Speech: Don Kirchoffner, 2013 Legacy Honoree (Posthumously)

KEITH BURTON: I’m Keith Burton, and I’m very glad to be here along with Ron Culp and Bill Heyman. Were she [Betsy Plank] here tonight, and for that matter were Don Kirchoffner, who we honor posthumously tonight here.

They would both say to us, before we went on, that we would make certain that we recognize the people of the Philippines. Who have suffered through tremendous devastation, loss of life and the tragedy of the typhoon, and certainly, we’d do that. And while we may feel a world removed, they will also remind us as they did in their own life and work, that what we can do is really much more than we sometimes think.

And I think that would include reaching out, finding the right organizations that will support the needs to get supplies and provisions and the care that’s required into the Philippines, which we do so well in our work as communication professionals. So please join with me tonight as we think about that.

In that corner there, I think you hear me say every year out of the four that we’ve done here. I sat with Ron Culp and Betsy Plank a few years ago, probably one of the last lunch had she enjoyed in this club, the club that she loved. And that, frankly, she broke the glass ceiling as she did in so many parts of her life, in terms of leadership here.

And as we sat at that luncheon that day, she really marveled over the fact of how proud she was of the work of The Plank Center. And of the men and women that she has mentored through the years, many of whom are here and who we know! I think that’s an important thing for us to consider tonight, as we think about the reason for these rewards and what is really behind these awards.

The Plank Center really was created to support the educators and the students in public relations and frankly their leadership. I was at the PRSSA and PRSA convention in Philadelphia a few weeks ago, I was honored to be there and was reminded whenever I saw Betsy Plank that she never stayed in the hotel where the PRSA members stayed.

She always stayed with the students and devoted her time and energy really to mentoring those men and women. She would remind us of that tonight were she here and she would also remind us that it is an important for us to honor, as we’re doing here, as Ron and Bill and I and the whole board has worked to do, a number of people.

We have created, through time, as we did in the beginning, a number of awards. First is the Legacy Award; second is for Agency practitioners; third would be for the young professional, again, coming up through the ranks of PRSSA and beyond; the Bruce Berger Educator award is one that honors both Dr. Bruce Berger, who has been a part of the founding of The Plank Center, but also continues to be a trustee with us as part of our work.

And certainly, one of the great icons of our profession from an educator as well as a professional standpoint. The Corporate award and our Executive award really is a capstone for the evening. So, we will cover off those awards with you now. And I’m very proud to start with our friend, a beloved friend Don Kirchoffner whose photo you see with us here tonight.

I say, as I think about this, that it is right that we are here tonight in this place and in this room and that we celebrated Veteran’s Day this very week. Don, who we honor again with the Legacy Professional Award, loved Veteran’s Day. His family knows this, we certainly know that because he reminded us, Rick White and myself, Paul Rapp, so many of us who knew him, always reached out on Veteran’s Day but he reminded us to thank a veteran for their work and certainly that was a part of who Don was.

He loved the Union League Club probably more than any member other than Betsy Plank that I know. In fact, when he was back in town from Denver, we would meet for breakfast or we would come down and have lunch together, and it really was a very special place for him, as it is for many who have seen it for the first time tonight or for those who have come back.

There was a time that I began my Saturday mornings at 6:00 a.m. over breakfast in Naperville, the suburb outside of Chicago, with Don where we both live. I would arrive at the restaurant early to find Don in our regular corner booth before anyone else arrived at the restaurant, and he had the New York Times already spread before him.And there was coffee, a lot of coffee.

I would take my appointed seat, because he sat where he wanted to sit and then I sat in my seat. And he would quietly, after I sat down, and not acknowledge me at that time, would take off his glasses. He would greet me with a wonderful smile and he would say, good morning, now you have my full attention.

And I really knew he meant that, and he did because we would launch into a long conversation about life, family, work, faith, politics, and our shared hopes for the future. I really loved those Saturdays and I will think about that this week because I live in that downtown area and I will walk down that way as I always do.

Don Kirchoffner was a giant and a public relations professional for those who didn’t know him, I’m sad you didn’t. While he was a soldier at heart, he was a consummate practitioner of our craft. He knew what it meant to take the hill, and he was skilled at leading others in very accomplished and leading the mission.

Over more than two decades, I made these comments a few months ago, he was the reason voice and counselor at the center of some of the biggest events of our time. He was there for the U.S. invasion of Kuwait in 1991, he was there for the Kurdish relief operations in Northern Iraq, he was there for the riots that rocked Los Angeles in the 90s.

He was there dealing with the devastation and recovery efforts that were associated with Hurricane Andrew. He was there when there were challenges that the American Red Cross faced with their nations blood and tissue supplies. He was there when there were crippling power outages that threatened the reputation of Commonwealth Edison and Exelon here in Chicago.

