Remarks about Creed Black as KF CEO

Thank you, Elsa and Michelle, Chip, Steve and Doug, for permitting me to take part today. Creed is a man I admired … and loved.

As he was becoming Knight Foundation president, he asked his friend John Gardner what he should know about this new field of work, giving away millions of dollars.

“I’m not sure,” Gardner replied, “but I can you tell you one thing: You’ve eaten your last bad meal and had your last honest conversation.”

At age 62, Creed said he had accomplished all he desired in newspapers but wished to keep working at something. So in 1988 he and his beloved Elsa retired at Lexington, moving to Akron as president of Knight Foundation.  Good planner that he was, Creed had it in writing that if after two years in Akron he   wanted to relocate the foundation headquarters, he could. That, is why exactly two years later, Knight Foundation’s postmark shifted to Miami.

Jack Knight’s bequest ballooned the assets to nearly a half billion dollars and the foundation needed reformulating for an expanded role,  instead of continuing to make numerous small grants, some as little as $1,000. People knew about Ford, Carnegie and Rockefeller but few had heard of Knight.

Creed adroitly changed all that, building on the visionary architecture Lee Hills had drawn. Jack Knight was uncertain about the disposal of his fortune. Lee, his most trusted news and business associate, gave him the idea that is the Knight Foundation. Later, brother Jim Knight became similarly convinced and added his estate to Knight Foundation.                                                         

Just as he had in journalism, Creed achieved nationwide distinction in his new career. He accomplished this record in only 10 years, retiring in 1998 because he said the place needed new blood. He also remarked that if you handle other peoples’ money for too long, you begin to think it’s yours.

In the beginning, he learned all he could about how foundations functioned.  What he called the jargon and obtuse bureaucratic language in this new world offended his commitment to plain communication. He particularly objected to grant seekers, who in his words, “seem to think we don’t read but just weigh their proposals.”

His leadership was transparent and uncomplicated:                                         

Hire the best people. Inculcate the mission. Give them their head. Unfailingly high standards. No political grant making. Above all, in every action, integrity and truth. Many words come to mind about Creed, but those last two lead my list: Integrity….truth.

He was good friends with the English language and insisted on reading every item bearing the Knight Foundation imprimatur before it went out the door. For Creed, there were no small errors; some were simply larger than others.

He was a relentless editor. It won’t surprise you that after less than a week in Heaven he has reduced the New Testament from 27 books to 21. He says it’s redundant to have a 1st and 2nd Corinthians,  1st and 2nd Thessalonians, 1st and 2nd Timothy and 1st and 2nd Peter. For sure we need only one John instead of 3.

Consider some of the major accomplishments of staff and trustees under his guidance:

  • University of North Carolina President Bill Friday suggested to Creed that intercollegiate athletics threatened the academic integrity of higher education. Friday urged Knight Foundation to lead a revolutionary charge of reform. Thus was born the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.  It took the Commission 10 years—10 years!—but last week the NCAA announced it has adopted one of the commission’s seminal reforms: No school can participate in a post-season bowl or title competition unless 50 percent of team members are on track to graduate. Look no further than this week’s headlines about the University of Miami to know the Commission’s work is unfinished.

  • He heavily expanded an already substantial journalism program and turned it into the world’s best, making Knight Foundation the leading funder and creative force in the field.

  • The foundation became an arts innovator with such ideas as the Magic of Music – a plan to make symphony music more popular and fiscally sustainable. Then there was the Museum Loan program, which got worthwhile art out of big museum basement storage and on tour to small museums which couldn’t afford it.

  • Knight Foundation committed an initial $50 million to enhance existing community foundations in its cities of preference and to assist starting a foundation in all Knight cities lacking one.

  • Creed became close with a number of larger foundation presidents. Together, they created the National Community Development Initiative, the largest  private sector funding ever committed to such vital work.

  •  He developed an in-house investment unit that consistently out-paced the average return of foundations its size. When Creed retired,  assets had tripled to $1.2 billion despite giving away hundreds of millions of dollars.

As he freely acknowledged, many of these ideas were not his own. But he knew a good idea when he met one and was scrupulous in giving credit. He was a superior executive who could make anything work.

One of his achievements isn’t known beyond  Knight Foundation: Creed encouraged staff to remember family and not permit office work load to dominate their lives. He pushed for    employee  benefits and pay that rank in the top 25 percent of the foundation’s peers.

All of us knew him as friendly, witty, helpful and smart. But there are some things about Creed that may surprise you. Elsa, his wife of nearly 34 years and a very fine journalist herself, drew up a list:

  • Favorite hymn:  “Amazing Grace”

  • Prefers Mantovani (he loved to dance) to Mozart and the Boston Pops to the Boston Symphony

  • All time favorite Broadway musical, “Annie”

  • His seven surviving grandchildren called him Poppy

  • Creed cried when they played “My Old Kentucky Home” at the Derby.  

From the time he left Paducah for college as a young man, he called his mother every week until she died at age 99.

Elsa has out-done Florence Nightingale in her loving devotion during these frustrating years of Creed’s declining capacity as one malady piled on another. She gives luster to the vow “in sickness and in health.”

So when family friend Trish Bell brought roses to the hospital last week, Elsa took a single stem, climbed up on Creed’s narrow bed and laid it on his chest. “Look at the pretty rose Trish brought you from her garden,” she said.

From the fog of his terminal shadows, Creed replied: “You’re my pretty rose!”

Editor Horace Greely could have been writing Creed’s epitaph: “Fame is a vapor, popularity an accident and riches flee with the wind. Those who cheer today will criticize you tomorrow and the only thing that endures is character.”

Dear friend Creed, above all, you were a man of character.

–Rolfe Neill, Kendall United Methodist Church, Miami 8/20/2011

About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit www.knightfoundation.org.