Russ McKnight is such a great storyteller.
Maybe it’s because he’s not afraid to try new things or that he has a keen sense of his surroundings. Or it could just be his inquisitive, whimsical spirit.
It’s likely all of those things, but I think there’s something else to it, too, and one of his stories in particular helps me to make sense of it all.
It helps me to truly understand and appreciate Russ for the passionate person he’s not even trying to be.
“It’s just the way I am,” he says.
The story was about a tree.
Today, Russ helps manage projects for MJM, an ad agency in Sioux Falls. But before that, he was so many other things. Photographer, videographer, teacher, designer. He’d been in marketing, healthcare, the tech world, printmaking and so on.
But amid all of that, he was unemployed for a small while, and he needed something to do.
So he cut down this dead cottonwood tree in his backyard. All by himself.
“This tree was 8 foot across the sky, 30 feet up there,” he begins describing, arms in the air. The whole thing feels poetic. “It was a month-long project to cut this tree down by myself. I would get up every morning and psych myself up not to be afraid to climb up the tree!”
He always did. To do the job, Russ bolted ladders to the trunk and made rope ladders out to each branch then would climb out as far as he could to cut branch after branch. He rented a lumberjack chainsaw to do so and, day after day, whittled his way down to the stump — still a mighty 4 feet in diameter.
“My son was a teenager at the time and did something very bad, I can’t remember, but his punishment was to help me dig out the stump. And so we began digging underneath. We removed tons of earth, just a huge hole in the ground.”
Once free, they lumbered the nearly two-ton stump through their yard and onto his pickup truck, drove it to the dump and rolled the thing off. “Isn’t it just just the craziest story?” he laughs.
Practically unbelievable, actually.
“I had the most wonderful experience though,” he says, and this is the Russ I want you to know. “The tree had an ant colony, those big, black carpenter ants that probably helped kill the tree. And as I was cutting the very last piece of the stump, ants were pouring out — waves of ants. They were crawling all over my arms. My arms were black! And then a whole flock of robins came, and they’re eating these things! They’re ignoring me! They’re landing on my arms and they’re eating the ants, they just had no fear of me. It was the most fabulous thing to see, right as I’m cutting through this stump, these birds engorging on these ants.”
“And you weren’t afraid?” I would’ve been hysterical.
“No. It was fabulous! It was totally cool.”
All this is to say that, no matter what Russ is doing — no matter what life brings him — he finds the joy.
And that makes for a great story.
From art to photo to video, and so it began
Russ studied art in college, at the University of Maine in the late ’70s. His degree focused on printmaking, but his heart was always set on photography. Because there was no photo program being offered at the time, he took it upon himself to learn. He even began independent studies with his painting professors to do so.
“They didn’t know anything about photography, but they knew about images,” Russ says. “So I would talk with them for two hours each week, just about pictures. I did that for three years.”
His interest piqued. He continued on to graduate school at the University of Michigan, this time with the opportunity to study photography. He calls that “the best two years of my life.”
“I had all the passion there, but they just refined me and focused me. I loved it so much.”
Russ went on to teach photography — as well as drawing and design — in Ohio for over 10 years. During this time, he also managed a book arts laboratory, where his love for printmaking flourished.
“I became a hand paper maker, a letterpress printer, a book binder,” he went on. “I really immersed myself into the history of books! I just loved it, and I was very good at it. I was a very good craftsman.”
Enough to settle into a lifelong career? Not quite. The center eventually closed, leaving Russ in a search for something new. It didn’t take long. A video production company sought him out, and another adventure began.
“I started out learning how to edit radio spots on a reel-to-reel tape recorder but, three years later, I was writing scripts, editing video and interviewing people for off-camera work. It was at a point where I was getting to be director / producer!”
Of course he was.
“I made this really beautiful animation once,” he recalls of his favorite work there. “It took weeks to animate this thing in 3D. But I was so proud of that. I still have a copy on VHS.”
In the late ’90s, Russ moved his family to North Sioux City, South Dakota, to begin a job with Gateway Computers. A recruiter unexpectedly reached out to Russ asking him to join their engineering department.