And he was there tackling threats to the reputation of the Centers for Disease Control, during the critical period of organization of that great organization. As a past president of PRSA and our fellow Plank Center trustee and our friend Gary McCormick said about Don, “Don was the real power behind the powers he counseled commanding generals, CEOs and government leaders.”

And for these efforts he was honored widely in our profession. He was inducted in the Army Public Affairs Hall of Fame. He was named professional of the year by our great Chicago Public Relations Society of America Chapter. He was inducted in the VRSA College of Fellows. He became a member of the prestigious Arthur W. Page Society, where he joined peers at the highest level.

He served as an at large member of the national PRSA board, representing more than 30,000 professional, academic, military and student members, which is in my mind, a true distinction. And this year, he was honored posthumously with the Joe Galloway Lifetime Achievement Award for his work on behalf of the Army Public Affairs Group.

Recognition certainly is important for all of us, and while it was for Don, too, what he valued most I found in Betsy Plank. He valued those who were with him on these journeys more than the honors that came so easily to him. He knew no strangers. In fact, upon his death earlier this year, our friend, Denver PR Professional Paul Rabb said about Don, he was a good man but he was a better friend.

It came as no surprise to us that after only a year in Denver, at the time this event occurred, Don was honored with the prestigious Swede Johnson Lifetime Achievement Award for his work in honoring PR professionals in that local PRSA chapter. He was a man of humility. He was also a man who did not suffer fools gladly.

He set the bar high. He encouraged all of us to do the same and to do our best. He had deeply held values, ethics, integrity and a commitment to always acting with transparency and guiding his thinking and actions around these principles. He cared deeply about young men and women in the business and he always went out of his way, and I saw it, to help others in their job searches.

There are many, many who have gone on to greater leadership thanks to that guidance and coaching. Thomas Jefferson wrote words that remind me of Don often, quote, “in matters of style, swim with the current. In matters of principle, stand like a rock.” That defined Don. Love, character, devotion, humility, honor, courage, faith, may these be at the center of our lives every day, are words Don Kirchoffner once gave me.

They were for Don. Please join me in recognizing Don and welcoming his family tonight.


MEGAN KIRCHOFFNER: Thank you. At first, I’d like to thank Keith Burton and Dr. Gower for making this happen and for helping to bring my family together so that we can celebrate this honor. My sister and I often joke that we have poor public speaking and we questioned how we were ever related to someone who made it a part of his everyday life and did it so well.

When we were told that we were receiving this award, she said to me, you’re on your own. This is your speech to give. Go figure that this is a speech in front of a bunch of PR folks so I ask that you bear with me.

It was a little over eight years ago when I graduated from college and began to search for my first job. My resume had been written since Christmas time, a nice leather portfolio had been purchased and close to 20 resumes had been printed and nicely stored in that portfolio, all courtesy of my dad. He took me to Ann Taylor. He bought me three suits, which I still have today.

And set up close to ten networking interviews with all of his friends here in Chicago. After each meeting, he would drill me and ask me what my next steps were going to be. I remember my first real interview as if it was yesterday. My dad waited for me at the corner bakery in my building.

Three days later I was offered the job. I still work there eight years later and I have him to thank. I wish I had told him how much I looked up to him, especially when it came to his work. He loved people, he loved to network and he genuinely loved to help others.

I received a note from a dear friend of mine and about a month ago, Jasper Baker, who’s actually here tonight. And it said, I was thinking of your dad today and I am so grateful for his help. I would not be where I am today without him. I know that there are several others out there that could say the same thing about him.

I think of him often, every single day not just because we were best friends but professionally, he was my mentor. So much of who I’ve become professionally was shaped by him. I was reading an old PR article with his “Don-isms” and I had a great laugh. I’ll leave you with a few of my favorites that should still be practiced today.

Be a mentor and a teacher. Seek a mentor. Help someone who is looking for a job. You’ll be looking yourself one day. And remember to say thank you. Always have a fresh and well-done resume. Be well-dressed and well-groomed. You only get one chance to make a first impression.

I’ve taken this piece of advice very seriously, to the detriment of our bank account. You can ask my husband. And our favorite “Don-ism,” which he so often preached, today’s peacock is tomorrow’s feather duster.

I think I can speak for my entire family that we are so very proud of him. We, his family, all hope he has looking down and is as proud of us as we are of him. Thank you.


KEITH BURTON: Let me ask Don’s family to come up. Come up. So that you know who you have in front of you. You have Meagan Kirchoffner Krase, Jill Kirchoffner, Matt Kirchoffner, and Elaine Kirchoffner, Don’s wife.

Please give them a big round of applause.


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