Luke Dennis: Development Director, WYSO 91.3FM

L Dennis Headshot2Do you love music and theater, and want to work in that world, but aren’t sure of your route? Luke Dennis started there and followed a winding path to his career at WYSO 91.3FM. I asked Luke how he crafted his career. The highlights of his story follow.

In the beginning…

As Luke Dennis was growing up in Wilmington, Ohio, his parents adopted a hands-off approach, allowing him to set his own course. He liked music. Starting in 6th grade, he played euphonium in the band and bass guitar in the jazz band and various rock bands. Currently, he plays in a local band, Lord Kimbo, with his best friend from elementary school, Mike Bisig.

Luke was in charge of his college search and visits. He visited just one school, Kenyon College, liked it, and applied early decision. After Kenyon accepted him, they sent him his financial aid package. In Luke’s hotheaded eighteen-year-old opinion, it was insufficient. Without consulting his parents, he told Kenyon, “I’m going to withdraw unless you increase my financial aid. They said, “Just do it”. “I dropped out of Kenyon before I even started and I had nowhere to go to college”. A friend’s stepfather knew the Dean of Admissions at Wittenberg University and suggested Luke visit. Within eight days, Luke was enrolled and attending orientation for new students. “One of many happy accidents I’ve had”.

“Without any reflection,” Luke declared a double major in music and theatre at Wittenberg. He quickly found mentors in each department and “it ended up being a great fit. I could act and direct in the theatre program and I ended up doing a vocal performance emphasis in the music department, which has helped me at WYSO”.

What path did Luke take after Wittenberg?

After graduating from Wittenberg, “I thought I might like to direct plays at a college”. To pursue that goal, Luke enrolled at Tufts University in Boston in a dual M.A./ Ph.D. program in theater history, literature and theory. “I didn’t do any research or think about it”.

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Luke & Sally

Luke had met his wife, Sally, in the Wittenberg Theatre program. Boston sounded good to her, too, so she moved with him and found a job teaching at Cambridge Montessori School.

While Luke studied at Tufts, he also worked three jobs, “so I wasn’t putting a lot of focus on my studies”. His jobs included:

  • Box office at the American Repertory Theater
  • Improv theater in Boston’s North End running the lighting and sound
  • Reading Room at The Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library – a public facing position working with researchers who were “researching cool interesting stuff”
  • Tufts graduate fellow – “I got paid to teach acting to undergraduates” which was “real validation of why I went to graduate school”

Although graduate school “felt like the right path for me… I couldn’t force myself to sit down and write”. “I liked going to class; I liked reading the plays a lot. But I certainly was not interested in publishing papers or going to conferences or writing a dissertation”.

Consequently, after three years at Tufts, Luke dropped out of the Ph.D. program and accepted a full-time position in the Reading Room at the Harvard Theatre Collection doing the same thing he’d been doing on a part-time basis. “I liked the ways that the past could inform the present”.

During that time, Luke and his wife also started a theater company, “actively producing about three shows a year at the Boston Center for the Arts with a focus on new plays. So I was in that world and that’s why the Theatre Collection interested me”.

Did Luke stay with the Harvard Theatre Collection?

After a year, Luke decided he needed more money. Knowing that he wanted to work with theater productions in Boston, he found a job as the Director of Education and Outreach for the Boston Lyric Opera. Opera had been Luke’s focus as graduate student, “so I just applied and basically talked my way into the job”.

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Opera Singer

The Boston Lyric Opera Company is a big company, with four main stage productions a year at the Schubert Theater, and a summer season of public performances on Boston Commons. “It was a fun job. I got to travel with their touring children’s opera”.

Three years later, Luke’s boss retired and the company wanted Luke to take on a much larger role. Luke and Sally had just had their first child, which changed things. “We felt very isolated having an infant – none of our friends had kids yet”. Luke and Sally decided, “We should raise our children around family”.

What did Luke and Sally do?

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Victoria Theater, Dayton, Ohio

Three months after their daughter was born, Luke and Sally moved to Yellow Springs, Ohio. Luke took a job as Education and Outreach Director at the Victoria Theater Association in Dayton.

The job wasn’t a good fit for Luke, however, so he only lasted for one and a half years. It did serve as a “stepping stone to become the Director of Muse Machine”.

How did Luke like Muse Machine?

