Chapter History

    A Look Back: The PRSA - Hampton Roads Chapter 1983-1989

    Editor's note: The following is a history of the first seven years of the chapter's history by its first president, Ken Wheeler, APR - an initial installment in what we hope may become a complete history some day. If you'd like to help bring this story up to date, please get in touch with the chapter president.


    In "All My Best Friends", George Burns tells about old-time comedian George Pearl, who played the outrageous liar Baron von Munchausen. When Cliff Betts, playing his straight man Charlie, would question a particularly outlandish statement, the Baron would ask in an offended voice, "Vus you dere, Sharlie?"

    I started out to write this account of PRSA'S Hampton Roads Virginia Chapter as an objective history. Then it dawned on me that, even if that term is not an oxymoron, I am the person least likely to be objective about the Chapter. In less than seven years, the Chapter went from nonexistent to National Chapter Banner Award Winner. That's a great success story, any way you tell it.

    Besides, when 1989 President Rob Chapman asked me to write this history, I told him there were some things we probably couldn't recapture from the early days. "Don't worry," he said, "anything that you can't document or remember, just make it up." Thanks, Rob. That takes all the pressure off this account.

    And if anyone does question something in this narrative, I have only one thing to say to you: Vus you dere, Reader?

    Kenneth M. Wheeler, APR
    Norfolk, Virginia
    June 1990

    In the Beginning

    The Public Relations Society of America was formed just after World War II, and Virginia's statewide Old Dominion Chapter not too many years after that. Many Hampton Roads professionals participated in the statewide program through the years, including, in the 1970s, people like Shufflebarger, Swinford, Starkey and a number whose last name did not begin with "S". By the late '70s, enough Hampton Roads people were active for ODC to form a Tidewater Region, giving people in Hampton Roads a local outlet.

    Before long, it was clear there were enough active professionals in Southeastern Virginia to form a chapter. The requirements were simple: get a petition signed by 15 PRSA members, show there was potential for another 15 members, write bylaws, select officers, define boundaries and choose a name. By fall 1982, all of that had been done, and the petition to form the Hampton Roads Virginia Chapter was presented to Mid-Atlantic District Chairman Mike Canning at the District meeting in Virginia Beach. Much of the midwifery necessary to make the new chapter a reality was done in San Francisco at the National Conference in November 1982, involving Canning, PRSA National president Joseph Awad (of Richmond), ODC President Frank McNally, Hampton Roads Chapter president-elect Ken Wheeler and PRSA staffers Betsy Kovacs and Jaci Locker.

    Anticipating favorable approval by National, the Chapter's Board-elect met in November 1982, and the organizational meeting of the prospective new chapter was held at noon December 2, 1982, at the Western Steer Steak House near Norfolk's Military Circle. The time and location of the meeting were chosen after an October survey of 29 PRSA members in Hampton Roads. Based on the survey, the Board decided to hold noon meetings on the first Wednesday of each month near the Military Highway/Newtown Road area -- decisions which still hold true seven years later. The Chapter has also continued the practice of periodic surveys to determine members' preferences.

    At the urging of PRSA National leaders, the Chapter decided from the beginning to encourage visitors to attend meetings, in keeping with PRSA's mission to improve individual professionals' growth and development as well as building credibility for the profession itself. Besides, opening the meetings to guests was a good way to build membership. In the beginning, there wasn't even a charge to attend a Chapter meeting; each attendee bought his or her meal in the cafeteria line -- or didn't eat at all. And from the first Chapter meeting, attendance was excellent. For example, at the first regular monthly meeting of the Chapter, on January 5, 1983, at the Western Steer, 34 people attended.

    Founding (1983) officers of the Chapter were Ken Wheeler, president; Ron Reid, vice president; Chuck Applebach, secretary; Moira Wright, treasurer; June McPartland, Jerry Grohowski and Belton Jennings, directors at large; and Bev Lawler, assembly delegate. Original committee chairs were McPartland (program), Jennings (accreditation), Reid (public relations), Grohowski (professional development), and Lin Cooper (membership). Among this group were six present or future Chapter presidents.

    The PRSA National Board ratified the Chapter bylaws in spring 1983, and the Hampton Roads Virginia Chapter became official.

    Building Momentum

    In 1983, the Chapter began many activities that have continued and been strengthened: emphasis on professional development activities, accreditation and building membership; regular monthly meetings at a consistent and accessible location; and excellent speakers of interest to members and visitors. Initial speakers included the marketing director of The Waterside, the news director of a television station, a clinical psychologist specializing in stress, an ODU sociology professor and the editor of The Virginian-Pilot newspaper.

    By the fall, the Chapter had 37 members, including many new PRSA members. A professional development workshop featured the nationally known Lloyd (Larry) Newman -- who returned to Hampton Roads in late 1989 as a meeting speaker. Speakers at Chapter professional development activities and meetings have involved some of the best known names in the country, including Patrick Jackson, Edith Fraser, Jack Felton, Donald McCammond, Jim Arnold, Joe Epley and Scott Cutlip.

    In accordance with bylaws, the 1983 annual meeting was held in November. Ron Reid was elected president, moving up from his v.p. chair -- a practice which has continued each year since. In fact, in 1988, the Chapter reviewed the original bylaws, and the title of vice president was changed to president-elect, reflecting what was happening in fact. The only other change of consequence was to enlarge the Board of Directors by adding three additional directors at large.

    In 1984, Ron Reid and his Board continued emphasis on good speakers, regular meetings, accreditation and professional development, and began work on such other goals as better communications with members, improved financial management and record keeping, establishing Chapter relations with the PRSSA (Student) Chapter at Norfolk State University, and additional program activities.

