Stephen M. Rivkin, RIVKO, Itinerizer, Naming Genius, Beloved

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When people find out that I also write and perform funerals and memorial tributes, inevitably tones become hushed, there’s nodding and a slight (at least I perceive it) sense of unease at the serious and somber nature of all that entails. It is true, that the responsibility for delivering someone’s final rite is a tremendous one. As a celebrant I know that, with attention to the authentic details of someone’s life and relationships, that storytelling has a profoundly healing affect. 

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This past weekend, friends and family gathered to celebrate Steve M. Rivkin. Steve died in November and according to Jewish custom, was buried in those first few days. His wife, best friends and business partners, didn’t really have a chance to process the new reality so quickly. They made plans for a Memorial Tribute after the holidays, so everyone could gather, bring their stories and provide comfort and connection to each other. I had the privilege of writing and delivering the Eulogy, and I will share it here so that Stephen’s loved ones can find it when they are missing him and want to be reminded of all the ways he was, all the ways he influenced and touched their lives.

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…He was born on January 13th, 1947 in Freeport Long Island to the late Julia and Alexander Bradley Rivkin. While still an infant, his family moved to Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania where he spent most of his youth. An only child to his parents, he was also the only child in his extended family. His cousins were a generation older than him, and their children, his second cousins, were 10 years younger than him. Without peers his own age in those formative years at home, Stephen was socialized by adults.

Stephen delighted his doting and adoring Jewish mother. She would send him to school with a big brown bag filled with all the makings of a corned beef sandwich—two slices of rye bread wrapped in tin foil, tender hand-cut corned beef, coleslaw, and Russian dressing all packed separately in little containers (so Stephen would not have to endure a soggy sandwich). At lunchtime, Stephen was known to trade the corned beef masterpiece sandwich sent by his mother for what all the commoners had been packed instead—a peanut butter and jelly one. 

And as legend has it—Stephen first developed a love for language in the competitive games of Scrabble he would play with his mother. Julia never patronized her son, he had to earn his wins fair and square. Stephen savored learning, cultivated a sense of wonder and fell in love with language–habits and a passion he would continue throughout his life.

As a young man, he attended and graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a Bachelor of Journalism. It was there he forged two friendships that would stand the test of time with his fellow Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity brothers, Fraser and Benny.

In those college days, Benny, Fraser and Stephen rented a “palatial off-campus apartment” together and all the roommates would contribute to a house account that would cover shared expenses, like grocery shopping for example. Living with these young guys, Stephen took the opportunity to let his ultra-organizational skills (and lifestyle really) shine. Fraser remembers that Stephen’s bed was meticulously made every morning, he would arrange his push pins in rows by color, and perhaps the most memorable quirk of his self-discipline (and the self-discipline he expected of others), was how he would mark his allotted portion of eggs in the refrigerator. Everybody knew that was his row of eggs.

In the early part of 1968, as Steve approached graduation, the United States government abolished its deferment for graduate school. Young men across the country scrambled for the few low-risk placements in the armed forces. Lucky for Stephen, his buddy Benny had already scouted out the best underwear for boot camp—boxers not briefs were thought to prevent chaffing on the grueling, hot and long marches.

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The boys stocked up on their supply of boxers and Stephen enlisted with the National Guard. He was stationed at Camp Ord in Northern California. In 1972 when Stephen completed his tenure with The National Guard he left with a nickname–“RIVKO” (which was inspired by the television show Sergeant Bilko) and a renewed disdain for being outside in the elements. Borrowing from one of his favorites, Woody Allen, he liked to say, that “he was at two with nature.”

Stephen moved back east to start his career and finally put his journalism degree to use. He first worked at International Utilities Corp, a Philadelphia-based conglomerate in advertising, public relations and corporate identity. He began his career as an associate editor of Iron Age Magazine, a weekly trade publication.

During this time, he started casually seeing a girl he knew from high school. She was a stewardess with Pan Am and lived in New York City, sharing an apartment with three other Pan Am stewardesses.

When Stephen would call the WATS line to the girls’ apartment, one of the roommates, April, would often pick up the phone. April and Stephen had an instant connection and easy rapport. They would find the time to talk for hours on the phone. Occasionally Stephen would need to take a bathroom break or actually work, so when he had to talk to a client or nature called, he simply put April on hold, and then he’d come back and pick up where they had left off.

