Jeffery Koenig is a tall man; he stands over 6 feet. His quiet, reserved and watchful demeanor prompts more than one friend to refer to him as a "gentle giant."
His physical size, however, is dwarfed by the size of the contributions he has made to the Northwest Arkansas community.
Through Others’ Eyes
“Mr. Koenig shines as a community leader and an exceptional philanthropist. He humbly contributes his time and energy without recognition and is often hands-on with the projects he and his family underwrite. Jeff likes to be a ‘part of’ the activities of the nonprofits he assists as opposed to watching from the sidelines. Jeff’s peers and my colleagues view him as a role model for servant leadership.” — Cambre Horne-Brooks
“He’s a great guy to go floating with — he has an entire kitchen he puts in the boat!” — Hugh Brewer
“Being a businessman who grew a very valuable business and worked hard, he sees it from the standpoint of ‘What does this mean to the whole community?’ Not just the emotion side, but what does it mean to business as well?” — David Johnson
“If Jeff Koenig says it, you can take it to the bank. And if he’s your friend, you know he’s got your back.” — Dr. Kim Agee
"He is such a gentle and kind soul," says close friend Larry Bittle. "And his compassion and his heart are as big as he is."
Since returning to Arkansas in 1979 to join the team at the Upchurch Electrical Supply Company -- where he eventually served as president and CEO -- this man's altruistic resume has exploded. He has served on the board of directors for the Fayetteville Public Library, the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce, Arvest Bank, the Fayetteville Boys and Girls Club, the Fayetteville Economic Development Council, Fayetteville Public Education Foundation, the Northwest Arkansas Tourism Association and Bikes, Blues and Barbecue. With many of these organizations, he frequently took a leadership role by becoming chairman or president for multiple years.
In recognition of his enormous community support, he's been inducted into the Hall of Honor of both Fayetteville Public Schools and Mountain Home Public Schools, was named among University of Arkansas College of Engineering Distinguished Alumni and was named the 2015 Outstanding Volunteer Fundraiser by the Northwest Arkansas chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.
He also led or was heavily involved with three successful millage campaigns for Fayetteville Public Schools, one for the expansion of the Walton Arts Center and, most recently, one to expand the Fayetteville Public Library. The transformations these millage campaigns are responsible for on the educational and cultural landscape of Fayetteville cannot be understated; it is in this milieu, perhaps, where Koenig cements his title as a change maker.
"He has such a huge heart for people in the community," says Fayetteville Public Library Executive Director David Johnson. The two men first became good friends when working on the 2010 Fayetteville Public Schools millage campaign. "He was the beneficiary of a community that gave him a boost up, that gave him a hand when he was growing up, and he knows how important it is to have a shared sense of the community."
Koenig was born in Denver in 1951. When his father was stationed at Schilling Air Force Base in Salina, Kan., the small family moved to join him. Shortly after they settled in McPherson, however, Koenig's father left the family. Koenig's mother was struggling to support her children on the salary of a waitress at the town's only hotel coffee shop when she met a man named Al Gaston.
"One day, he offered her the position of becoming the manager of his restaurant that he was going to build in Lakeview, Arkansas," says Koenig. That restaurant became Gaston's White River Resort. "It's a world class fishing resort, a phenomenal place. The job offer changed our lives: It was just my mom raising two kids -- a single parent situation and very difficult for her."
Koenig and his family relocated to Arkansas when he was in seventh grade, and he describes an idyllic childhood exploring the wilds of the White River.
"I was their No. 1 camp cook," he says with a smile. "I took the guests on the trips out on the river and did all of the cooking. I know every rock in the river on down from Gaston to Buffalo City. I've also canoed the entire Buffalo and taken down the big commissary boats.
"We would take these big skillets -- 20-inch, two-handled skillets -- and I would cook up a batch of eggs and cheese and bacon all together, kind of like a stir fry. And then I would follow that up with pancakes. That became kind of my specialty. Then, in the evenings, we would cook steaks, and, if they caught trout, and they wanted trout, we could cook that. No low calorie food, you know.
"I also got to do some really glorious things, like haul the trash and mow the grounds. There was a real work side to it, too, but I was left with fond memories. Jim Gaston, who recently died, was honored by the Arkansas Game and Fish commission recently. In many ways, he was my mentor at that time."
Koenig attended Mountain Home public schools, where he excelled as a student, especially in the area of math and science.
"I was very successful in the science fairs," he says. "I got to go to regional and international science fairs with projects. I always had more aptitude towards the mechanical and electrical side of the world."
