Author Chris Grabenstein Receives Donald G. Hileman Distinguished Alumni Award
Chris Grabenstein (‘77) has been an actor, an improv comedian, a bank officer, an advertising executive, and most recently, a best-selling author.
To honor his storied career and service as a Volunteer, the College of Communication and Information has named him as the 2023 recipient of the Donald G. Hileman Distinguished Alumni Award.
Grabenstein can trace back skills he has used in every one of his careers to his time at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and to what he learned in his communications classes and the many other opportunities on campus he enthusiastically pursued. The Signal Mountain, Tennessee, native didn’t have much of a higher education plan when he began thinking about it in high school, but when his father said he’d contribute $1,000 per year to his education, Grabenstein did the math and realized UT (which, at the time, cost about $2,000 a year for room, board, tuition, and books) was a great fit for his budget and interests.
“What I loved about UT was that there were all these things you could try out and you could fail miserably. Because it’s such a big place, you can try a bunch of different stuff. You can try writing for a literary magazine, write for the newspaper, do cartoons,” Grabenstein said.
He was, in fact, a writer, editor, columnist, and cartoonist for the Daily Beacon while at UT, in addition to acting in about 50 plays at Clarence Brown Theatre, working a brief stint at WUOT-FM (until he went rogue and played the “wrong” kind of music one night), and deejaying for WROL 149 AM.
Of all his varied interests, acting was his first love. After graduation, he worked for two years at the Clarence Brown Theatre heading up their marketing. He combined his love of theater with his communications expertise and wrote public service announcements for radio and television, press releases for newspapers, and created the first theater subscription program for UT.
Two years into that job, he did what many young actors do, and got his Actors’ Equity Association union card and packed his bags to find his way in New York City. And, like many young actors do, Grabenstein quickly found himself working a day job while pursuing his acting interests on the side.
“I had no place to stay, $1,000 to my name, seven suitcases, and a typewriter. I wanted to be an actor, writer, or a comedian,” he said. “Fortunately, at UT, they had made us type at least 35 words per minute to be in the sophomore classes. By the time I graduated I could type 100 words per minute, so I got a job at Citibank as secretary.”
A two-week temporary assignment at the bank turned into a five-year stint, during which time Grabenstein joined the First Amendment Comedy and Improv Troupe, which performed regular shows called Strictly Improv. It’s the same troupe Bruce Willis performed with, and Robin Williams would occasionally attend shows and jump on stage to join the performance. Then, the young actor also joined Chicago City Limits—these were the only two improv groups in the city at the time, and Grabenstein said he was pleased he had the chance to be in both of them.
During this time, Chris also wrote for Jim Henson’s Muppets and co-authored the Holiday TV Movie classic “The Christmas Gift” starring John Denver with longtime UT friend Ronny Venable, who had also moved to New York City.
“During those years, I auditioned for a lot of commercials and a lot of Broadway shows I wasn’t right for. I finally got cast in a commercial, where I walked back and forth in the background,” he said, noting it was a moment of clarity. “I looked at the guys on the other side of the camera and thought, ‘They’ll never be famous but they get to come to work every day and write and be creative.’”
As Grabenstein contemplated how to best use his skill set to pursue that same kind of daily creativity, he saw an aptitude test in the New York Times from the J Walter Thompson Advertising Agency. It posed eight goofy scenarios for the applicants to respond to, and in it, Grabentstein found his groove.
“For me, it was like doing improv on paper, and I think they got 2,000 entries and I was the first person they hired,” he said.
So, his next career started and it was a stellar one. During his time at the J Walter Thompson Advertising Agency, Grabenstein had clients including Prudential, Burger King, and more. It was also there that he worked for James Patterson—the author with the most number-one best-selling books ever—and who would make a reappearance in Grabenstein’s next career twist. After racking up an impressive amount of awards there, he first moved to Backer Spielvogel Bates where he worked on major brands such as Miller Lite. Three years later, Young & Rubicam sought him out and he moved to that agency, where he worked with Dr. Pepper, 7UP, and Kentucky Fried Chicken.
During his time as an advertising executive, he also started connecting with students from the College of Communication and Information by providing tours when they visited New York and facilitating internship opportunities for them. His legacy has made an impact, one that Tombras School Professor Eric Haley said made the alumnus very worthy of receiving the Hileman Award.
“Chris Grabenstein has been a fantastic friend to our students and college for decades. Through his support, he has opened doors for many of our students to enter the advertising profession in NYC and beyond,” Haley said.
But, after many years in the advertising industry, Grabenstein changed trajectories again when his first wife died after a four-year-long battle with cancer.
“I realized life is short and I didn’t want to write advertising for the rest of my life. I also thought, ‘James Patterson had a good second career after advertising.’ So, I quit,” he said. “I started writing freelance radio, then I started writing screenplays, then eventually I started writing books, but it took four years of constant rejection before my first book was published. And it’s not like the movies where you sell a book and you’re set for life. It won some awards, then I did a bunch more adult mysteries.”
That’s when his agent approached him with a proposition: someone wanted a ghost story, but for young adults. Grabenstein’s adult mysteries weren’t suitable for younger readers, and as he thought about his 20 nieces and nephews, the idea to write for them became very appealing. He sat down and wrote his first novel for upper elementary and middle school readers in 2008. After a couple chance encounters with the right people in publishing, a bidding war started between Random House and Harper Collins for the book, The Crossroads.
After writing four books in that series, Grabenstein’s former coworker, James Patterson, gave him a call.
“He said, ‘I see you’re writing books for kids, and I remember you being funny.’ So, over the years, Jim and I have written three dozen books for kids, many of them number one New York Times bestsellers,” he said.
It was his fifth book he wrote on his own, for Random House, and his twentieth book he’d written overall that hit paydirt. That book, Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, became an overnight sensation on the New York Times Best Seller list for 111 weeks (“Not that I was counting,” Grabenstein said, with a chuckle.). It was nominated for 44 state book awards and won about two dozen, including the Tennessee Volunteer State Book Award.
That book spawned another series, and Grabenstein has continued to write. To date, he’s written and published 76 books, and he credits some of his success as an author to his background in advertising.
“I think the reason why Patterson and I are successful is, you have to know how to grab attention and not let go,” he said.
Throughout his many successes, Grabenstein has stayed connected to UT. He served on the CCI Board of Visitors and established both an Advertising Student Support Fund endowment as well as the Luigi L. Lemoncello Scholarship at the School of Information Sciences for aspiring youth services librarians. He’s beyond pleased to be given the Hileman award, though he did jokingly tell his wife, J.J., that the reason he was getting the award is because he is one of the few people left who knew the award’s namesake, Donald J. Hileman, when he was dean of the college.
He lauded the college’s efforts to expose students to career options as they navigate what they want their careers to look like. Student trips such as the annual trek to New York City didn’t exist when he was a student, and he said he would have personally “jumped” to go on such a trip. “The college has really come a long way from when I got there in 1973. I think they’ve done a terrific job and the future looks even brighter. I’m truly honored that they would choose me for this award.”