    It may be useful at this point to note Chapter presidents. In addition to Wheeler (1983) and Reid (1984), presidents were Chuck Applebach (1985), June McPartland (1986), Jerry Grohowski (1987), Lin Cooper (1988), Rob Chapman (1989) and Diane Roche (1990).

    Each year represents several steps in the Chapter's growth. In one way of looking at it, the first three years were preoccupied with doing the basic things well and adding activities slowly and with much forethought. By 1986, under June McPartland, the chapter was reaching maturity. In 1986, for example, the number of Chapter working committees had grown from an original five to twelve. By that time, the Chapter had established a regular newsletter, breakfast roundtable meetings (first one: March 1986), a job referral service, an awards program, active involvement in the Mid-Atlantic District and co-sponsorship of the Virginia Public Relations Conference with the Old Dominion PRSA Chapter and the Richmond Public Relations Association.

    The first award for Outstanding Public Relations Practitioner of the Year was made in December 1986. The recipient was P. Lee starkey, nominated for "a distinguished career in public relations that spans nearly 40 years." Actually, that was a bit of an understatement; Starkey had had not one career in public relations, but two -- as a military public affairs officer and with Virginia Natural Gas -- and he had served PRSA at all levels with distinction. Subsequent winners of the annual award were June McPartland (1987), Sheila Edelheit (1988) and Lin Cooper (1989). In 1989 the Chapter also presented a Career Service Award to Fred R. Ellis.

    The Near Past

    1987 was the first of three successive years of significant developments. 1987 was a year for numbers. That year, Jerry Grohowski and his Board and committee network undertook the Chapter's first major membership drive, chaired by Lin cooper, which was a significant success: 32 new members were brought in during the year. By the end of the year, the Chapter had 88 members, a 35 percent net increase. Attendance at Chapter meetings averaged 48, a jump from the previous year's average of 35.

    1987 also marked the first time the Chapter took on public service projects, working on two that year. It was also the year that the Chapter took on responsibility for guiding and supporting the Norfolk State PRSSA (Student) Chapter -- much to the credit of Norfolk State's Linda Scanlan, who has served the Chapter in many capacities and has kept NSU students involved at all levels. The Chapter even had a Fund Raising Committee, chaired by Trudy Nichols, to look into ways to add money for the treasury.

    But the greatest success of 1987 may have been in chapter management and member involvement. Significant improvements were made in organization, particularly at the Board/committee level, record keeping was significantly improved and the Chapter paid much more attention to budgeting and fiscal planning. During the course of the year, 38 percent of members became personally involved in various Chapter activities. In recognition of the Chapter's advances and for his dedicated leadership, Jerry Grohowski was presented a Presidential Citation by PRSA National President Jack Felton.

    In 1988, President Lin Cooper and her leadership team continued the momentum and built on it. The Chapter had an 11 percent increase in membership (to 98 members) -- double the growth sought by PRSA National leadership. It published a guide to freelance services, enlarged and strengthened the Board structure, continued public service activities and had a monthly breakfast roundtable program so popular that half of the sessions were oversubscribed and had standby waiting lists. Not only was Lin Cooper presented a Presidential Citation, but the Chapter won the coveted Chapter Banner Award from National PRSA -- recognition as the best chapter in the country in its membership bracket.

    For all these successes, 1988 will be remembered as the Year of Accreditation. The Chapter from the beginning had recognized the importance of APR and had given at least one accreditation exam each year, but other items had rightfully taken priority during the formative years. In 1988, accreditation's time had come. The Board moved it to the top of the priority list and asked b.j. Altschul to chair the program. Short in stature (thus the lower case b.j.) but long on energy, Altschul organized a seven-week public relations workshop program to prepare Chapter candidates for the accreditation exam and enlisted accredited Chapter members to teach it. Seven Chapter members took the course and six of them passed the exam -- almost doubling the Chapter's number of accredited members in a single year.

    The momentum of this accreditation workshop program continued into 1989 as a high priority of president Rob Chapman and his lieutenants. Accreditation Chair June McPartland enlarged the concept of the program to make it an outreach activity, a professional development event and a fund-raiser for the Chapter. In spring 1989, 24 people enrolled for the seven-week course, relocated to classroom facilities at CBN (now Regent) University. Five members added APR to their credentials. And the workshop netted $1,320 for the treasury.

    Public Service Chair Jayna Velo, assisted by Judy Baker and Debra Meyerholz, planned and staged an all-day seminar in public relations for non-profit organizations that drew more than 200 attendees. The workshop netted a profit that the Chapter eventually donated to one of the attending organizations. In his end of the year report, President Chapman was moved to play his harmonica before outlining the achievements of the year. Significantly, he credited 20 people by name for the roles they had played in 1989's progress -- more people than the founding membership of the Chapter only seven years before. Among new activities, he reported that the Chapter started a videotape loan library for members, had appointed a minority affairs liaison with National PRSA and a Chapter liaison with the Institute for Public Relations Research and Education, and had revamped the Chapter newsletter (thanks to Laura Beach, Laura Zambardi and Judy Baker), including getting corporate sponsorship.

    Having played his swan song, Chapman turned the Chapter gavel over to 1990 president Diane Roche, who used the January meeting to organize the Chapter's programs and activities. Once again, member involvement was the key to continued success.

    A Final Note

    Reflecting on the journey from creation to Chapter Banner Award winner, Rob Chapman and the Chapter leadership wanted this history to preserve a sense of where the Chapter has been and how and why it got to where it is. It is clearly a story of many people, committed to a professional ideal, to helping people help each other, to reaching in and reaching out. It is a remarkable story of how the whole can be more than the sum of the parts. And the reader who has made it this far in the narrative really must have some interest in the subject. Who knows, maybe you VUS dere!