Their friendship developed like this for about a year until finally they met in person. It was Christmas time and Stephen had arranged for a double date, he brought his roommate along for April and the foursome spent the evening wandering the city streets around Central Park. It didn’t matter that they each had a different date, Stephen and April only had eyes for each other, their connection was like a freight train barreling down the tracks…nothing could stop it.

In the new year, they kept in contact and when Stephen’s business dinner plans changed one weekend, he invited April to come down to Philadelphia…it would be just the two of them this time. April remembers that in a bold moment, she said “Sure, why not.” That weekend “it was like they had always been together”, and when April returned home, she discovered that Stephen in his charming and strange way, had sent her a dozen bagels…from Philly.

Their romance progressed exactly how you would imagine one would between a glamorous and kindhearted Pan Am stewardess and a tall, brilliant, rock star of an ad man. Stephen sent April a Metroliner ticket so she could travel First Class between New York and Philadelphia to see him. 

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By October they were living together in Philadelphia (but April kept her upper east side apartment in the city just in case.) One night after a grueling day of commuting, April wanted to take a bath, but there was something wrong with the plumbing in their apartment—there was only scalding water coming out of the tap. Stephen said, “I’ll be right back…” as he headed out the door. A few minutes later Steve returned carrying five bags of ice for the tub. Through the years, he always knew how to care for April when she didn’t feel well.

By the following spring, May 10th, 1973 just eight months of cohabitating bliss later, Stephen and April were married in a small intimate ceremony. The process of April’s conversion to Judaism wasn’t complete on their wedding day, and this caused a rift with Stephen’s family. The newlyweds had limited contact with Stephen’s mother for their first year of marriage.

For younger cousin Nancy, she remembers how this ‘scandal’ reverberated through her own family dynamics and dinner table conversation. But it didn’t take long for her mother Lucy, to set the tone for the future—“everyone loved April from the beginning.” Nancy cannot remember a time when April wasn’t a part of their lives. When Nancy grew up to have a family of her own, she made a point of inviting and including April and Stephen in family rites of passage and celebrations. She found that Stephen’s inquisitive nature and warm-heartedness “inspired her to want to be the best person she could be.”

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The following year, Steve was hired to work at Trout & Ries Inc, a prestigious marketing strategy firm based in New York City. Eventually he would become Executive Vice President. There he supervised advertising campaigns and marketing strategy projects for such clients as Harrah’s Hotels, Ingersoll-Rand, Stop & Shop and United Jersey Banks. Realizing that her newly married son was moving away, Julia hosted a lunch (where she pulled out all the stops) for Stephen and April to mend their relationship with her. April remembers, all the silverware was polished, the crystal sparkled, sugared grapes and a mini wedding cake were served…and most importantly, a check was on the table. After that, wedding gifts and cards from extended family members started rolling in.

Even as a young man, Steve’s stature, seriousness and style made him a brother/father hybrid figure to many. He had “incredible gravitas and maturity”, was “unbelievably articulate”, “was a walking computer before there were computers”, “had a delightful sense of the absurd”, he was “trusted”, “thoughtful”, he exhibited his vast “knowledge without condescension” and especially considering his young age, carried “lots of responsibility”.

He was ambitious for excellence. Steve was holistic in his approach to life and the things he gave his attention to—there was no work / life balance, Steve was an example of someone whose life was truly integrated and intentional. He surrounded himself with real people and pursued his curiosity. And it was this–living a truly integrated life– this is how he gauged success.

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Steve did not like crowds, so he and April went to movies at 10am on Sundays, and sought out Farm League baseball games when he was on the road for work. Meticulous, perfectly groomed, fastidious…he was never far from a pump bottle of hand-sanitizer. It’s no surprise that Steve also loved diners. The comfort food and characters that abound were honest and interesting.

An optimist, with an infectious positive outlook, Steve once took Evelyn Wood’s ‘Speed Reading’ course, he would read a book a day and retain all the nuance. Creative and genuine with his interactions, he would sit knee-to-knee and eye-to-eye during conversations and relished most making genuine connections, no matter the age.

