A way with words
Stories just seem to ooze from Joe Richardson’s pores. Ask CCA’s Writer of the Year even the most mundane question, and it’s likely you’ll get a response that elicits laughter — or tears.
There’s his work history, for instance. He details the usual newspaper and radio background. But then adds a plot twist: “…and for a mercifully brief period [I] spent my nights molding flower pot covers inside a soulless, cinder-block building that doubled as an Easter grass factory.”
The Southwestern Electric Cooperative communicator has been wowing with words during a co-op career that has spanned three decades. We asked him to spin a tale about himself for this month’s profile.
Who inspires you?
A lot of the folks reading this. People like Mark Bagby, who seems to have mastered a commanding knowledge of most things worth knowing, and on top of it, is an all-around cool human being. Allison Jenkins, who’s brilliant in every way one can be. Sheryl Meshke, who’s sharp and kind and never met a stranger. My dear friend KD Bryant, who’s both poetic and incisive. Lani Jordan, who’s one of the most accomplished communicators I’ve ever met. And Heather Berry, who’s blessed with a gentle spirit that comes through in her words and pictures. Find yourself at a CCA event, and you can’t escape inspiration. You’re surrounded.
Outside our field, I’ve met some incredibly strong individuals through my cancer support group. A lot of them have had a hard row to hoe, and they do it with humor and dignity and grace.
What led you to a career in cooperative communications?
A CCA member. I was covering a rural water district meeting for my hometown paper and ran into a videographer — CCA member Kevin Bernson. Kevin asked if I’d ever thought about writing for a magazine. Three weeks later, I’m working for the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives as an associate editor for Illinois Country Living. I’d been there about 18 months when Southwestern Electric called.
Describe a memorable moment you’ve had as a co-op communicator.
Every month in our magazine, we run a back-of-the-book challenge. One guy submits an answer every month, without fail. He doesn’t just send an answer — he researches the topic and writes these pithy replies with character and attitude. I look forward to his letters.
A few months ago, our issue mailed, and true to form, his name appeared in my mailbox. But the mail wasn’t from him. It was from his wife. She’d written to tell me he’d passed away earlier in the week. She went on to say how important it had been to him, seeing his letters in our magazine. He’d been fighting dementia, and knowing he had the acumen to research and write material that we’d print was a significant marker for him. She closed by telling me how much he’d enjoyed our correspondence.
You invest time and effort planning and perfecting a six-page cover story featuring a multi-million dollar project that ensures safe, reliable power for several thousand people, and the world gives a collective shrug. You print three paragraphs in the back of the book and banter with someone a bit, and later learn you were walking them through a rough patch, reassuring them they’re still nimble and clever and can contribute. You never know which of your words will be a catalyst for change, or help someone make it through the day.
How has being a cancer survivor influenced your communications work?
I’ll be the first to tell you, cancer has stolen things from me: peace of mind, self-confidence, people I thought were my friends. But I’ll also tell you it’s been the bearer of great gifts. Insight. Empathy. Perspective. Self-awareness. People I know are my friends. I carry those gifts with me. And I see them in my words and pictures. So yeah, playing tag with cancer informs everything I do, whether I realize it in the moment or not. And I’m ever so grateful it does.
How do you stay organized?
Google and a spiral-bound notebook. Mike Barns and I map out issue ideas for our magazine on paper. I sort my tasks, then plot the when and where of it all on Google Calendar. The Daily-Do list goes in my notebook on a planner page with hourly allotments. A blank journal page stands opposite. The journal provides a reality check, and the schedule lends direction to the day.
What’s something few CCA members know about you?
If you’re following I-70 across Illinois, you may run into one of 21 National Park-style cultural heritage interpretive panels stationed in towns along the interstate. I wrote those, collected the images, shot some of the art and directed the development.
Three things I always have in my pocket:
Pen, paper and $2.35. That’ll buy me a large light roast and an afternoon’s writing at my hometown coffeehouse.
I once stood in line for tickets to…
See the opening ceremonies for Star Wars Celebration in Orlando. My son and I were in line overnight. We slept on a cement floor in the Orange County Convention Center, along with several, thousand other people with severely misplaced priorities. The morning we shuffled out with our event bands, we’d have told you there was no way it would be worth it. And then we were in a room with George Lucas and John Williams and Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill, and it suddenly was.