Perhaps his most successful science fair project -- and most impressive, given that it was built in the mid-1960s when home and classroom computers were still but a daydream -- was the one that took him to the International Science Fair in Fort Worth.
"I built an electronic grading computer," he remembers. "You would fill in the answers on a test sheet, and it would scan in the answers. I built it out of parts and pieces that you wouldn't believe -- pieces of plexiglass, Erector sets."
Education was important to Koenig's mom, and it became important to him. Though he considered a career in architecture briefly -- he designed the house he and his wife are currently living in -- Koenig decided engineering would be his career focus by his senior year in high school. The cost of college meant he needed to take advantage of in-state tuition, and the University of Arkansas was the only school in the state that offered a four-year engineering program.
"In retrospect, I'm glad I went there, because my whole life became about Fayetteville," says Koenig of the UA.
He was, quite likely, the hardest working engineering student in school at the time -- in addition to his classes, he worked 40 hours a week.
"I worked for the John Box Construction Company," he says. "He became like a second dad to me. He let me set my own work hours, and I went from job site to job site. I did a lot of electrical, plumbing, framing, carpentry. Basically, I got two educations -- I got my education in the construction industry, and I got my education in the electrical engineering sciences."
Despite being so busy, Koenig had met and started dating Sara Vinzant while in college. She was the daughter of Dr. John W. "Bill" Vinzant, a popular Fayetteville physician who served a term as chief of staff at Washington Regional Medical Center.
"My roommate dated her first," Koenig says with a chuckle. "He brought her to the apartment to show her off and, as they say, the rest is history. As it turned out, he was the best man at my wedding." Their first date was a football game; Koenig called her after he got stood up by someone else. "She quips about that, of course, to this day: 'Oh, I'm backup, I'm not first choice.' But I was smitten by her."
When Koenig graduated, his ruthless work and school schedule paid off in the form of four job offers from which to choose. The newly married couple accepted a position in Kansas City, where they would live for three years before moving to Bismarck, N.D. The frigid Dakota weather was beginning to wear on the Koenigs when they received a phone call from Joe Upchurch, the founder of Upchurch Electrical Supply in their old college town of Fayetteville.
"Joe Upchurch started the business in 1955, and I joined him in 1970," says Hugh Brewer, Koenig's predecessor at Upchurch Electrical Supply. He and Upchurch came to know Koenig when he was still a university student, and Brewer says Koenig's talents were so notable, they had never forgotten about him. "We realized that Joe was sort of trying to fade out of the business, and I was going to take over. We would need someone to take over for me eventually, and we both thought of Jeff. He had worked as a student for John Box, a contractor we knew, and learned to be an electrician, plumber, carpenter. ... he is a craftsman. We knew he had graduated and moved to North Dakota. We called him during a snow storm, and he said, 'When did you want me to start?'" The couple was pregnant with their first child, so returning to family -- and warmer climes -- had never seemed more appealing.
"Sara was nine months pregnant, about to hatch, as we drove back from North Dakota to here," says Koenig. "As it turned out, Amy -- our first child -- didn't come for another couple of weeks. She was a late baby. So it all worked out."
Once back in Fayetteville, it was as if Koenig's previous volunteer work was just a warmup for what was yet to come. He almost immediately started juggling his new job with community service. He had been a Big Brother with the Big Brother/Big Sister organization in Kansas City, and he and Sara had worked as group home parents at a youth home in North Dakota. Volunteering, he had come to realize, was something that he felt strongly about.
"I'm here today only because of the kindness and generosity of other people, to my mother and to my family and to me personally," he says simply. "I've always felt like I needed to give back. When I was able to start doing that, I did that and have done that all of my life. I don't feel like I could ever repay all of the kindness and generosity shown to me. And my wife is just good people. She worked as a social worker for a couple of years. To work as a social worker, you have to have a kind heart.
"I was fortunate," he says of his contributions in Fayetteville. "I worked at Upchurch for 27 years, and was President/CEO for the last 10 of those years. My predecessor, Hugh Brewer, he kind of set the example for community work. He was active in Rotary and the Chamber ... but I don't think he realized the monster he had created. I took it to another level. But I was able to do it because the company supported that sort of thing."
"He is probably one of the best engineers I know," says Brewer. "We were so happy to get him to join us. When I retired, I sold the business to Jeff, and he took off with it. He almost doubled the sales at Upchurch. When we hired Jeff, we knew we had struck gold. He is a hard worker, but the things he does for the community are just unbelievable. The things he's done for the Chamber of Commerce, the School Board -- he solved a lot of tremendous problems while he was chairman of the school board."
