November 2006 was no ordinary time to take a job with the Indiana Pacers.
The team was still emerging from the fallout of a brawl on the court and with the fans in Detroit two years earlier; a then-recent nightclub melee had invited fresh questions about the team’s character; and fan favorite Reggie Miller was just a fond memory.
Worse still for newly named Pacers executive Greg Schenkel: The next winning season was six years away.
It was a test of character for Schenkel, ’70, who retired in 2014 after eight years as the team’s vice president of corporate, community and public relations.
“You learn sometimes from some of the adversarial things, some of the less-than-successful things,” he said. “And then you get to the point where you start winning again, and you make it to the Eastern Conference Finals. My last couple of years there — playing against (the Miami Heat’s) Dwyane Wade and LeBron James — those were fun years, and those were exciting times. It’s good and bad, but it’s a challenge, no question.”
Schenkel, who is being honored this month at Ball State’s Alumni & Benefactors Recognition Dinner, had more than four decades of professional challenges after graduating from Ball State.
In that time, he:
- Navigated the halls of local, state and federal governments on behalf of various organizations, including Indiana’s largest bank, Indianapolis’ business community and a major state power utility.
- Led a trade association of Indiana natural gas providers that served 1.7 million customers at a time of a statewide price spike.
- Oversaw Indy Partnership, a nonprofit focused on boosting investment and job growth across 11 central Indiana counties.
Elsewhere, he played a supporting role in creating the Hoosier Dome, the original home of the Indianapolis Colts, and helped create the support needed to build the current home of the Pacers, now known as Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Serving Ball State
And perhaps most notably, from 1990 to 2006, he was a member of the Ball State Board of Trustees.
It’s a time he looks back on fondly for his role in selecting Jo Ann Gora as the 14th president of Ball State and for improvements in student achievement.
Gora’s decadelong tenure is remembered for more than $520 million in campus facility construction and renovation, including what the university calls the largest geothermal energy project of its kind in the nation.
On the student achievement front, the four-year graduation rate improved from about 20 percent in 1993 to more than 35 percent in 2003, according to the university’s Division of Student Affairs and Enrollment Services.
He credits these feats to the board’s big-picture mindset.
“The last thing you want are nine members of a part-time board of trustees being day-to-day managers of the university,” Schenkel said. “The best thing that we could do is to help set the policy and direction of the university and then make sure you have the best people possible to administer and run, manage the university on a day-to-day basis.”
A late scholarship changed his future
Not bad for a northeastern Indiana kid who, shortly before classes began, veered away from his intended college destination and came to Ball State on a golf scholarship.
“My dad was in the process of selling and closing down a retail store,” said Schenkel. “So I was going to have to borrow money to go to school, or we were as a family, and this (scholarship) made the whole financial picture easier.”
Schenkel grew up in Huntington, Indiana, with a younger sister, a father who owned a clothing store and a mother who was a high school principal’s secretary.
He recalls a childhood of athletics (baseball, basketball and golf), a habit of volunteerism instilled by his parents and good times at Webster Lake, where he now has a home.
When it came time for college, Schenkel had been accepted at Ball State and several other schools, but had his eyes set on a private college in Southern Indiana. But the financial realities of his father’s business closing set in. Ball State, which was closer, bigger and more affordable, began to look more appealing.
And then the phone rang.
“About three or four weeks before classes started, I got a call from Ball State, Earl Yestingsmeier, who was the men’s golf coach at Ball State,” said Schenkel. “He offered me a scholarship to come to Ball State. He had one that had just freed up.”
Schenkel had various college experiences that shaped him: a role on the Student Center governing board, president of Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, a part-time job in the sports information office and public address announcer at athletic events. These roles cultivated Schenkel’s leadership and communication skills, which would prove invaluable throughout his career.
“It was a combination of experiences, academically and otherwise, that taught me accountability, responsibility and that ability to get things done,” he said, “and how you work with people.”
From teaching to government work
Schenkel left Ball State in May 1970 with a bachelor’s degree in political science and no idea what was in store for his career.