Started in 1982, Muse Machine is an arts education program that works with Dayton area schools to connect students and teachers to the performing and visual arts.

Due to education’s increased emphasis on testing, arts education had changed since the Muse Machine began. Schools no longer had room in their schedules for arts appreciation programming. “I was there as a real driver of change, not just an administrator, but a creative program person – moving toward more of a residency model where artists are in the school for a prolonged period doing in depth curriculum based stuff with students”.

The funding landscape for nonprofits in the Dayton area had also changed. Major corporate supporters like NCR and Mead Corporation had drastically decreased their support as they reduced their presence in the region. Consequently, Luke had to sell the new program approach to the schools at the same time that he was reinventing the organization’s funding model.

Luke stayed for four years with Muse Machine. “I enjoyed it, but it took a toll on my family life. I did not have a good work/life balance and was letting it bleed into my personal life”. Work pressures made him want to “go back to a time when things were different”.

What did Luke do to relieve the pressure?

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Boston skyline

Luke learned that the Curator of the Harvard Theatre Collection had died suddenly. Remembering how much he had liked working there, he applied and persuaded his wife to move back to Boston. “I won’t have to work as much. I’ll make more money and our kids can grow up in the richness of the culture”.

“I thought it was going to be great, but it was terrible”.

Why was the job as Curator of The Harvard Theatre Collection terrible?

As the Curator, Luke was responsible for

  • Building the collection
  • Managing the funds and the purchases of materials
  • Discovering auctions of rare items around the world
  • Preparing materials on requested theater subjects for student use in the Reading Room

“The job was fun. I traveled a lot”. But Luke’s wife, Sally, was deeply unhappy. They had left “a very supportive network of close friends with kids the ages of our kids” and didn’t find anything similar in Boston. Consequently, Luke left Harvard after six months.

That sounds drastic! What happened next?

Luke called Neenah Ellis, General Manager of WYSO 91.3FM, and told her, “I’m desperate to move back. I need a job, so if you hear of any opening, will you let me know”.

Luke and Neenah for March 2016 predrive letter
Luke & Neenah Ellis

In another happy accident, Neenah told him WYSO was searching for a Development Director. He applied for the  job, interviewed, got the job, resigned from Harvard, and moved back to Yellow Springs – all within 40 days.

WYSO 93.1FM is a public radio station, based in Yellow Springs, Ohio, which airs 24/7. Operated by Antioch College since 1958, WYSO is the only NPR News station in the Miami Valley. In addition to NPR programming, WYSO delivers:

  • local and state news
  • public affairs programming and news specials
  • Public Radio International
  • American Public Media
  • PRX
  • BBC (British Broadcasting Service)
  • the work of independent radio producers

Did Luke find happiness at WYSO?

“WYSO is a good fit”. Although his title is Development Director, he’s not just focused on dollars, because “programming drives fundraising”. 

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WYSO receiving support from the DPL Foundation

He said, “I get to be creatively involved” as long as it relates to the mission. “I’m really more of community, outreach, partnerships AND fundraising. I get to go to all the meetings. I get to meet with funders, meet with producers. I got to help launch the area youth program”.

“WYSO is such a nexus of so many interests and ideas; it’s like a place of ideas and collaboration. In a theater company or opera company, we were hitting… barriers to participation such as the high expense of a ticket. I love that WYSO is free”.

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WYSO 91.3FM memorabilia

WYSO offers “so much programming: storytelling, news, journalism, programs that celebrate young people with youth radio. Those are some of the things that have made me want to go to work”. That’s obviously a big draw, because Luke is celebrating his five-year anniversary.

In describing the work culture at WYSO, Luke quoted Mother Theresa, “I can do things you cannot; you can do things I cannot; together we can do great things”. He has found that sort of collaboration at WYSO. 

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WYSO out and about in the community

“Everybody works from their strength and does their part”.

 Luke’s observations:

  • Keeping searching. “If you want to be part of making something in the arts, there’s a place for you”
  • Find a positive environment and be positive yourself. “If you’re going to work in an industry where you work long hours and don’t get paid a lot, you should be surrounded by people who are just as dedicated as you are and glean just as much satisfaction”
  • Decide: “What do you like? What drives you? What are you excited about?”
  • Recognize your strengths. For a long time, Luke thought he didn’t have the right skill set, that he needed a project management background or MBA. Today his perspective is different. “What you’re good at is not a liability. It might be a liability in one setting, but it’s a gift and it’s a talent in another setting, so just get yourself in the right context, because everybody has their thing that they’re good at. Don’t just take the job because you can get it and then suffer with it, because it’s not actually utilizing your talents. Just find the thing that’s utilizing your talents”
  • “I like to experiment to see what will happen – that’s the story of my career”.

