had to pull their kayak across the finish line, and we couldn't give them an award because it really wasn't a raft," he said. "Then the water showed up, and finally the rafts started to show up."
The Great Raft Race wound up having a 19-year run, and the event is credited by many Tulsans with leading to the creation of the Tulsa River Parks Authority, an entity charged with promoting development of the river -- exactly the goal Greenwood had established when he came back from Halprin's workshop.
"To this day, I think if you said what has spurred the development of the Arkansas River as an asset for the city of Tulsa, most people would tell you it was the Great Raft Race," Greenwood said.
There were other success stories, as well. Greenwood created a beloved comedy show on KRMG called "Dratman" that was penned by Tulsa World editorial writer Chuck Wheat and aired on Chuck Adams' morning show. The show spoofed local current events and featured the talents of a host of staff members.
"It was just a ball to do," Greenwood said.
Another popular feature on the station was its "Good Guy Award," which was presented each week to a local citizen.
"We always tried to have somebody who was not a public official or a bigwig, just somebody who was trying to do something neat for the community," Greenwood said.
One day, Greenwood said, his phone rang, and on the other end was Chester Cadieux, chief executive officer of the QuikTrip convenience store chain. Cadieux liked the award so much he wanted to sponsor it.
"We called it the 'QuikTrip Good Guy Award,' " Greenwood said. "God, what a piece of business that was. He spent $20,000 to $25,000 a year with us, and it just fell out of the sky. That kind of stuff would happen."
Those kinds of features enabled KRMG listeners to feel like they were part of the station, Greenwood said.
"I often think back on all the stuff we did at the station," he said. "For me, those were absolutely the golden years. I call them the Camelot years. God, everything we touched turned to gold."
That's no exaggeration, to hear Dean tell it. He didn't join the staff of KRMG until shortly after Greenwood left, but he said the longtime station president's influence continued to be felt long afterward.
"KRMG was a great radio station, and Swanson Broadcasting was a great company because Ken Greenwood put it together and made it happen," he said. "Anybody who worked in Tulsa radio, anybody who worked in the Midwest in the '70s reveres Ken Greenwood."
Dean said Greenwood knew everything about running a radio station from top to bottom. Dean once worked at a Swanson-owned station in McAlester that sat in the middle of a 40-acre field, and the station manager decided to gin up a little extra income by leasing the surrounding acreage to a farmer.
The station's tower sat in the middle of the field, and in those days, Dean explained, many AM stations had underground copper radials that extended outward from the tower for several hundred feet as part of a grid system that increased the strength of the signal.
Naturally, when the farmer plowed the field, he churned up several hundred yards of copper wire. And the station's signal mysteriously had lost half its power, he said.
When the station manager called Greenwood for help, the radio veteran knew right away what had happened, Dean said, laughing as he recalled the Swanson executives spending an entire Saturday digging trenches in the field to relay the copper radials.
Eventually, Greenwood would drift away from the broadcasting field, but he still retained an interest in radio. These days, he said, the medium he loved so much is just a shell of its former self.
The Right Stuff. “It’s never about him or his accomplishments. He’s just a genuine, humble, thoughtful person. That comes through. He’s fascinating. It’s like dealing with your favorite grandfather – he always seems to do things the right way.” – Harvey Payne
"I think radio has disappeared," he said. "I don't think most people could name you two or three radio stations in Tulsa. If you just ask them, 'What's your favorite radio station?' they'd say, 'I don't know. I don't listen anymore.'
"It's not a factor in the community anymore. And I think radio, because it is essentially oral communication, people have to feel like they belong to it, a lot more than television. And when they can't feel like they belong to something, they're not really attached to it or it's not part of their life or consciousness. And I think that's happened to radio. I don't think it's a media factor in the community, sadly enough."
Big man on campus
Greenwood left radio in the late 1970s, accepting an offer to take over as director of the Communications Department at the University of Tulsa, which also was trying to relaunch KWGS, its campus radio station. His shift to college administrator was not a move that was entirely out of left field, he said.
"I guess education or the appreciation for education is one of the themes that has run through my life," he said. "I thoroughly enjoyed the seven years I spent out at the University of Tulsa, and I still get Christmas cards from some of the kids that were my students. Some of them have gone on to very good things in the field of communications."
Greenwood built the department virtually from scratch, recruiting faculty members from here and there, putting together a curriculum and getting the radio station back on the air. One of his biggest professional disappointments, he said, came when he was called back to the dean's office one day and told TU students would be prohibited from working at the station.
"Can you imagine?" he said. "The theory was that they would get involved and would be spending all their time at the radio station and wouldn't be taking a lot of courses that were very important to them."
Greenwood eventually got KWGS affiliated with the Public Broadcasting System, but he never really got over that decision to prohibit students from working at the station -- a practice that continues at TU.
