The Rapidian

Remembering Dirk Koning

It has been 10 years since Dirk Koning left us so unexpectedly. Many of us remember this free speech pioneer. Here are 10 memories from someone who worked with him on a daily basis.
Dirk (left) and Chuck (right) in production truck.

Dirk (left) and Chuck (right) in production truck. /Chuck Peterson

Wealthy Theatre Microcinema named for Dirk Koning.

Wealthy Theatre Microcinema named for Dirk Koning. /Geoff Hudson

Memory is a tricky thing; just ask Brian Williams.  It can be important to get things in writing early, as truth has a way of changing over time.  The 10th anniversary of the death of Dirk Koning arrives on February 10 and I thought it would be a good time to cement a few of my own memories of more than 17 years working with a man who was a true legend to many who encountered him.

Those newer to Grand Rapids may only recognize his name in conjunction with the neon cameo at the Wealthy Theatre’s smaller screening venue.  Those of us who were around and active in the community before 2005 will remember him as a giant man, both in stature and personality and a champion of peace and free speech.  He was the founding Director of Grand Rapids’ public access channel, GRTV, which became the Community Media Center, encompassing radio station WYCE, the Wealthy Theatre and later, the Rapidian.

Dirk will always remain in my memory the the way I see him in pictures.  But following are 10 things I remember about him, listed in no particular order:

  1. He worked standing up. Sure, he possessed a comfortable chair but at 6’9” tall and with his oak tree-like frame, he preferred to spend his workday standing up in his tiny office at his raised desk.
  2. He practiced the art of handwritten notes.  I’m sure he spent a fair amount of money on post cards and stamps because he remembered birthdays, special occasions, and thanking people with short, handwritten and hand addressed cards. His distinctive handwriting was an extension of the warmth of his personality.
  3. He loved the water.  It is not hard to find a photo of him in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts at a beach or piloting his pontoon boat on the small lake where he lived.  Swimming was a passion and whether it was recreational or daily laps at the Y, he was the first to get wet.
  4. He could tell a story. And often his stories got better with each retelling.  He knew the power of a story to pull people in and he gaged the responses of his audience, noting the phrases that had the most magic.
  5. He both loved and hated technology and treasured that paradox.  Born on a Zuni Reservation, he was a nature-boy at heart and at the same time was fascinated by every technical innovation that came along.  But he preferred knowing someone who had mastered the technology more than he wished to master it himself.  The word processor may have been the apex of his personal technical mastery.  He loved the unhindered relationship between the thoughts in his brain and his fingers on a keyboard.
  6. A book that fueled his ideas for many years was “Being Digital” by Nicholas Negroponte.
  7. He liked to be the giver more than the receiver.  Dirk was always the one who picked up the check after a morning of coffee or an evening of drinks. He loved bringing the donuts or offering professional courtesies like technical or media services that were within the CMC’s bailiwick. I’ve heard many people say he was brilliant at raising money but that simply is not accurate.  Philanthropists did want to give him money to support his ideas but it was like pulling teeth for him to actually make the “ask”.  He was much more comfortable with being on the spending side of the equation.
  8. To meet him was to love him. The man had more charisma than anyone I have ever encountered. When people met him for the first time they often had the feeling that they been welcomed into his inner circle, and what an interesting inner circle it was! When I as mad at him I could not stay mad at him.  He forgave others and it was easy to forgive him.
  9. Nothing was more interesting to him than free speech issues and community. Dirk loved grappling with libertarian ideals.  Whenever hate speech reared its ugly head, Dirk was the first one to say, “The answer to unpleasant speech is more speech, not suppression of the offending voice.”  Dialogue on opposing positions was a power source for him.
  10. He never wore a necktie.  If an occasion required a tie he would wear a bolo tie. His Western roots gave him an excuse and his size and pleasant disposition permitted him to break the social rules where others would simply fall in line.  I’ve seen pictures of him in a tux with a bowtie but it clearly did not look right on him.

To leave us in his prime was certainly a tragedy.  But if success is measured by living comfortably in your own skin and to be paid to pretty much just be yourself, then Dirk Koning managed success in half a lifetime.

Disclosure: Chuck Peterson was on the staff of and the Director of GRTV beginning in November of 1987. He served as Interim Executive Director of the CMC after Dirk Koning's Death until the permanent replacement, Laurie Cirivello was hired.

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Thanks, Chuck. Your wonderful tribute brought back such great memories. The bolo ties! The notes! He left a note on my car after I ran into him unexpectantly shortly before his death. You brought back a vivid picture of his handwriting and this charismatic  man we all miss so much.

Keith Smith also knew him.
Keith recorded a story about him for one of the story telling events at wealthy theater.