To say Steve was organized would be an understatement. And when it came to travel, he enjoyed planning and research. I mean he really, really, enjoyed planning and research. The pleasure he took from researching all the options, best routes, attractions, restaurants and minutia…and then sharing his cogent knowledge and recommendations with others, cannot be understated. On road trips and work travel, he “knew all the cool things to do” (like stay at the same hotel as The Rolling Stones in Japantown). He was “a walking trip adviser”. This is a man who earned and then relished the nickname ‘Itinerizer’.

And as a colleague, his presence elevated the “energy” of a room or a project and generated genuine “excitement”. Always kind, “he was a great teacher”, “always gave a big smile and a warm hello” or “hello sunshine” he was a good teammate and coach, he acted as a buffer- personally absorbing interpersonal tensions to protect his team and never diminished or humiliated his colleagues, he was a man of integrity who did not shy away from difficult tasks.

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His friend Michael Kubin, who could not be here today, shares a story from the early 80s when he worked at a new upstart media buying company and Trout & Ries was one of their big important accounts, buying media for all of their clients. “One day”, he remembers, “it was a Friday, Steve called with bad news. His agency had hired a new media director and who brought in his own supplier of choice. Steve was the one who had to make the painful call to fire Michael.”

If you’re going to get fired, Michael shares, Steve was the guy you wanted to do it.

A few months went by and one day Michael’s phone rang again, and it was, very unexpectedly, Steve.

Then Steve asked an even more unexpected question: “Would you take us back as your client?” Michael says, “it turned out their new media director didn’t work out as they had hoped so he left the agency. It would have been much easier for Steve to contact any one of the many media buying companies that would have loved to have started doing business with Trout & Ries, but Steve was loyal. He was loyal to the point where that call had to be difficult. It meant admitting a mistake, and making it right. It was a menschy thing to do, and Steve was the epitome of mensch.”

“Head and shoulders above everyone else” and confident, somehow Steve managed to be a low ego person. Steve’s gratification came from seeing others whom he had helped do well, and he never took credit for it. He had many “devoted fans and admirers over the years”—people whose lives he made profound contributions to. Lynne says, “Steve was one in a billion. What I owe him cannot be measured” and this sentiment is true for countless others who Steve treated as his equal, even though everyone around him knew he was on a different level–a rock star.

He was loved.

He is loved.

After 14 years with Trout & Ries Inc, it was time for Stephen to venture off on his own; he started Rivkin & Associates LLC, his own marketing and communications consultancy. In this capacity, he worked with clients such as Boeing, Cadbury-Adams, Kraft Foods, PG&E Corporation and PixelOptics. It was during these years that he earned his international reputation as a naming genius. Asian Brand News singled Steve out as “America’s leading nameologist.” And some pretty big companies turned to him for their naming projects, Premio Foods and Tiffany & Co. among them.

Rivkin & Associates LLC also specialized in the healthcare sector. Steve’s consulting work here was far ranging from positioning and branding to counsel on issues management. In The American College of Physicians and dozens of U.S. regional hospitals, Steve was a trusted partner and counselor.

More recently, Steve leveraged his reputation in healthcare circles, to contribute in a bigger way. In 2008 he joined the board of Volunteers in Medicine, a national network of 100 free clinics in 23 states. Its clinics feature retired and practicing medical professionals and community volunteers who care for the uninsured. Steve was an active and participating board member, who is responsible for Volunteers in Medicine trademarking their name and protecting their brand. When one of the clinics had a PR emergency–Steve wrote copy for their director Amy Hamlin to use if and when the media contacted her. They did. She read Steve’s words verbatim.

For more than 25 years, Steve was involved in Estes Park Institute, whose mission is to provide professional development and continuing leadership education to hospital executives, trustees and medical staff leaders. He’s been a faculty member, moderator, program chair and three years ago was asked to join the board. And two years ago he became the CEO of Estes Park Institute.
Linda Haddad shares, “As we follow up on our last EPI conference and prepare for the next, Steve’s fingerprints…and personality…are all over the game plan we are working from. We feel his absence everyday and are striving to honor his memory, and his long and good work at EPI, by making the program as good as he always envisioned it could be.”

