Obituary: Gary Marx, AASA’s Influential Voice on Communications

By Jay P. Goldman

gary_marx Gary D. Marx, whose two-decade leadership of communications at AASA significantly raised the association’s public profile across the country and beyond, died early Friday (May 31) at the age of 80.

His family said he died in hospice care at home of complications from a long fight against prostate cancer.

Marx’s work from 1979 to 1998 as associate executive director of communications propelled the organization of superintendents and school administrators to a much more prominent position among educators and news organizations in the U.S. and abroad. He and the communications staff he assembled launched a vigorous publishing program that included dozens of books on various aspects of school leadership, presided over the expansion in 1981 of The School Administrator from a modest newsletter into a glossy magazine and founded with corporate support the National Superintendent of the Year program, now in its 32nd year.

“If there were a Mount Rushmore monument for the school PR profession, Gary would be there,” said Rich Bagin, executive director of the National School Public Relations Association.  

(Information about memorial service and contributions.)

  Articulate Engagement

 Gary-AASAAn astute verbal communicator stemming from his earlier years as a radio announcer in Nebraska and his native South Dakota, Marx made thousands of personal connections with editors and reporters at news organizations from coast to coast, making AASA a go-to deadline source for insight on almost any subject relevant to the operations of public schools. He never passed up an opportunity to address superintendents in formal and informal settings.

“He was a man of the world and always focused forward,” said Arnold Fege, a veteran of public education advocacy who also came to work at AASA in 1979. “But he also had one foot back in Manchester, S.D. He could relate to the common person.”

Marx’s tenure coincided with a transformation in the communications arena from traditional means of information sharing to the start of the electronic era. AASA launched its first web site in the mid-1990s.

A special edition of AASA’s magazine in 2015 that marked the 150th anniversary of the organization’s start reported that his arrival as director of communications saw the publishing and external publicity efforts take flight.

 “In associations, a lot of people want to do a lot of wonderful things, but the association also has to produce enough revenue to support them,” Marx said in an anniversary edition article by Glenn Cook. “Many of the publications that were being produced were sort of driven by a grant or a joint project of some type. They weren’t necessarily motivated by a hard look at the needs of the people in the field, and that’s one of the things I tried to do.”

Member Influence

 Marx took an integrated approach to publications, communications and member services. He used feedback from extensive member surveys to develop AASA’s products that ranged from filmstrips with accompanying guidebooks to videos. The most successful publication, Parents: Partners in Education, was translated into five languages and sold almost one million copies, many in bulk quantities to entire school populations.

GaryCPOUsing survey data, Marx directed a series of critical issues reports, which he subsequently used as background documents in reaching out to news media. As the anniversary publication reported: “Marx says he believed that AASA should take on the role of a ‘good adviser and counselor’ when working with members of the media, which led to more phone calls — and quotes in the press — for AASA.”

Toward the end of his AASA tenure, Marx convened what he called “a Council of 21,” a collection of leading experts in various fields to fuel a conference on schooling for the 21st century that he organized at Mount Vernon and subsequently a widely sought AASA book on preparing for the next generation of school-agers.

After leaving AASA, he founded and ran the Center for Public Outreach out of his home office in Vienna, Va. He promoted his services as a future-oriented leadership consultant, think tank executive, public intellectual and speaker, and his assignments with education, business and community groups over the past 20 years took him to all 50 states and 81 countries on six continents.

His most recent books explored societal trends and the intersection of education with other forces in community life. These include Twenty-One Trends for the 21st Century…Out of the Trenches and into the Future, published by Education Week Press, and Future-Focused Leadership, published by ASCD. The coordinator of Education Week Press said that title was by far its best-selling book.

Recognized Widely

Marx was well-positioned for the national stage he assumed at AASA, having spent a decade in radio and television news and then an eight-year period as communication director for two leading school systems - the Westside Community Schools in Omaha, Neb., and the Jefferson County Public Schools outside Denver, Colo.

Gary-Award He received AASA’s Distinguished Service Award and the National School Public Relations Association’s highest honor, the President’s Award.  

“Gary devoted his life-long career to the principles of engagement leading to democratic societies whether they be a small town in South Dakota or in an Eastern European village,” said NSPRA’s Bagin. “His love of travel and learning and his willingness to share and teach what he learned helped mold him into a stellar role model for those who got to know and appreciate Gary Marx.”

Dan Domenech, AASA executive director, called Marx “an institution at AASA.” The two worked together during Domenech’s years on AASA’s Executive Committee and then as an officer. “I came to regard Gary as the voice of AASA. All of us that attended our national conferences will remember the booming voice that came from somewhere back stage, giving directions or announcing the next speaker. Like the wizard in the ‘Wizard of Oz,’ people had a hard time reconciling the voice with the slightly built individual behind it. But, like the voice, Gary was always larger than what he appeared to be.”

AASA invited him to revive that distinctive backstage role at the association’s 2015 national conference in San Diego, Calif., which celebrated the 150th anniversary.

“When looking up at the sky, I will not be surprised if at some point I hear the booming voice of Gary Marx,” Domenech added.

 Gary and Judy

  Gary Marx with his wife of 57 years, Judy.

  Memorial Service

He is survived by his wife Judy, sons John and Daniel and grandson Julian.

A memorial service was held June 4, in the chapel at Money and King Funeral Home in Vienna, Va. Burial will take place in De Smet, S.D., his hometown.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that remembrance donations be made to the Gary and Judy Marx Endowment Servant Leader Scholarship Award, University of South Dakota Foundation, Wagner Center, 1110 N. Dakota St., Vermillion, S.D. 57069.

(Jay P. Goldman, an AASA staff member since 1989, is editor of School Administrator magazine.)