Koenig says his mother's faith in education and his own experience of changing his economic situation through education and hard work has made him a champion of the public school system. He has spent a great deal of his time doing what he can to make it stronger and says "being a fiscal conservative but social Democrat" has served him well in this capacity.
"It takes strength and clear vision to get through contentious issues and set the tone in a positive manner and move forward," he says. "I think that's the primary way I viewed being a board member. I have seen and witnessed people bringing agendas on board with them, and there's just no room for that."
"He was a school board member when my mom ran Uptown School, and she remembers his frequent visits and interest in the progress of her students," says Dr. Kim Agee, a friend who has worked on multiple millage campaigns with Koenig. "She tells me that he was invariably supportive. It's easy to get involved with the college-bound students and the championship sports teams, but Jeff was always interested in helping the disadvantaged and the less fortunate, too."
"He is clear in his vision and direction, but with his direct honesty he brings diplomacy," says Cambre Horne-Brooks, executive director at the Fayetteville Public Education Foundation. "It is in the balance or these two characteristics that he is a gifted leader."
But Koenig also acknowledges the difficult balancing act involved in managing a successful business, a packed volunteer schedule and a family. (The Koenigs would eventually have three children: Amy, David and Carol.)
"It was extremely time consuming," he says of his time on the school board. "My oldest daughter had decided to play basketball. We thought this would be a whim, but she turned out to be a varsity starting player. She said one night, 'I've got a game, are you going to be able to come?' And I said, 'Probably not.' I had a specially called board meeting. She said, 'I understand. This is all more important than my game.'" Koenig pauses. It's obvious the story is still difficult for him to tell. "It was like someone took a knife and put it in my chest and twisted it. And I told her, 'I'm going to start coming to your games,' and I didn't run for school board again.
"You come to realize that you're doing social good, but you're doing it at the expense of your family, and that's something that you really have to balance in life. It's really a challenge."
He took a step or two back while the kids finished school, but he came roaring back when the school board needed him most. In 2009, the board experienced a crushing defeat with a millage election meant to raise money for a new high school in Fayetteville. They brought Jeff on board to try again.
"Jeff was the committee chair, and he was all business," says Agee. "Our first meeting was very serious, like we were planning the Normandy invasion or something. He asked people about their interests and talents, assigned roles and let us know that he felt strongly about the election and was prepared to work hard to win it. Of course, he also expected us to work hard."
"This was my first real sense of getting to work for Jeff when he was in charge," says Johnson. "That's when I first noticed that he is easy with a laugh but serious about winning. He was so well organized, and it was clear what your directives were when you worked for him."
Koenig's real skill in these millage campaigns seems to be his knack for understanding both sides of the argument -- the fiscal, as well as the emotional -- and being able to communicate about both effectively.
"I feel like I have a reasonable ability to convey a message to all people, not just one group of people or another," he says. "Over a period of time, through several different millage requests, we've gained almost all of what was lost [in the 2009 millage election] in bits and pieces. And several of those pieces were what we call 'roll offs', where you pay off the capital portion [and] the millage rolls off of the books. That shows fiscal responsibility. We don't just keep it in place. It will have to be future generations that have to justify their need for capital."
"He's very good with numbers, but he also has the ability to articulate the need and put it in terms that the general public can grasp and understand," says Bittle. "I believe those two qualities really place him in a very fine position to lead and to direct those types of campaigns."
"In our first conversations about the numbers and the millage increase, he balked," says Johnson. "And I knew that if I couldn't get Jeff to believe it, it wouldn't work in the community. His reluctance made me go back and rethink what we were asking from the community. It was only when I was able to get the millage increase to a reasonable level that he was willing to come on board. But I knew that when he came on board, we would win."
And win they did -- in fact, Koenig hasn't lost a millage campaign yet.
He shows no signs of slowing down, despite being on his 10th year of retirement. Bittle calls him "the busiest retired man I know." He clearly loves his community too much to stop fighting on behalf of it.
"We care about people here, I think, is the No. 1 thing," Koenig says of Northwest Arkansas. "And I feel like we owe it, as a community, to do good for all of the folks in our community, no matter what their stature is. That's basically it."
"I was thinking of this just this afternoon," muses Johnson. "If Fayetteville had a Mount Rushmore with the faces of people who helped define it as a community, Jeff's face would be one of the four on that mountain."
NAN Profiles on 11/19/2017
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