Cuba native says it’s ethics he learned on farm that helped him pursue global paths
By Deb Hadachek Telescope editor
Two attitudes have guided Jim Trecek’s life.
One is: “Go! Go! Go!”.
The other: “Nobody ever told me I couldn’t do something.”
Those two principles led the Cuba farm boy to travel a path that opened new vistas for himself, and for others.
In 1962 he was a wide-eyed rural teenager stunned at what all the “big city”–Emporia, Kans.– had to offer as a college town.
In 1987 he was sitting in a 44th floor office in New York City creating The Travel Channel, a television network designed to inspire others to see the world.
By 2001 everything he learned in life and business took a serious twist as he helped the military envision the kind of international communication needed to fight global terrorism and support Homeland Security and other high-security organizations.
The roads Trecek travels often brings him back to his roots: growing up on a farm east of Cuba with three brothers; the Cuba High School teachers who challenged him to dream bigger; classmates who have remained close friends for 55 years.
“I don’t think if I would have graduated in Wichita or Topeka with a class of 600 I would have done anything as notably satisfying,” Trecek says. There were 11 students in his 1962 graduating class. “This is where I learned to work hard; this is where I was challenged and accepted. I have a lot of respect for the foundation I was able to gain (in Cuba).”
This fall, Trecek will be recognized as a Distinguished Alumnus of Emporia State University. In his retirement- -one of three or four times for the 72 year-old Tulsa, Okla., resident has marked during his career–he continues to consult on projects to protect the environment, and to brainstorm on new avenues technology can open.
Among the conversations he has today center on how business can tap into the Midwest work ethic that is part of his own background.
Inspired by teachers
Trecek’s life might have taken a different path if it weren’t for his allergies.
“I was allergic to everythingon the farm,” he laughs. “I knew when I was in seventh grade that I wasn’t going to farm.”
That didn’t stop his parents, Raymond and Pauline, from requiring him to haul bales, milk cows and work on harvest crews as a teenager, just like his brothers John, Tom and Bill. As he considered his possibilities after graduation, Trecek thought he might become a teacher. For aspiring teachers in Cuba in 1962, the logical path was to attend a junior college like nearby Fairbury, Nebr. and earn a two-year certificate to teach.
But a young English teacher at Cuba, Keren Lowman, recognized Trecek’s love of creative writing and speech and communications. She insisted that her alma mater, Emporia State University, was a better fit for Trecek than a junior college.
“Emporia was the ‘scary’ big city for me,” Trecek says. “But it was part of that Go! Go! Go!, in me–I thought ‘if I don’t try it, I’ll never know’.”
Trecek enrolled in the only two journalism classes Emporia State offered at the time, which published the college newspaper and yearbook. He became friends with the Journalism advisor, Robert Lowman, a graduate a student who accepted a job as sports information director at Ft. Hays State when Trecek was a junior at E-State.
“I had never heard of a sports information director,” he says. “But everyone always griped about how (Emporia State) sports never got any coverage by the newspapers in Topeka or Kansas City or any TV coverage. So I asked the Public Relations department, “do you mind if I try it?”
Trecek started to travel with the men and women’s sports teams, writing stories and recording interviews. The regional and state media attention the university received caught the eye of the university president, who was surprised to learn Trecek was a college student providing the coverage for free.
He insisted Trecek be paid for his work: 85-cents an hour. When Trecek graduated from Emporia his sports coverage earned him not only a degree to teach English and speech, but minors in physical education and journalism.
Following his initial plans, he taught at Great Bend High School, while at the same time serving as an editor and reporter for the Great Bend Tribune. Not convinced that teaching was his love, he considered law school, and then saw an opening for a sports information director at Central Missouri State University in Warrensburg. There he completed work for his masters in communication and intended to pursue a communications career on the college-level.
But another college mentor urged Trecek to pursue public relations in private industry. That’s how he ended up in Tulsa, Okla. working for Skelly Oil Company.
