Iwoke up on August 17 with one thought: The world is a little colder today. I knew Ron had left.
I couldn't be sorry because I knew how hard he had fought, but I was sad. I still am.
For those of you who don't know, Ron Zemke, whose words usually fill this space, died on Tuesday, August 17, 2004, of complications from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. He was 62.
His survivors include his wife Susan, mother, brothers, sister, nieces and nephews. He also leaves behind many friends, colleagues, clients, and you—his readers. He gave you a lot of himself during the nearly three decades he contributed columns and articles to Training. He told you stories, shared lessons learned, passed along wisdom, taught valuable and sometimes unpleasant truths, and—occasionally—scolded you for wrong-headedness. But gently, with the humor and insight that came from real life and hard-earned experience.
I know, because he gave those same gifts to me. I got to share more work and more good times with him than most of you because I worked with Ron, at Training and on other projects, for more than 20 years.
I met him my first day on the job at Training. I was stuck away in the nether regions (literally a closet) of the crumbling, funky building that then housed the magazine. I sat there, brooding about what I'd gotten myself into, when suddenly a short, stocky dynamo with red hair blew into my office.
"Hi. You must be Chris. I'm Ron Zemke." The preliminaries over, he couldn't wait. "So. Are you ready to enter the TRAINING ZONE?"
My response—"Huh?"—prompted the first of many, many times that Ron would slow down long enough to explain to me what the heck he was talking or writing or laughing about. It might be a story idea, a training technique, a management concept, a research finding, a technical gadget, a dirty joke, some juicy gossip, or an impromptu movie review. Whatever the topic, it was the sharing he relished. He wanted me to get it and appreciate it along with him.
To me—and many others—Ron was a mentor, teacher, colleague and friend. I picture him, sitting in my office, leaning forward in his chair to listen, before saying, "Try thinking about it this way." And then he'd shift the prism just enough so that I could see the rainbow in living color. He specialized in creating that "aha!" experience we hear so much about.
I don't want to make him out to be a saint. He most certainly wasn't. He missed deadlines regularly. In fact, I set his deadline weeks earlier than the real one, hoping to improve the odds that his article would arrive in time to make it into the magazine. He had an annoying (to his editors) habit of stringing together half a dozen adjectives when one would do the job. When I asked him why, he said, "I couldn't decide which one I liked best—you decide." He could get mad—furniture-kicking, door-slamming, red-faced mad—at seeming trifles. Then he'd get over it so fast, you'd wonder what happened to that evil twin.
Ron was only about 5 foot 6 inches, though his presence on the podium was sizable. We always suspected Ron tested the line he used to open his speeches ("I AM standing up") at the office. It got a laugh, so he incorporated it into his act.
He loved to perform, whether training, telling jokes or doing magic tricks. Chip Bell, his friend and business partner for more than 20 years, remembers the first time they presented together. "I asked Ron to make a cameo appearance in my session at an ASTD conference, and he came in and stole the show," he says.
Later, when the two began consulting and writing together, the quality Bell came to admire most was Ron's ability to tell the truth. "He was able to tell it with such humor and elegance—even if it was an uncomfortable message—that people could hear it. He had a kind of tongue-in-cheek acerbic humor that was intriguing without being biting."
Jack Gordon, former editor of Training, notes that same quality. "Ron was fiercely loyal to training professionals, but never pandered to them. Whatever the issue—from the advantages and drawbacks of e-learning to the ethics of attempting to change personal belief systems in the name of job-related training—he said what he thought, not just what he figured people wanted to hear."
Ron had the endless curiosity of a reporter and the born teacher's need to explain what he found out in terms that were understandable and memorable. He did that explaining, both in print and in person, on a wide variety of topics and in venues around the globe.
In addition to being senior editor of Training, Ron was president of Performance Research Associates, a Minneapolis consulting company he founded in 1972 to conduct organizational effectiveness and productivity improvement studies. He was a consultant to many Fortune 500 companies, including Wachovia Bank and Trust, Citibank, and American Express Financial Advisors. He was author or co-author of 38 books and a syndicated columnist with American City Business journals.
Ron's best-selling 1985 book, Service America! Doing Business in the New Economy, co-authored with Karl Albrecht, started the American customer service revolution. His "Knock Your Socks Off Service" series of 11 customer service books spread his service gospel to millions of readers. He also co-authored Generations at Work: Managing the Clash of Veterans, Boomers, Xers and Nexters in Today's Workplace and The Service Edge: 101 Companies That Profit from Customer Care.
You benefited from Ron's wit and wisdom here in the pages of Training, but his astute observations also earned him recognition throughout the business world. In 1994, he received the Mobius award from the Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals and was named one of America's "new quality gurus" by Quality Digest Magazine. In 1999, he was given the Thomas F. Gilbert Distinguished Professional Achievement Award by the International Society of Performance and Instruction.
Though his wide-ranging interests and restless intellect led him all over the management map, he always returned to his instructional design roots: Ron was truly a trainer, first and last. His 1982 book, Figuring Things Out, co-authored with Tom Kramlinger, remains a classic needs assessment text.
That's the book that introduced him to Allison Rossett, professor of educational technology at San Diego State University. When she later wrote her own textbook about needs assessment—citing him throughout it—he soon got in touch. "He told me he liked my book," she remembers. "He said he was interested in how my mind worked. I was interested in how his mind worked. Our relationship for the next two and a half decades was based on that mutual interest."
Ron always kept tabs on what was going on with her and many others in the field, says Rossett. "He wanted to get a handle on whatever was just around the next bend. Then he'd write about it. He was so generous with what he learned. I always had my students read what he wrote—his articles were always a content and experiential treat."
Always. A 1981 Training article that he co-wrote with his wife Susan, "30 Things We Know for Sure About Adult Learning," remains the magazine's most requested reprint. That may not sound like a fascinating read, but it's a perfect example of Ron's ability to make a topic interesting, entertaining and instructive—no matter the tinderbox potential. How did he do it? I don't have to look far for an answer. He once said it himself: "Academically sound, not academically belabored."
Then, of course, there was a generous measure of magic—that turn of phrase, that wit, that Zemke sparkle. That special brand of unconventional wisdom.
All that's left to say is thanks. Thanks, RZ, for teaching us so much. We'll miss you.
Chris Lee, former managing editor of Training, also worked with Ron Zemke on numerous articles and books.