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Remembering Dirk Koning

Underwriting support from:

/Chuck Peterson's PDA

 It was five years ago on February 10 at about 7:00 a.m. that I received the phone call from Tim Goodwin, Dirk Koning’s best friend, with the dreaded news.  Dirk had not survived the catheter ablation procedure that was meant to cure his atrial fibrillation condition.  I’d talked to Tim the night before to see how the operation had gone.

“Not very well”, was his reply.  

But neither of us could imagine the worst-case scenario.  We were talking about a life that was such a large presence that it was nearly impossible to think of it as gone. The sense of disbelief and grief kept visiting me over and over, injecting my gut with this huge and unwieldy dose of unreality. 

I made a quick appointment to talk to my counselor.  He predicted that it would take a good five years to shake the grief completely out of my system.  Five years just passed and I am hoping that by writing this, Dirk will transition inside of me from a sense of loss to ...something else.

It was late in 1982 when I first met Dirk.  I had been exposed to public access television through the Wyoming Public Access channel as a GVSC student.  Wyoming Channel 23 had a TV studio that anyone could use as a creative outlet.  My college friends and I much preferred it to the video studio that could be reserved at Grand Valley and we had set up a group independent study in experimental television.  Jon Koeze, who worked there, had just been hired by Dirk at the start-up public access center in Grand Rapids that they were calling GRTV and he invited me to come on as an intern.  Meeting Dirk in that tiny, dark, basement realm below the Ryerson Library was a memorable experience.  This enthusiastic 6’ 9” giant made me feel like I had entered the coolest place on earth.

I witnessed that scenario replayed over and over again through the years.  Every visitor was made to feel special.  Dirk was a genius when it came to listening and connecting to people.  All were made to feel like they were somehow connected to this fascinating man.  Dirk could always shake out what was important to a person and somehow connect that to whatever he was doing.  Everyone wanted “on-board” Dirk’s bus, wherever it was going.

The real ride started for me in 1987.  After graduation in 1983, I pursued a career making media in whatever form I could find that also offered a paycheck.  Public Access had only ever been a labor of love as far as I could see and my relationship with GRTV after the internship was strictly as a member, volunteer and a “community producer” (as they called anyone who made Public Access TV shows).  When I saw a job as “GRTV Producer/Trainer” listed in the GRTV newsletter, it was like an awakening for me.  I knew that was my job.  Someone else got it first but I hung in there as a volunteer (and later as a board member) until it opened up again.  I made sure my resume was on the top.  My first day as an employee on the “free-speech” mission was November 2, 1987.

As staff, things were a bit different.  Dirk would reel-in the opportunities and staff needed to process them.  Big ideas coupled with low budget meant hard work and innovation.  That innovative environment was what made coming to work a joy.  What big thing can we make today out of nothing but media equipment, passion and volunteers?  There are no dumb ideas!

The mission was not just lip service.  Out commitment to free speech meant that we took some pretty unpopular stands.  And Dirk was at his best in a controversy.  “More speech is the antidote to hate speech”, he would say.  I remember one time when the City Manager (who utimately held the ties to our purse strings) made a rare request for Dirk to try and put a muzzle on a particularly obnoxious community producer who was making headlines. Dirk calmly explained the intent of the First Amendment and politely declined.

One of Dirk’s passions was “peace in our time”.  For many years, on August 6, the anniversary of the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima, GRTV would do a 24-hour live program with speeches, bands, lectures, documentaries, and plays where fellow lovers-of-peace could participate in this marathon event.  Dirk would invariably take some time to quote and talk about his favorite philosopher, Albert Einstein.

Another high point was when “Good Morning America” chose to do a segment on Public Access Television.  GRTV was featured and Dirk was interviewed by Charlie Gibson via satellite.  It marked a rare moment when Public Access was portrayed in national media as free speech mission, rather than as a place where weirdoes and narcissists do crazy things -the typical commercial media portrayal.  Gibson was visibly impressed and doubled the length of the live segment.

Perhaps the fulcrum point in his career was when in 1989, GRTV agreed to acquire FM radio station WYCE and therefore transition from being a Public Access TV station to a Community Media Center; a term Dirk coined and an idea which was swiftly adopted as a national movement in Public Access centers around the country.  It was both an exciting and stressful time as the board of directors, staffs and members grappled with this new idea and how it could actually be manifested in real life with the two very different cultures- TV and radio.  Clearly, we both needed to be under one roof.  Our first capital campaign was launched to move GRTV from the underground studio (in every sense of the word) and WYCE from a temporary structure at Clyde Park and 28th Street to the airy 2nd floor of the West Side Library on Bridge Street.  This took many years to accomplish.