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Bill Evans: Baker and House of Bread Executive Director

Bill Evans 2

Do you flourish in the kitchen – mixing dough, baking cookies, and decorating cakes? Have you wondered if you could do it for a career? Bill Evans has been feeding people his entire career, first as an owner/baker and then as executive director of the House of Bread. I asked Bill how he crafted his career. The highlights of his story follow.

Dough rollerMy conversation with Bill Evans started at 7:00am at Evans Bakery in Dayton four days before St. Patrick’s Day. Bill and his daughter, Jennifer, were hard at work. The dough rolling machine rumbled, oven timers rang, and the wide cookie dough lifter clacked against the cutting table. Completely dressed in bakers white, Bill talked while he prepared the cut out shamrock cookies.

How did Bill go from a schoolboy in Bordentown, New Jersey to a bakery owner in Dayton, Ohio?

When Bill was growing up in Bordentown, New Jersey, his father was a baker and his older brother was a baker, but he wanted nothing to do with baking. He made his first acquaintance  with the business as a boy. He decided that, unlike his brothers and sisters, he wanted to go to the Catholic high school. His father said, “Well son, that’s what I want you to do, too, so you better get you a job.” So Bill cut grass and swept the floor in the bakery where his dad was chief baker.

When Bill graduated from high school, he wanted to go to college. His father said, “Well, I want that, too, son. You better get you a job.” Bill knew he couldn’t mow enough grass to pay college tuition, so he looked around. The employment options in Bordentown were limited, however. Bill knew he didn’t want to work in the Ocean Spray factory, so he applied for a job at the Royal Bakery in Trenton, New Jersey.

Management at the bakery assumed that Bill had been baking all his life and hired him. Bill’s father gave him a crash course in baking and Bill went to work. It didn’t take long for the folks at Royal Bakery to realize that Bill was a complete rookie. But he was smart and trainable, so they kept him.

Did Bill ever go to college?

Once Bill had earned enough money to pay the tuition, he quit his job and enrolled at Miami University. Unfortunately, he ran out of money after the first year and returned to Bordentown. After another year working at the Royal Bakery, Bill boarded a bus for the University of Dayton, where he knew a lot of kids from New Jersey.

Bill had never been to Dayton before and knew nothing about the city, but he knew his first task was to find a job. He got off the bus on Brown Street outside the South Park Bakery, which had a “Help Wanted” sign posted in the window. He set his suitcase down on the ground and walked in to ask for a job.

The old baker groused about hiring him, but finally agreed to test Bill for a week. The old guy grumbled at him all week, but at the end of the day on Friday, he said, “See you tomorrow”. So Bill knew he had a job. Bill’s Monday – Friday hours were 2:30am – 6:00am, which gave him time for classes the rest of the day. Saturday was an eight-hour day, and Bill looked forward to resting on Sunday. But when he clocked out that first Saturday, the old baker said, “See you tomorrow, kid.” Bill swallowed hard, knowing that meant he had no days off, but he needed the money. So he stayed.

Bill worked those hours seven days a week and went to classes until his senior year. Then he asked the old baker for a nickel raise. Without hesitation, the old guy said, “Kid, good luck to you. There’s the door.”

Bill was majoring in Social Work, so he used his new free time to get an internship with Juvenile Court. He graduated from the University of Dayton with a strong foundation in social work, insight into the juvenile justice system, hard-earned experience in the bakery business, and no idea of what came next.

So Bill got a college degree. Then what?

When Bill’s internship boss asked him what he was going to do after graduation, Bill said he was going to take the first job he could find anywhere in the world. In response, his boss offered him a full-time job in the Juvenile Court. So he stayed right in Dayton. He graduated on a Saturday and went to work the following Monday

What propelled Bill back into the bakery business?

