Posted by: admin on May 25, 2021

Posted in: Uncategorized

By Den Gardner, Agricultural Relations Council senior consultant

Steve Drake was a friend of mine. When I heard from his wife Barb that Steve had died on May 21, which was only about four months after he was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrous (IPF), it startled me and saddened me at the same time. He was a titan in agriculture association work, with a special emphasis in ag communications. We all send our sympathies to Steve’s wife Barb and their children.

In 2015, Steve was inducted into the Agricultural Public Relations Hall of Fame. The Agricultural Relations Council (ARC) began recognizing ag PR leaders about 10 years ago. There was little doubt Steve would be on that list in our early years. He was synonymous with excellence in ag PR and ag communications overall. He will be sorely missed in the ag communications business.

Because I’m a musician (using that term loosely), a Burt Bacharach set of lyrics jumped into my small brain. It’s because these words will always come to mind when I think of Steve and our 30-plus-year relationship as business colleagues and friends:

Keep smiling, keep shining,
Knowing you can always count on me
For sure
That’s what friends are for.

Steve and I would easily admit we didn’t agree on everything. We didn’t agree on political views all the time. His fiscal austerity sometimes even exceeded mine (yes, I know for some of you that’s hard to believe). When we worked on several strategic plans together, oftentimes we’d disagree on tactics that were effective and useful to that particular organization.

But at the end of the day, I could always count on Steve to come through – because that’s what friends are for.

Steve and I first knew each other through ag communications circles (National Agri-Marketing Association, American Agricultural Editors’ Association [AAEA] and ARC, and the list goes on and on of associations connected to agriculture and ag communications). There was always some connection to non-profit organizations that got both of our juices flowing on how to work together to help a particular audience and improve professional development for its members.

For example, take the GreenCare for Troops Program, one my former clients. Around 2010, before Steve sold his company, one of his clients was Trees for Troops: The Christmas Spirit Foundation (through the national Christmas tree organization). We both wanted to help military families serving our country overseas. His client gave away free Christmas trees to military families. My client produced a Christmas album by my band – Little Chicago – and wanted to raise money for GreenCare For Troops, which enlisted hundreds of lawn/landscape companies around the country to do free services for military families where the major breadwinner was deployed.

Both Steve and I loved to think outside the box. (Is that a term used anymore?) It was one aspect that made our friendship fun – plain and simple. Let’s find a way to deliver trees and the Christmas CD to military families. It turned out to be a great collaboration because that’s what Steve was all about.

And speaking of collaborations, the Ag Media Summit, originally called the Agricultural Publications Summit, was yet another example. In the glory years of that meeting (selfishly on my part, I’m thinking about the first decade or so of the 2000s), Steve, Diane Johnson, Kenna Rathai and I worked together to get this event to work – pulling three distinct, somewhat competing and always dedicated to professional development organizations together to succeed professionally and financially for the betterment of ag communications. Steve ran APA, the association of leading ag media companies; Diane managed Livestock Publications Council; and Kenna and I led AAEA.

After Steve sold his company and I slowed down several years ago, we became golfing buddies while I wintered in Florida, shared hockey stories (attending the National Collegiate Athletic Association Hockey Frozen Four semifinals one year when his beloved Ohio State Buckeyes tangled with the University of Minnesota-Duluth in the semifinals and, unfortunately, lost) and worked to develop strategic plans for a handful of associations we managed.

You truly can become good friends through business relationships and make those friendships last. Heck, when Sandy and I moved to another home in Fort Myers, Fla., last fall, and Steve and Barb moved to Colorado at the same time, we even bought most of their furniture. It was a deal for all of us. Yep, that’s what friends are for.

But what really stands out is the first part of those Bacharach lyrics: “Keep smiling, keep shining.” There are too many times sharing a beverage after a long day of working together where we’d share some industry gossip (is that a word still used today?) and chuckle at the small world of ag communications and how much we enjoyed being a part of it.

Steve always looked to make his work shine for his clients and bring smiles to those who benefited from his efforts. There were never problems – always opportunities. He was practical, pragmatic, yet innovative. We shared a lot of our ideas together (they were always good – ha!). But I think it’s safe to say I may have gotten more out of those conversations than he did.

He always was good at visioning, determining what that next value statement was and how ag communicators affected the world around us. His wife Barb even shared Steve’s own vision as he struggled through his pulmonary disease. It was: To do all I can to live as good as I can for as long as I can.”

Kristy Mach, ARC executive director, reminded me that Steve was also a “cool” guy. Only cool guys can wear socks and sandals at the same time, and pull it off. Steve would chuckle at that today. I may have to wear socks with my sandals the next time I’m at an ag communications meeting to honor him.

Yes, Steve was a friend of mine. What I have now are memories I will always treasure. Because that’s what friends are for. Goodbye to one of those guys who helped put ag communications at the pinnacle of importance in the ag world. That’s just my simple opinion.

Keep smiling, keep shining, Steve. You’ll not be forgotten.

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