The Grand Rapids business community — indeed, the community — has suffered the loss of two unique individuals whose influence will long serve residents, but whose presence will be profoundly missed. Community Media Center Executive Director Dirk Koning’s accidental death during a routine heart-related surgery stunned the community. Former West Michigan Blue Cross Blue Shield Vice President and current President and CEO of Kent Health Plan Charles Zech died last week after an 11-month battle with cancer.
Koning, 48, who established the Community Media Center in Grand Rapids, was a pioneer in community-centered media and a world leader in the proliferation of broadband Internet. Koning helped establish community media centers in countries around the world, and some of those representatives attended his funeral in Grand Rapids. Most of them commented that Koning put Grand Rapids on the world map and provided this city with broad acknowledgement and pioneering status. Koning was working with Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell in establishing a citywide free Wi-Fi initiative.
Heartwell told the Business Journal: “This community has lost a giant … Dirk was a consultant to nations, often Third World nations where he was assisting them in providing community media service, providing national access to broadband Internet services …” Heartwell also noted that Koning taught him the meaning of the Digital Divide, “… the division between the rich and the poor is a digital division, it’s access to information. Information is power and power is wealth.”
The CMC is an international model for integrated Internet, television and radio applications through its GRTV public television station, radio station WYCE, nonprofit ISP Grand Net and the Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy. He also edited the national magazine Community Media Review and was president of the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance for Communication Democracy. He was an invited delegate to the United Nations World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva, Switzerland, and wrote and spoke internationally. The Communications Alliance described Koning as “Jeffersonian.”
Chuck Zech, 61, was equally zealous, and tireless, in his efforts as an advocate to the disabled and uninsured. A long-time member of the Alliance for Health, Zech helped the nonprofit establish Kent Health Plan, a nonprofit organization providing the vehicle to insure more than 50,000 Kent County residents. The group was among the initiatives cited by Gov. Jennifer Granholm in her first State of the State speech as an example of what communities can do. Kent Health Plan uses state, federal and private grants to fund health plans for the uninsured and underinsured. It also rolled out a program for Kent County’s smallest businesses, which generally do not have funds to provide health-care benefits.
Zech was involved in several community philanthropic endeavors, chief among them his work for nine years as president of the Hope Network of West Michigan. Zech, too, has been highly regarded by the business community for his compassion and as a role model in the manner in which organizations create leadership opportunities and appreciation for every employee, from CEO to janitor.
Zech was to be honored by the Alliance For Health March 15 during its first annual recognition of outstanding partnerships in health care in business and in the community, the Hillman Health Care Awards.
The community’s greatest recognition of both men will be in the continuation of their work.