Along with writing news releases about oil developments, Trecek was intrigued by an emerging technology: the growing use of video and audio tapes to communicate with the public. That inspired him to learn more about the other side of the communications industry that included marketing and advertising, so he created his own communications company.
Among his customers in the mid-1970s were entrepreneurs who envisioned the possibilities in cable and satellite industries to greatly expand the number of stations people could access on television and radio. He consulted with the startups of ESPN, the Christian Broadcasting Network, and the national satellite distribution of WGNAmerica as well as related emerging technology companies.
“As all of this going on–as audiences, grew, advertisers were looking more and more at what was going on–we all knew someone would come up with a way to utilize digital technology, and it would be huge,” he says.
He went to New York to start “beating the pavement” for advertisers to support the newly emerging cable television networks.
As he worked, Trecek became intrigued with the popularity of home shopping networks, and wondered if a similar audience existed for people interested in travel.
He pitched the idea of advertising on a “travel channel” to the advertising/PR firm that represented Trans World Airlines. Within hours, he was invited to dinner with Carl Icahn, CEO of TWA, who told him TWA wanted to buy his idea and make Trecek the chief executive officer of the new network.
One day as Trecek sat in his 44th floor office at TWA overlooking New York City, he had an epiphany.
“One of my staff executives walked in and said, “Jim, you’re creating a global TV network and you were born and raised on a farm in the middle of Nowhere, Kansas, played six- man football, there were 11 kids in your class–how did you get from there to here?”
“The answer was pretty easy,” Trecek says. “No one ever told me I couldn’t do it.”
The Travel Channel’s debut on February 1, 1987, “was initially the hottest channel to air in the history of cable television”, Trecek says.
Homeland Security introduction
TWA eventually sold The Travel Channel, and Trecek retired for the first time at age 44. He and his wife returned to Tulsa, where he became involved in a start-up marketing and sales job for digital technology, and oil and related hydrocarbon products as well.
By the time he retired again, at age 60, “we were doing quite a bit of high-security stuff on digital cable,” he says. “It was interesting to research the security side and how to use technology and be more secure.”
Then came 9/11. And that brought a call to Trecek for advice on how the military branches could communicate with each other securely, and instantly, around the world.
“That’s when Homeland Security emerged,” he explains. “I was able to be a part of contributing solutions to make our nation more secure.“Eventually, I became a partner in a group of
“Eventually, I became a partner in a group of high-security professionals who worked closely with high-level organizations around the world.
“It was totally unique to me.”
At 72, Trecek says he is “retired” again, traveling back to Kansas to visit his brothers and friends, traveling with his wife, Barbara, to Florida to babysit grandchildren. The couple has four children, Heather, Kyle, Hillarie and Matt, and seven grand children.
He still runs fi ve miles every other day, a practice he started at age 14 on the dirt and gravel roads of Cuba. He says that physical activity–”which is never on the clock and I don’t wear a watch”–has helped hone his creative side.
But his “Go! Go! Go!” attitude hasn’t gone by the wayside. He regularly consults with researchers around the country on concerns as varied as how to separate oil and water– ”water is such an important product and we’re just throwing it away”– and new emerging technology and communication ideas.
One of those projects is how companies can attract engineers, scientists and professionals to use rural communities that could tap into the Midwest work ethic, which is a sought-after commodity in urban areas, Trecek says.
The world changes fast, and so do our opportunities, he says.
“Today, what you’ve learned can be outdated in six months and even sooner, compared with a few short years ago when that same amount of information that we created and learned in six months previously took 20 years to create and use,” he says.
“But what I learned in Republic County, to work hard and efficiently, are the greatest assets I walked away from the farm with,” he says. “It’s a thrill that we can pass those values of hard work onto our children and grandchildren.”
Jim was named a 2017 Distinguished Alumni of Emporia State University – https://www.emporia.edu/news/06/07/2017/2017-distinguished-alumni-announced/?