He did have a plan, though. After receiving his state certification, he got a job teaching government, psychology and U.S. history at Carmel High School in that Indiana city and soon was accepted to law school. The thought of working all day and studying all night, however, began to wear on him. Eventually, he decided not to go.
“I thought, well, I’ll take a semester off or so,” Schenkel said, “and then it became two semesters.”
It wasn’t much later that he got an opportunity from another Ball State alumnus that would open many doors professionally over the next several decades.
Larry Conrad, ’57, was a friend of Schenkel’s father and Indiana’s secretary of state for much of the 1970s. In 1972, the Democrat threw his hat into the governor’s race and asked Schenkel to volunteer, doing research, helping write position papers and stuffing envelopes. Conrad lost in the primary to former Gov. Matthew Welsh, but Schenkel’s time with Conrad was just beginning.
“He was still secretary of state, so I went on his staff in the secretary of state’s office,” Schenkel said. “That was my first exposure to government.”
Conrad made another run in 1976. Schenkel went back on the campaign trail, this time managing the campaign of lieutenant governor nominee Thomas Teague, a state lawmaker from Anderson. It was in this role that Schenkel got to know Ray Scheele, then a Ball State political science professor who was taking time off to help Conrad’s campaign. Scheele retired in summer 2015 after nearly 40 years at Ball State and was most recently co-director of the Bowen Center for Public Affairs.
Conrad lost to Otis Bowen, who went on to serve a second term. But the end of Conrad’s ambition turned out to be just the beginning of Schenkel’s.
That stint in state government paved the way for a position in 1977 as vice president of the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, where he became responsible for directing the chamber’s government activities at the city, state and federal level.
Then and in the years that followed, as Schenkel’s career put him more in a government relations role, lawmakers always knew where they stood with him, Scheele said.
“He had a lot of integrity, in terms of the view of legislators, because they knew when they talked to Greg, they were getting the truth,” Scheele said. “It wasn’t just shaded altogether to his side.”
It was during Schenkel’s time at the chamber, in 1979, that he married his wife, Claudia, who only recently retired after nearly 40 years as a public school teacher. They have a daughter, Laura Schenkel Johnson, who graduated from Ball State in 2005.
Networking served him very well
The Indy chamber is where Schenkel began working for Thomas A. King, who became and remains a professional ally and personal friend. King, now president and CEO of the Indiana State Museum, calls Schenkel “the consummate networker” and says his genuineness with people has been a key to his professional success.
“He gets to know people on a real personal level. He remembers details about people that are incredible, which endear him to them,” said King. “And so, he is able to, in a very authentic way, use that network of people that he’s become friends with over the years to get things done.”
That ability served him at the chamber through the end of his tenure in 1980 and during the next quarter-century in a host of other positions: public affairs representative with Public Service Indiana, which later became part of Duke Energy; an executive at Indiana National Bank and later its successor, NBD Indiana; six years as head of an independent public affairs agency; president of the Indiana Gas Association; and president and CEO of Indy Partnership, the 11-county economic development agency.
This brought Schenkel to the mid-2000s and an affirmation of the power of professional relationships — and one in particular.
In the mid-1990s, when he ran his own public affairs agency, he received a call from Pacers co-owner Herb Simon, who needed help drawing up a public relations plan for a new downtown arena. Three years later, that plan came to fruition with the opening of Conseco Fieldhouse, since renamed Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Schenkel said he stayed in touch with Simon through the years and, fast-forward to 2006, Simon and Rick Fuson, now the Pacers’ president and chief operating officer, approached Schenkel about coming aboard full-time.
Schenkel’s eight-year tenure with the Pacers, beginning at an uncertain moment for the organization, ultimately provided a fitting coda to a winding career that began nearly 45 years earlier.
“It sounds like I can’t hold a job, to a certain extent. But two things I always kept in mind: Make sure it’s something you want to do, and secondly, make sure that you’re always honest with yourself and put forth the best effort,” he said. “The one thing I had every step of the way was some really great people to work for and to work with. And those relationships over the years have just come back tenfold.”