Dennis was one-of-a-kind. He was an intellectual, a combat-hardened Marine, a student of Federal law, a comic, a gifted speaker, and a man of personal integrity and family values. He was not cut out for working within a bureaucracy. He knew how to take orders but never suffered fools gladly. While representing management’s interests and positions with tenacity, he was no great fan of Federal managers. As a teacher, he was incomparable and as a gladiator, he served as a role model for many of us without overt intention to be cast in that role.
It is no accident that I am memorializing him at FedSmith. For those who explore this site on even a haphazard basis, Ralph Smith’s is a familiar by-line. In fact, Ralph founded this site (with no small amount of assistance from his wife Susan and son Ian, who are also familiar faces on FedSmith – a true family business) after a partnership with Dennis which ended amicably in 1997 when Ralph bought out Dennis’ shares.
They named their 1980s venture the Federal Personnel Management Institute (FPMI). When I decided to drop out of government prematurely (like them) I became their first employee… other than Dennis’ wife Cris – whose job was to keep the books, organize our travel, and make sure training materials arrived before we did. She was still working full time as a nurse and raising two young boys. It was hardly an “Institute”. Ralph and Dennis were entrepreneurs in the truest sense.
My first encounter with Dennis came earlier and was a game changer. Relatively new to Personnel, I transferred from Social Security into the job of Staffing Specialist, GS-7 at the now defunct Charleston Naval Shipyard. I was lined up for Naval civilian personnel training in all the basic specialties of my new profession, Months later came two weeks of employee and labor relations (L&ER) training in Norfolk, VA.
After a week of employee relations (taught by a former Catholic priest who struggled to keep our attention) I was interested, but not heartened. The second week was given over to a Navy labor relations Specialist, Mike McNerney. He was soft-spoken, articulate, clever, and engaging. I began gravitating toward the edge of my seat even before he introduced a guest speaker – Dennis Reischl. Within minutes, I shifted from engaged to mesmerized.
Dennis was on-point from the moment he took the podium and had the few of us who understood his Shakespearian, classical and biblical allusions laughing out loud as we tried to keep up with him in our notes. (“Something is odoriferous in the state of Denmark.”) Unlike Mike, whom he obviously admired, he was hardly soft-spoken. By the end of that day I was hooked. Before the week was out, I was asking Mike how I could get out of Staffing and into Labor Relations
Dennis was an adviser to field activities in the Southeast, as was Bob Gilson (familiar to many FedSmith readers). He would come to Charleston, SC to advocate in arbitration (mostly environmental cases) or handle a complicated unfair labor practice charge. A brilliant researcher and tenacious litigator (sans law degree), he developed an expertise in differential pay for blue collar employees. No one knew the issues of asbestos exposure and the Navy’s attempts to “practically eliminate” it better than Mr. Reischl. Labor arbitrators were overwhelmed with case law and research findings that often caught unions flat-footed. As for the judges, most left the hearing room laughing, scratching their heads, and wondering how they could find against him. Dennis was a winner.
He also sat in on sensitive bargaining situations, unraveling his adversaries with jokes, logic, tenacity, and an absence of fatigue. Dennis was the person who would arrive in town, meet his witnesses and subject matter experts the day before the scheduled hearing or bargaining session, stay up well into the night studying and writing, and be fresh (to outward appearances) the next morning.
In 1987, when I decided to leave Navy and find my next career, Dennis was already gone. I hadn’t gotten the news that he had co-founded a training and publication firm with Ralph. As I was wondering what was next for me professionally, Bob Gilson put me in touch with Dennis – knowing that he needed someone to beef up the Employee Relations side of FPMI. I was and asked if I could teach a class on performance appraisals to folks at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington, DC. In essence, I said “No” and Dennis replied to the effect that I was hired. The career I hadn’t considered suited me to a tee.
As FPMI was starting out, Dennis taught seminars, authored books (the first was co-authored by Ralph, the classic introduction to Federal labor law, Managing for Uncle Sam), drummed up business, developed curricula, and spoke to groups on Federal labor law. Anyone with even a moderate interest in the subject was seduced by his knowledge, skill, ability, and personal characteristics – as I had been years before.
I recall a time when Dennis, Ralph and I were barnstorming the country teaching a seminar titled Partners in Problem Solving. Years following the ill-fated PATCO strike against the FAA, a new union (NATCA) had been organized by Air Traffic Controllers. We were tasked with teaching the first day of a three-day class for audiences of both union and management representatives. To my knowledge, it was the first “partnership” training done for the Federal government.
I was teaching in Boston. I called him at home from a pay phone during a break. I was desperate. A labor attorney for the FAA told the audience that a piece of obscure technical guidance I had offered in response to a question was altogether incorrect. I ran the scenario by Dennis who assured me I was right. I asked what I should do, and he responded, “Nothing. She’s an idiot, Robbie. It’s their problem, not yours.” I was to carry that wisdom into any number of training settings in the years to come.
During a stint when I was helping the National Gallery develop performance standards for employees, Dennis breezed into our nation’s capital. We met for lunch at the Gallery’s cafeteria, discussed work, and then strolled through the now-not-so New Wing. Passing a famous abstract painting, Dennis amped up his voice and told me, “If one of my sons were to submit that in school, the art teacher would flunk him.” He never glanced back at those appalled or amused by the remark. No doubt, others who got close Mr. Reischl had similar encounters.
Few individuals reading this article will have the impact that Dennis Reischl had over his varied and abbreviated career. He never rose to any position of particular prominence was never headed for any DC think tank. His passion was for the trenches where labor law is so often practiced. His distaste for interest-based/partnership approaches was palpable. My interest in mediation and performance evaluations bored him. He was happy to be politically incorrect.
Dennis Reischl was a Marine, a football player, husband, dad, bouncer, and labor relations guru… with a heart of gold. His generation of Specialists has, for the most part, passed into retirement. I will miss him being among us, as do so many his colleagues, adversaries, and admirers. He was a good man.