"I had real dreams that would be an important part of the community," he said. "Didn't work out that way."
Experiences like that one -- and others -- taught Greenwood some valuable lessons of his own about the nature of academia.
"I thought politics was tough," he said. "Oklahoma politics is tough. Tulsa politics is tough. But I had never had the appreciation for the word tough politics until I got into academia. They'd stop somebody's career because they didn't agree with part of their philosophy. This is at an institution that's supposed to encourage free thought, different ideas."
But hurdles like that didn't stop Greenwood from making the department a success. One of his biggest surprises upon taking over as director was when he learned it was possible for students to graduate from the program without having taken a writing class.
"And I became aware of this the first year I was there," he said. "These poor kids would come in with their resume, and they didn't know how to write a resume. And some of them couldn't spell well enough to write a resume. We put together a course in three parts -- writing for the media, speaking for the media and public relations."
Greenwood said one of the best instructors he hired at TU was Nickie Fleener, who was gifted at teaching writing to students. Another instructor he hired, Larry Patrick, taught courses in television and went on to earn his law degree from TU. Later, he became a consultant in Washington, D.C., and owned several radio stations in Wyoming.
Other professors included John Kamp, John Huffman and Denise Huffman, among others, with local celebrity adjuncts, including Connie Cronley, former wife of a local newspaper columnist.
There were some notable students, as well -- including Candace Conley, Jill Lyon, Libby Bender, Bob Stevens, who went on to become an anchor for ESPN, and Pat Bryson, who went into business for herself as a radio consultant at Bryson Broadcasting International. Greenwood also laughingly recalled a young Keith Skrzypczak, now editor and publisher of Urban Tulsa Weekly, glowering at him from the back row in that Creativity in Advertising class.
In the midst of his stint at TU, Greenwood took a year off to build a Dallas Cowboys radio network in Texas. When he got back, he said, radio people began calling him again, asking him if he had gotten into the consulting business. Greenwood did his best to discourage them, but the demand for his services was so great, he eventually found himself in the field full time, launching a successful company, Greenwood Performance Systems, that did leadership and sales training. After leaving TU for good, he found himself traveling around the country conducting seminars, at one point finding himself honored by the Radio Advertising Bureau as "The Dean of Radio Sales Trainers."
But it was a tough life, as he recalled.
"I just got burned out because I was on an airplane night and day," he said.
Then came a fateful phone call one day in 1989 from Joe Williams, a friend of Greenwood's who was leading the fledgling Oklahoma chapter of the Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit conservancy organization that works around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people.
Williams opened the conversation by asking his old friend, "How would you like to help us raise $15 million?" It was a question that would have frightened off most listeners.
But not Greenwood.
"Tell me more," he said.
Salesman in the tallgrass
That conversation initiated Greenwood's shift to full-time conservation work. The Nature Conservancy, Williams explained, was trying to raise the money to establish a tallgrass prairie preserve in Osage County, an attempt to salvage a section of a majestic ecosystem that once stretched across 14 states from Minnesota to Texas.
The project appealed to Greenwood, and he quickly signed on as the director of development for the Nature Conservancy's Oklahoma chapter. Again, his impact was undeniable, according to Pawhuska native and attorney Harvey Payne, who would become the preserve's first director.
"Ken just has a way of becoming involved with very fine, motivated people," Payne said. "He did a lot of work we're still the beneficiary of. It really helped set the stage in a positive and beneficial way."
In that era, Payne recalled, Oklahoma was still trying to emerge from a very deep and long-lasting recession, the product of yet another oil bust. The state chapter of the Nature Conservancy had been established in 1986, and it was having trouble simply raising enough money to pay the rent on its headquarters.
So, naturally, somebody thought it was the perfect time for the chapter to initiate the largest capital campaign in the history of the Nature Conservancy and buy the sprawling Chapman Barnard Ranch just north of Pawhuska.
The project marked a radical shift in thinking for the Nature Conservancy, Payne noted. Up to that point, the organization had gotten involved only in small projects, a focus Greenwood confirmed.
"If they bought a piece of land of 60 acres, it was to preserve some cross-eyed sparrow they had found on that," he said.
But with the proposed Tallgrass Prairie Preserve came the realization that the organization needed to be thinking about conservation on a landscape level, Payne said.
"So it was important that this project be successful," he said. "The chapter was struggling, having trouble raising enough money to keep the doors open. Ken set our fundraising in the right direction."
Greenwood initiated two seemingly simple but crucial steps in helping make the fundraising effort a success. The first came when he and Williams were having a conversation one day about the preserve's logo. Greenwood had been racking his brains, trying to come up with an image memorable enough to build his capital campaign around.
"Joe, I've never figured out how to make the sale of grass very exciting," he said.
