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Honoring a legend: Roger Rienstra probably wouldn’t hate it

🕐 5 min read

Southwest Advertising Hall of Fame

People who knew him best say that there may never be another man like Roger Rienstra, who is being inducted posthumously into the Southwest Advertising Hall of Fame on April 7.

He’s remembered as talented, generous, an excellent boss and an inspirational leader – and as being demanding, stingy with praise and direct almost to the point of pain.

“Roger was an icon in our community and not just in the advertising community,” said Mike Wilie, who has been president and CEO of Witherspoon & Associates since 2005. “After 40 years in this business I have never met a person who could balance the creative and business side as well as he did.”

Rienstra was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in 2001 and died Oct. 15, 2002, at age 62. He is crediting with leading Witherspoon & Associates, which was established in 1946, to become the largest agency in Fort Worth during his time as CEO and demonstrating that a local agency could also handle national accounts.

“Roger Rienstra was one of the elite advertising/public relations leaders in the Southwest,” said Bill Lawrence, principal of Lawrence & Associates, who worked at Witherspoon from 1976 to 1984, ultimately as senior vice president. “Engaging, intuitive and creative, he built Witherspoon & Associates into an agency powerhouse brimming with creative professionals. He also was a generous volunteer for organizations committed to improving the profession and the community.”

Rienstra had an immense understanding of the natural order of things, Wiley said, once pointing out that birds landing on a power line outside the window would adjust themselves to allow space for other birds’ wingspans.

“We watched that for 20 minutes,” Wilie said. “He taught me how to write a good memo, to edit a letter, to stop and think before acting or reacting. He taught me to always do the right thing by all.”

But he was demanding.

“No one who worked with Roger will forget his high standards,” said Debra Morrow, who worked at Witherspoon from 1990 to 2004 and was named agency president in 1999. She now lives in Florida. “He rarely gave praise. If he liked a logo or ad copy, he’d say, ‘Well, I don’t hate it.’ He was that way with us as individuals, too – always on a singular mission to help hone our talents and give pointers in a kind but direct way.”

Speaking of being direct, Wilie tells a story. Rienstra had worked long and hard to get Witherspoon representatives a seat at the monthly meetings of the agency’s largest client. At one meeting, a Witherspoon representative kept making comments contrary to the chairman of the company.

“A bit later on, Roger was told we were no longer invited,” Wiley said. “He calls Frank Burkett and me into his office and in somewhat colorful language explains how we got fired from the meeting. But due to Roger, we kept the account.”

He seemed to know everyone in town and offered help to many at no charge, Wilie said. “He could get us a meeting with just about anyone and any company. We may not have won any business in each instance but we had the chance. In Roger’s time as leader, Witherspoon grew 354 percent.”

Morrow describes meetings with W.R. “Bob” Watt Sr., then president of the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo.

“Watching Roger and Bob trade witty remarks or just stare each other down was entertainment in itself, and if my heart wasn’t thumping so badly, I would have enjoyed it. But I had to read my scripts to Bob, and he went to the same ‘I don’t hate it’ school that Roger did,” Morrow said.

Once on Watt’s birthday Rienstra decided to have a baby goat delivered with a message something to the effect of “Happy Birthday, Bob. You’re not an old goat … yet,” Morrow said. “My assignment was to find and deliver the goat. That I did, and Bob’s reaction was predictable. No expression. Just silence and a barely perceptible nod. He made sure the goat went to a good home.”

Both Wiley and Morrow praised Rienstra’s speechwriting ability; Wiley said Rienstra wrote many speeches for civic leaders and never took credit.

Morrow plans to be at the event honoring her former boss. “If only Roger could be there to give an acceptance speech,” she said. “He was a masterful speechwriter, even ghostwriting funny stuff for Dee Kelly Sr.”

Rienstra is gone, but not forgotten, and the people he mentored remember him and his advice constantly.

He was giving away books from his office library, and Morrow wanted him to inscribe The Forbes Scrapbook of Thoughts on the Business of Life for her. “He wrote, ‘My own thought on the business of life is that it works out best where you care enough about everything, but not too much about anything.’ For Roger, it was all about the work and the kind of people we liked to work with. He called them ‘non-jerks,’” she said.

“Roger was a rare, hybrid ad agency CEO – businessman, strategist, marketer, gifted writer, artist, speaker, philanthropist and Fort Worth ambassador,” Morrow said. That was uncommon then and still is today. “Creatives respected him. Account execs respected him. The business community respected him. Roger was the quintessential ad man. Under his leadership, Witherspoon evolved from a PR agency to an advertising powerhouse. He loved Fort Worth and sang its praises.”

Rienstra’s still providing advice for Wilie.

“I think of him often and ask myself what would he do in my place today. Memories of our conversations and time spent still guide me,” he said. “He was a tremendous person. His influence affects me to this day. I can add that every client Roger had was also a friend.”

Paul Harral
Paul is a lifelong journalist with experience in wire service, newspaper, magazine, local and network television and digital media. He was vice president and editor of the editorial page of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and editor of Fort Worth, Texas magazine before joining the Business Press. What he likes best is writing about people in detail and introducing them to others in the community. Specific areas of passion are homelessness, human trafficking, health care and aerospace.

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