Bill got married and rapidly discovered there was no money in social work. So he worked at another bakery on the side and kept his ears open for opportunities. In 1969 after eighteen months in Juvenile Court, Bill heard that the Schattschneiders were ready to retire and wanted to sell their bakery. Bill didn’t know them, but he went over to talk to them. As he said, “they kind of liked each other”. The Schattschneiders wanted $5,000 for the down payment, but Bill didn’t have that kind of money. Fortunately, he and his wife, Rosemary, were able to borrow it from her parents.

Bill signed the contract for the purchase of the bakery from the Schattschneiders on a Friday and he opened Evans Bakery the following Monday morning. When I asked him how he learned to manage a bakery, he shrugged, “I kind of have that baking gene, and I never found it to be much of a mystery.”

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Evans Bakery, 700 Troy Street, Dayton, Ohio

Is the bakery business really that simple?

I watched Bill and his daughter, Jennifer, quickly pushing the brick of dough through the rolling machine, cutting the cookies, and spreading them out on the deep layer of green sugar that coated the cookie sheets. I concluded running a bakery may not be a mystery, but it’s demanding work. And like any business, the owner must plan ahead, track money and details and manage staff.

Did Bill head for the links when retirement beckoned?

After running the bakery for 35 years – from 1969 to 2004 – Bill was ready to sell the bakery and retire. He emerged from retirement almost immediately, however. The Board of Trustees of the House of Bread knew him through his volunteer work at St. Vincent DePaul Dayton. The House of Bread Executive Director was retiring, so the Board asked Bill to fill the position. Happy to have a new challenge, Bill agreed, despite the fact that he had no experience running a nonprofit organization. House of Bread, 9 Orth Avenue, Dayton, Ohio, provides a hot, nutritious lunch to anyone in need.

Bill expected to spend a month working with the retiring Executive Director, Jean Taylor to learn on the job. They met at Meadowbrook Country Club to plan, or so Bill thought. On arriving, Jean directed Bill to move five giant boxes from her car to his. Then, after four hours of instruction, she left. “The shortest training on record!”

How did Bill translate his bakery skills to being an Executive Director?

Bill applied his planning skills honed by running the bakery. Before Bill started at the House of Bread, the Board of Trustees had raised $100,000 as seed money to build a new facility. Unforeseen engineering work required to stabilize the ground, however, quickly ate that fund. So Bill started with no money to fund construction. Working with the Board, Bill found a way to complete the $549,000 project. When Bill left the House of Bread in 2014, their debt was paid down and now the organization is completely debt-free.

Raising the money to operate a small nonprofit is generally the job of the Executive Director. Bill was used to selling baked goods for profit, so running a business by asking for money it was new. Generally nonprofits cover expenses by raising money in two ways – asking for donations and writing grants. Although he wrote some successful grants, Bill said he didn’t like writing them. He was, however, “really really good at asking people for money” even though he didn’t enjoy that, either. His persistence and thick skin made it work. If the person gave Bill money, he would say, “I love you!” If they turned him down, he would say, “I love you.”

Given that Bill had never run a nonprofit before, I asked if anyone gave him good advice. He immediately mentioned Peter Benkendorf and The Collaboratory. Bill was always curious to learn what others were doing and The Collaboratory was a good source of information.

Retirement beckoned again. But did Bill really retire?

Bill said he had a good ten-year run at the House of Bread. As much as he liked doing it, he said, “Sometimes there just comes a time. It’s very exhausting to minister to the poor, the needy and the hungry.” So he stepped away.

Did Bill settle into a rocking chair this time?

Seven years after Bill sold the bakery, it was available again. Fed up with their jobs in Detroit, Bill’s daughter, Jennifer, and her partner, Matthew Tepper, decided to return to Dayton and reopen the bakery. On December 17, 2012, they opened Evans Bakery as a full-service bakery, Monday through Saturday. So Bill came out of retirement to work for Jennifer on a part-time basis.Racks and counter

As Bill sprinkled flour and then ran a brick of cookie dough backwards and forwards through the rolling machine, he told me he enjoys the work. Then he lifted the flattened dough and said, “But this is the last time I come out of retirement!”

Bill’s observations…

  • Master basic math – bakers must be able to multiply beyond 10 x 10, figure percentages, and make change easily and rapidly
  • Ask for help, regardless of whether you’re looking for a job, raising money or seeking business advice
  • Be curious about what other people are doing to succeed
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