Ronald Khol, made technical magazines readable

Jan. 12, 2006
Editor Emeritus Ron Khol passed away late last month after a long illness. Ron was a writer to the end, even penning his own obituary, which follows.


Having an engineering degree in the 1950s was supposed to mean a guaranteed job and a ticket to the good life. And although holding a degree from Carnegie Tech, in 1959 Ronald Khol found himself a jobless and financially pressed young husband and father. An unexpected economic downturn along with a brief but disastrous business venture had wiped out savings and had the household scrimping for grocery money.

In 1959, almost by happenstance, he secured a job as a technical editor at Industrial Publishing Co., where his engineering knowledge and writing ability helped put him back on his feet financially. He discovered that technical publishing was a field for which he had an aptitude.

As an engineering student he had contempt for the way textbooks and academia obfuscated technical material. He felt that professors often cloaked engineering material with a mystique designed to build their reputations as wizards. When he wrote and edited technical material, he never allowed academic obfuscation to get in the way of readability. He was convinced that no technical concept was difficult to understand if it were explained by an intelligent teacher.

Mr. Khol left IPC in 1964 and joined MACHINE DESIGN magazine at Penton Publishing Co. He felt the larger magazine might offer a more-rewarding career. His energetic approach to the job earned him the title of managing editor in 1973. In that role, he was able to raise the standards of writing, layout, and graphics so that highly technical articles were easy to understand and were supported by innovative graphics previously absent from engineering magazines. His guidance made MACHINE DESIGN a pioneer in bringing contemporary writing and layout standards to the trade press.

Throughout his career on MACHINE DESIGN he was mindful of the severe competition in business publishing. He saw this competition as akin to an athletic contest where the winners will be the athletes most willing to undergo severe and rigorous training. This approach to business helped energize him to six and sevenday workweeks and ten-hour days for long stretches of his career. He felt you can't always outthink your competition, but you can always outwork them. And winning always made it worthwhile.

While managing editor of MACHINE DESIGN, he designed the format for a new Penton magazine called Computer-Aided Engineering and directed its editorial staff until it became self-sustaining. He was named chief editor of MACHINE DESIGN in 1983.

While maintaining his position on MACHINE DESIGN, Mr. Khol was asked in the early 1990s to become editorial director of American Machinist magazine, which was then in dire straights. He rebuilt the editorial staff from scratch and revitalized content so that today the magazine remains one of Penton's solid publications.

His observations on management also served him well throughout his career, often finding their way into what became some of his most popular commentaries. Mr. Khol's editorial columns in MACHINE DESIGN were frequently acerbic, controversial, and laced with subtle humor, making them a favorite of readers. The columns evoked so much reader reaction that letters from readers became another popular feature of the magazine. Mr. Khol had a knack for pointing out management mistakes in an interesting way, and his commentary struck a responsive chord with his audience years before Dilbert began poking fun at workplace follies.

He was diagnosed with cancer in the fall of 2001 and gradually began winding down his active management of MACHINE DESIGN after surgery in 2002. He continued to write editorial columns and Internet blog entries, and his name remained at the top of the masthead, until he finally succumbed to the disease.

Mr. Khol had a lifelong love of World War II military aircraft and was a member of the Confederate Air Force. But he didn't earn his own private pilot's licenses until 1999 at the age of 63. He said the most beautiful piece of machinery he ever saw was the B-25 Mitchell bomber.

He and his wife Carol were frequent travelers to Europe, visiting there together some 19 times in the space of 14 years. Their favorite destinations were Germany and Switzerland, where first-class rail travel was one of the high points of their visits. When traveling by rail, they tried whenever possible to have cocktails, lunch, or dinner in the dining car, their way of evoking a luxurious life style now rapidly vanishing. They especially enjoyed hiking around the base the Matterhorn Mountain in Switzerland. Mr. Khol also traveled internationally on business.

During the 1970s and 1980s, he also served on the vestry of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church and the Board of Directors of the Hillcrest YMCA. In middle age he became a physical-fitness advocate, and between the ages of 43 and 48 competed in four marathons as well as other numerous longdistance races. In his best marathon effort, he ran the entire 26 miles at a rate of under eight minutes per mile.

In addition to his wife Carol, he is survived by his son Cmdr. Curtis Khol USN (wife Michele) of Vienna, Va., two daughters, Karen Rowe (husband James) of DeWitt, Ark., and Kathleen Dickason (husband James) of Sarasota, Fla., and grandchildren Betsy and Curtis Khol.

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