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Throughout their marriage, Stephen enjoyed surprising April with birthday, Valentine’s Day and anniversary gifts. To celebrate their 10th Anniversary, Stephen hosted a fabulous party for all of their friends at Windows of the World. For 43 years, he told everyone about his “enormously happy marriage” and “talked like a newlywed about his bride”.

On their 25th Anniversary, April and Stephen gave each other the gift of a personal trainer. Serious and disciplined, once Stephen set his mind to something, he did it. When a physician friend recommended a book, Wheat Belly, over dinner one night, Steve took it to heart and was determined to optimize his health. “That book changed his life”, April remembers. He started making smarter choices and lost (and kept off) 43 pounds. In that first year after his conversion to health, much to the annoyance of those in his path, he was a prolific born again Wheat Belly evangelist. And as a reward for his new enlightened lifestyle and trim physique, he relished his new wardrobe—especially the Robert Graham shirts and jeans.

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Along with his new healthy body, hand-sanitizer, and a glass of tawny port, Steve was also known to love Patsy Cline, Freddy Mercury and Queen. 50’s music—he could ‘name that tune’…and the performer…and the year it was released, after hearing just three or four notes. He loved being on stage, movies, word-play and of course April.

And just so our memory of Steve is not sanitized as we memorialize him, I think we should give equal consideration to the things he did not love. Steve could not stand poor grammar, incompetent drivers, disorganization and sloppiness, pretension and obesity. His life long disdain for the out-of-doors deserves a second mention here. He disliked extremism—whether it was in politics or religion, and could not stand hypocrites, or clients, for that matter, who did not have the wisdom to take his advice.

Steve was the author of six books and was a sought after and frequent speaker on marketing and communications topics and he appeared at hundreds of seminars and conferences in the United States, Europe and Southeast Asia. As a speaker, he was “charming, funny”, “clever, meticulously prepared…a flawless performer”, “larger than life”, “The Voice” and “a favorite.”

This past summer, June 1st, Stephen was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer, a rare form. He had had a lingering cough for a couple weeks, thought it was a virus, and went to the doctor for help…he wanted to clear it up before traveling — a three-week speaking trip to Vietnam with April.

Once he received the diagnosis, Steve “dove into the details of the disease and drug treatments.” Never once did Steve think that he was going to die from lung cancer. For someone so organized and obsessed with planning for the future, he didn’t spend any of his last days preparing for them to be his last. He was stubborn in his optimism.

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Steve often said he had “no intention of retiring– he planned to work until he died.” And he did. He was continuing conversations, working on projects and was even returning emails up until the morning of the day he died. He believed that he would live to 90. His sudden decline surprised everybody. He died November 16th, 2016, two months ago tomorrow. He lived almost 70 years. Generous and self-less, he and April signed organ donor cards many years ago. After he died, his corneas were found to be suitable for transplant, and two people received the gift of sight…

Back in December, when I interviewed close friends about Stephen, his wife April, mentioned toward the end of the afternoon something that made me catch my breath. 
“Stephen hated euphemisms”, she said. So in honor of his love of direct language, I put together the following public service announcement as an introduction to the Open Remarks section of the Tribute.

…Steve’s been called, “the straightest of straight shooters” and as they say, believed in science and facts. So, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to know that while Stephen loved language he hated euphemisms. So to honor him, I would like to request that all euphemisms about death and dying be refrained from. Here is a list, although not complete, of phrases and euphemisms not allowed when talking about or even thinking about Stephen.

Passed away
At peace
At rest
Entered eternal rest
Bit the dust
Bought the farm
Cashed in his chips
In a better place
Kicked the bucket
Took a final bow, Final Curtain or Final Chapter
Crossed over
Ended his earthly career
Got his wings
Slipped away
Reached the finish line
Left this world
Went home/ Was called home
Lost his battle
and absolutely, under no circumstance, is anyone to use “Uploaded to the cloud” 

Several people shared stories and loving tributes, I am proud to say everyone was successful in refraining from said euphemisms. The Memorial Tribute was brought to a beautiful closing when Fraser, Steve’s best friend and long time business partner, lead everyone in a toast in Steve’s honor.

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As the old Jewish saying goes, “Let his memory be a blessing.”

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