With a new mission in place, Building Community through Media, Dirk became an international figure preaching a new gospel.  Communities needed to embrace all forms of popular media so the under-represented could have a true voice.  The bleeding edge of technology became a roadmap to figure out what must be preserved for the public interest.  When the Internet came along, Dirk became its biggest local champion.  There were a variety of ideas how the Internet should be represented at a Community Media Center and the name GrandNet was trademarked as the CMC “affiliate” to make sure access and training was available for everyone.

With three, solid Affiliates (as they became to be known) in place, it felt like there was something missing.  It wasn’t enough to merely provide access and technical training.  Dirk envisioned an Affiliate that he liked to call the Institute for Information Democracy.  He used to repeat a quote that he attributed to Thomas Jefferson: “Free speech is the currency of democracy.” The idea was that we actively promote the idea of free speech and universal access to media though media literacy training.  GRIID was born and its activities and media studies directed by community activist, Jeff Smith.

These were exciting years as the CMC explored new revenue streams and launched new programs and community media services.  Dirk was hugely in demand as a speaker all over the world.  He inspired audiences on 5 continents.  On the home front, the CMC continued to be the coolest place in the City.  That innovative standard that Dirk set and supported inspired everyone.  We felt free to invent a vision of community media. Dirk never micro-managed and always made us feel like we had the power to pursue our ideas.

This brings me back to that damned atrial fibrillation condition.  There was no good explanation for what triggered it.  Every couple of years since the 1990’s, Dirk would suddenly become aware that his heart was beating very irregularly.  He would have 24 hours to hope it would just go away but after that, he would need to endure a very large and painful electric shock with those paddles that doctors and EMT personnel use to bring back heart rhythms.  And it always seemed to occur at the most inconvenient times and places.  I once drove him to the emergency room just as he was just about to go on and introduce an elaborate press conference regarding a countywide GIS deployment.  He joked the whole way to the ER but the reality was that something needed to be done.  His next and last event happened on the other side of the world where the hospitals were primitive and he had to leave abruptly so he could make it back to the States in that 24-hour window.

Dirk heard about this relatively low-risk procedure where the twitchy valve could be approached via the femoral vein, bombarded with radio waves and in a fair amount of cases, the condition would subside.  Dirk was fearless and game.

I found out that he was undergoing the procedure only a few days before it was scheduled to take place.  I had stopped in to his office to show him my new gadget… a PDA with a built-in camera.  He was always intrigued with gadgets and technology but was quick to remind me that he preferred the dog-eared calendar in his pocket.  If I hadn’t already heard it many times, he might of told me the “Bell” story which was about technology appropriate for what people want and need.  I snapped his picture (see photo) to show him what my gadget could do and we talked about how I might be able to use a camera like this for documentation. 

He told me that he was going to do this little procedure so he’d be out for a couple of days before he was off on another speaking engagement. The Community Media Center had only recently decided to take on a capital campaign to purchase the Wealthy Theatre and upgrade the facilities to accommodate our swelling staff roster and expanding community services.  He’d be gone this week but would be back in time to dive into the plans for the new Capital Campaign. His standard joke on the way out the door was, “You are in charge but don’t hire or fire anyone while I’m gone.”

“Dirk, it’s your heart”, I said. “ How can you take this so lightly?”

 “I told the doctor to make sure the radio waves he zaps me with are tuned into WYCE”, he joked.

I was anxious and a bit nauseous from the description of the surgery but Dirk was hopeful and excited to put the irritation of the spells of irregular heartbeats behind him.

This would be our last conversation.  As Tim described it on the phone that February 10, 2005 morning, on the table while he was wide awake and talking to people in the room, the catheter accidentally poked something and Dirk’s heart sac instantly filled with blood, arresting the organ almost immediately, and ending an incredible life that had been lived as large as anyone else I have met.

I think of Dirk whenever I encounter a new technology or a major event with implications regarding community communication. The recent Supreme Court decision regarding campaign financing would have prompted him into days of phone calls and nights of discussions over good beer.  We would have had a great debate about the movie Avatar; its technical achievements and its comparison to the way Native Americans were treated in this country.  The Rapidian would have been a source of great pride as he always considered himself a journalist.  And he would certainly have had the biggest Facebook Friends list of anyone I know.  To meet him was to feel like you had made a connection… a very rare gift, indeed.

Dying in his prime certainly will contribute to his legend.  His stories and the stories about him will live on and doubtless become grander with time.  I’ll remember being awestruck with his ability to think on his feet and then bring an audience to their feet.  The truth is that despite his larger-than-life physique and personality, he was a mere mortal.  Born into a missionary family on a Zuni Reservation, Dirk was groomed to be a minister.  The mission that moved him to preach was the idea that free speech and access to popular media belonged to the people. He was very good at preaching that message.