“I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. I’ve never used a PC in my life!’ ” he laughs.
He was intrigued anyway. “I realized most of what they wanted me to do, I could do, and the parts I couldn’t do, I was interested in learning, like how do you develop help systems on a computer?”
He took the job.
“Gateway was great, and it was awful,” he recalls. “I was in engineering, not in marketing. I liked the engineers, and that’s when I became a good inventor. I actually have 10 patents. You can look me up!”
This is how so much of our conversation goes. Russ’ life has so many avenues within, it’s impossible not to be inspired, at the least fascinated.
He told me about all kinds of inventions he dreamed up, but his favorite?
“Ok,” he begins. He has me smiling so big. “Do you know when you have your Mac open, and you look at your phone and it is running out of power?”
“So you plug the phone into your Mac, and the Mac sets your new pictures in and powers the phone?”
In 1997, Russ invented a way for your computer to simultaneously transfer data and power, a familiar invention that is officially patented as the “data and power storage unit.” That’s Russ!
“I love it because almost every day, I use it, and I think of myself!”
He smiles. I will, too.
He and his partner continued to drum up inventions for four years. Every Friday, they would reserve the conference room to “kick ideas back and forth.”
“And we had all kinds of ideas! Every week, we were submitting patents,” Russ says. “We were probably the two most disciplined people in the whole company to say, ‘We’re going to do this every week.’ But we did.”
In the year 2000, Russ was even named Inventor of the Year. He himself was surprised of the journey.
“The first time I was invited to a brainstorm with a bunch of engineers, I was, like, ‘I don’t belong here!’ But suddenly, I blurted out this idea, and everyone went, ‘Yeah! That would work!’ And that was my first submission.
“It was fun.”
Transition to MJM
In 2007, Gateway was bought out by Acer, and Russ was in need of another new job. He was unemployed for four months (during which time he dug out that tree, remember?) until he began work as the marketing director at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion.
“That was cool. I liked that. That was fun,” he says. “All the photographers and writers worked for me. There was that relationship I was really comfortable in. It was a job that I was happy enough to stay in.”
Now enough to settle into a lifelong career? Not quite.
“My boss took a job at Avera and, three months in, asked me to join her. So I did,” he says.
He and his family moved to Sioux Falls, where he ran the creative services department at Avera for eight years. He loved it. “That was my biggest leadership role,” he says.
But once his boss left, he did, too. It was hard for him to go. “It threw my life into disorder,” Russ remembers. “I discovered that, at age 56, it was a hard time to find a job. People were afraid to hire me.”
Someone did. As they always have. And he’s been with MJM ever since.
“I found a job I really love. It took a year to find, but I’ve been here for two years now, and I feel really good about things.”
Russ calls himself “the voice of experience” at MJM, but that title is several things.
“I help hire people, I help find talent, I manage projects, I art direct some projects and help organize as we move forward and grow,” he says.
And somehow, he’s still learning new trades.
“One thing I’ve never done before is business consulting, so that’s been new and so cool for me,” he says. “It’s a fabulous job.”
‘There’s always something’ to learn
Russ’ career has been so varied. So many different job titles! And his energy hasn’t waned a bit.
“It’s occurred to me in the last couple of years that I’ve gotten old,” he smiles. “And I have to remind myself that I’m getting old because I forget!” We’re both laughing. “But I wake up in the morning, and I feel like I’m 25. My mind hasn’t slowed down.”
That, too, makes for a great storyteller.
“No matter what I’m doing in life, I always find something I can engage with and work at and feel pride in. Something to satisfy my curiosity,” he says. “There are always cool things to focus on and learn.”
Before we parted ways, he said to me, nearly hesitant, “Can I show you something real quick?”
Delighted, I scooted next to him, and he opened his laptop to a world of pictures. From city skylines and rural post offices to shadows and trees and bowls of colorful compost.
“Photography has always been a weird passion of mine,” he says. “They’re just fun,” he says.
But you know what? I bet they make for great stories.
Angela Tewalt, OTA