"I see what you mean," he said, before adding, almost as an afterthought, that he had received a call that day from a local rancher looking to give away his herd of bison. Williams asked Greenwood if he thought the bison might be a good addition to the preserve.
"Oh, please do it," Greenwood said, recalling his reaction, with visions of a bison-theme logo dancing in his head. "Please, please, please do it."
Not only was that how a herd of bison came to call the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve home, it also was how Greenwood found a hook to sell to potential donors.
"It was when we had bison on the preserve that it really took off," Greenwood said, explaining that he now believes that when most people think of the preserve, they think of bison. "That turned a rather dismal performance on my part into quite a successful venture. Then we began to get major money in there."
Payne also recalled how Greenwood got one of the preserve's biggest benefactors, Bill Rinehart, an executive with the Chevron oil company in Tulsa, involved.
"We had taken possession of the preserve in early 1991," Payne said. "But the (Chapman Barnard Ranch) bunkhouse was in terrible shape."
Payne said the organization decided to have a reunion of many of the cowboys who had worked at the ranch during its heyday in an effort to drum up community support for the preserve, and the event was a huge success. Among the attendees, he noted was Rinehart, who had been invited by Greenwood.
A major topic of conversation at the event, Payne said, was the sorry state of the bunkhouse, which was serving as the preserve headquarters, creating a poor first impression of the Nature Conservancy. The building was in such bad shape, he said, that many of those at the reunion wondered whether it could even be salvaged. Rinehart was among them.
"How much would it take to save it?" he asked at one point.
Payne gave him a figure off the top of his head. That was the amount of money Chevron donated to the preserve, he said.
"I think one of the most important things was getting the bunkhouse restored," Payne said. "It's on the National Register (of Historic Places) now. But to have that restored positively influenced a lot of future donations."
Greenwood also put his salesmanship skills to work selling the idea of the preserve to wary locals, Payne said. Many members of the Osage Nation and the local ranching community feared the establishment of the preserve was merely the first step in a government land grab of much of the oil-rich county.
"Ken scheduled a number of different town hall-type meetings, and I had several people tell me after they heard him speak that they had a different outlook on things," Payne said. "His efforts transcended raising money for the project. They also included a lot of groundwork. Ken is a great communicator. He did a great job either personally or through assembling people and getting the word out about what the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve would mean to the community."
Walking a fine line
Now totaling 39,000 acres and featuring a heard of 2,700 bison, the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve -- the largest remaining patch of tallgrass prairie on the planet -- recently celebrated its 20th anniversary.
Greenwood takes a great deal of satisfaction in its success, but he can't talk about the preserve and its mission without quickly returning to that theme of establishing a national conservation ethic.
"The conservancy's between a rock and a hard place," he said. "They're trying to do a conservation operation up there and not turn it into a sideshow. There are many things you could do with it that would make it attractive to people to go up there. You could have covered wagon rides, as an example, for the kids and take them out on the prairie. But that doesn't really fit.
"That's one of the real problems of dealing with ecology," he said. "You really feel like sometimes you're in an alley, and it has no end and there's no sides to the alley, except you feel them closing in on you. What can you do that still gets across the conservation message and the purity of the idea about good stewardship of the land and the animals, and not turn it into a circus that will attract people's attention? Even Yellowstone Park, I've talked to the people up there -- they fight that battle constantly. It's a fine line we walk."
The essence of the issue, he noted, is what good is the church if the congregation can't come inside? America is only now beginning to seriously examine that question, he believes.
"That's the fine line I was speaking of earlier, the line that the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve walks," he said. "How do you keep a purely conservation operation or project going and still encourage people to come up and see what you're doing? The bison pretty well take care of the answer for them. They hope people come up and see the bison, and they can do a little bit of politicking while they're there to encourage them to embrace the ideas of the Nature Conservancy."
Greenwood acknowledges he isn't above doing a little politicking of his own, but he said his conservation work has been the most rewarding job he's ever performed. He was recognized for his conservation work in October by the League of Women Voters of Metropolitan Tulsa, which presented him with its annual Pathfinder Award. Greenwood was pleased to be honored, but awards aren't what motivate him, he said.
"There is a certain self-satisfaction that goes with the feeling that you've done the right thing or you've done a good job," he said. "And that in itself is a great reward."
Greenwood continues to make his influence felt in other ways. He has endowed an annual scholarship for a minority communications student at TU in his own name to the tune of $25,000. Each year, the recipient will receive a $1,500 to $2,000 stipend to assist in the cost of his or her education.
Payne said his old friend's greatest gift may be his ability just to make other people feel good about themselves.
"He relates to people very well," Payne said. "It's never about him or his accomplishments. He's just a genuine, humble, thoughtful person. That comes through. He's fascinating. It's like dealing with your favorite grandfather -- he always seems to do things the right way."
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