Another truth is that I could get very frustrated with Dirk.  While he was out traveling the world giving speeches, the staff were here in the trenches working hard to live up to the amazing international reputation the Grand Rapids Community Media Center enjoyed.  I would often feel a disconnection to what he was saying and what we were doing.  When that frustration would reach a head, Dirk would say, “It’s time to do a breakfast” and we go down to Gaia where he would order EPT (eggs potatoes toast) with extra crispy potatoes and we would drink coffee, speak frankly, share wild ideas and I would fall back into love with my work.

Those breakfasts are what I miss the most.  

I am grateful that I still enjoy breakfasts with good friends where we turn off our cell phones, discuss wild ideas, and remind ourselves about that important, human connection that keeps us centered.

Disclosure: Chuck Peterson is the former Director of GRTV

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This is a wonderful and touching memory of Dirk. Nice work Chuck, and thanks for taking the time to tell the story so well and to share it on The Rapidian - a media outlet I know Dirk would have been very proud to have seen added to the GRCMC portfolio.

I volunteered at GRTV between 85 and 87 and was at the first 24 Hiroshima marathon.  Dirk was an amazing man and I think of him often when I see new and interesting things going on.  I wonder what he might have thought of ArtPrize or the new UICA - but I know that his spirit is alive in GR because I see his vision still being carried out, in the Rapidian, the Wealthy Theatre and other projects.

Thanks for this article Chuck!

If there wasn't a GRTV, WYCE, and Wealthy Theatre I am confident there would have been no life to any of my creative endeavors in Grand Rapids.  From our start producing shows at GRTV to our current run at the Wealthy Theatre (being crass and honest and dirty for the whole run) we would not have survived without the ideals and outlets you and Dirk championed.  When I struggle or things our tough in the show or this town, or when "the man" (in his many forms) tries to shut down or suppress what I'm doing with art I always think of my experiences with GRTV and Dirk's legacy.  Maybe I'm not fighting these battles to win, mabye I'm fighting them so the next generation will have more opportunity and be better equiped  when reality sets in; Dirk, the WT, and GRTV have certainly done that for me.

Thanks Chuck!

A beautiful and honest remembrance from Chuck (my former boss at GRTV.)  Also a lovely reply from our friend Corey.  This city wouldn't be the same without the vision and leadership Dirk embodied.  We strive to carry on his legacy at CMC, and here at Wealthy Theatre - we hope each day we're making the big guy proud.

Thanks, Chuck, for the warm but also painful memories.  I did not know about DIrk's Hiroshima remembrance events until now.  I will dedicate the internet video conference  the Dominican Sisters' Culture of Peace Committee is hosting as part of the Hiroshima-Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Photo Poster Exhibit that will open on Feb. 21 at Dominican Center at Marywood to his memory.  That internet conference will be at 7 p.m. at the Donnelly Center on Aquinas College Campus and includes testimony from a survivor of the bombing.  The exhibit will be up through March 14. 

 I first met Dirk at a WMU sponsored workshop for nonprofits on advancing technology - which at that time was the internet.  He inspired me to want to do an internship at the CMC, which I did in 2001, and have been a proud employee of the CMC since Sept. 2001. I agree, Dirk always made one feel they were the only person for his attention. He was so large - and so gentle.  I'm confident we'll all meet someday in ways beyond our imagining.  Peace.  

This is  great piece and lovelt tribute to Dirk.  I knew him in high school and reconnected when I became best friends with his sister-in-law, Linda.  I will NEVER foget her voice when she called me with the sad, sad news that day.  I could not believe he was gone,  Dirk was one of the good guys, gone too soon.

February always reminds me of Dirk because of something Tim Goodwin shared with me: He, Dirk, and a couple of other friends involved with those "nights of discussions" always took this month off from imbibing of their favorite beverage. They did it to cleanse, to test their will power, to prove that they could, and because February it is the shortest month of the year :)

Ive enjoyed growing with the CMC since my internship at GRTV as well. Thanks Chuck!


Has it been five years already?  Just last week, without realizing that it was only a day away from that sad anniversary, I was telling a colleague about Dirk and the "out of the box" thinking he encouraged and brought out in people.  Thanks, Chuck, for writing so eloquently about what we should most remember about our friend Dirk.


Thank you so much for that article ! It painted such a beautiful picture into the life at work my dad had. I learned tons of new things about him ! I love being able to read about him from the eyes of others, especially because you two were so close!

  And as Feb comes and the dreaded anniversary of that horrible day, It does help to ease the sadness just knowing that people, like you, are thinking about him too! He was such a great guy, the best.

Thank you again Chuck, I hope all is well with you!

Kelly Koning 

Kelly, If you ever feel like you want to know more, just drop me a line and we'll meet for coffee.  He was a very important person in my life and we went through many career experiences together.  I would enjoy remembering them.

 Chuck, I would absolutely love that ! Hearing stories about him and seeing pictures ( like the one in the article ) are so cool & I want to absorb as much as I can. I'm sure you're full of great stories & it would really mean a lot if you would share them with me.. coffee sometime would be great !