In 1992 Gene Kropff hopped in a twelve-person van for the ride of a lifetime. The destination: Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego.
Unlike most recruits, Kropff, a Texan, took a van from the airport to the yellow footprints. The bus had a problem.
When it was time to board the van he jumped in the front seat. It may have seemed like a small thing at the time, but his seating choice was prophetic. From that moment on, Kropff was a leader; unafraid to sit in the front and face the road first.
His journey as a leader has taken him many places, from Okinawa, Japan to commander of the SWAT team of a police department in Texas to now, Director of Stadium Operations with the Round Rock Express – a class Triple-A Pacific Coast League minor league baseball team affiliated with the Texas Rangers.
Let’s take a look at his journey.
First base: United States Marine Corps
“My father’s favorite colors were red, white and blue,” said Kropff, remembering his Texas childhood in a highly patriotic and military-minded family. “I grew up in a red, white and blue military household.”
His grandfather served in the Army in World War II and his father had a brief stint in the Navy before having to leave for family responsibilities.
When Kropff prepared to graduate from high school, he felt like he needed the discipline of military service himself.
“I wanted a challenge,” Kropff said. “I wanted to serve, wanted to fight.”
He liked the reputation and marketing motto of the Marines: The Few. The proud.
When he received a phone call from a recruiter, the paperwork was signed within two days.
“Boot camp was awesome, it was fantastic,” he recalls, clearly remembering the names of his drill instructors, the first 36 hours of sleep deprivation and learning to speak the Marine Corps language.
His first most memorable experience from his time in the Marines was being named a squad leader and later a guide in boot camp.
“I stayed on them, but tried not to be a jerk about it,” Kropff said, about his leadership style. “In the Marine Corps from day one in boot camp you’re taught to be a leader. The Marine Corps really grooms leaders from the day they enter the service.”
After boot camp and combat training, he entered MP (military police) School at Lackland Air Force Base, where the key skills he learned were “improvise, adapt and overcome.”
His first duty station as an MP was at Henderson Hall (now part of Joint Base Myer–Henderson Hall) in Arlington, Virginia, near the Pentagon.
“I thought it was a building; a hall,” said Kropff, remembering when he got the orders. “I said, ‘What the hell am I going to do there?’”
At Henderson Hall, he ended up patrolling the base, standing post at the Pentagon and guarding the Naval Command Station there. From Henderson Hall, he was sent to Okinawa, Japan.
“Okinawa was interesting,” Kropff said. He was there from January 1992 to December 1995 and did many things from running a traffic court to serving as the USMC liaison at a hospital that treated many badly burned and injured Marines brought to Japan on ships for treatment.
He also became a master of the art of talking on the Autovon (Automatic Voice Network) line with his wife back home. The military telephone system allowed him to stay connected with family in the days prior to email, cell phones, and Skype.
After four years in the service, Kropff was honorably discharged and went home.
“It was exciting to finally be out, but there was a little regret in leaving a piece of you behind,” he recalled. “That chapter of your life is closed and you can’t go back and get it. It is what it is and it’s time to move forward.”
Second base: The blue line
Like many veterans, Kropff didn’t quite know what to do when he got home. Before he left Okinawa he had sent a snail-mail letter to about 50 police departments in Texas expressing interest in joining their force. He didn’t have any responses waiting just yet.
“I sat on the couch and played Super Nintendo for a few days,” he recalled until his wife encouraged him to look for a job.
He grabbed a phone book and looked up security jobs. He was hired as a security guard on the spot at the first place he wandered into.
He remembers the boss saying: “Man, with your experience and resume you’re going to be a supervisor here in a couple of months.”
However, his wife pointed out he might be selling himself short. He was only offered minimum wage job, had to buy his own uniform and even the patches.
“It was difficult to find work,” Kropff said. “I didn’t know what I could do. How does being a Marine translate into the real world? I wanted to be cop, but you just can’t go out and be a cop.”
He went back to school, volunteered as a soccer coach (“they ran a lot,” he quipped about his six year old athletes) and drove forklifts in warehouses for a paycheck. He found working amongst mostly civilians “frustrating” and bode his time waiting for police departments to offer exams.
Finally, on Feb 1. 1998 Kropff became a police officer with the Duncanville Police Department. Duncanville is a city in southern Dallas County, Texas with a population of 38,524 (2010 census).
“Once I got into police work I felt more like home,” Kropff said. “It felt more like the Marine Corps to me and made more sense. I enjoyed my time in the Marine Corps and did well in the Marine Corps and I think police work was very similar.”
Kropff climbed the ranks of his department quickly, moving from patrol, to sergeant to lieutenant in less than five years.
He served as a lieutenant for 13 years and, for many of those years, was either on the SWAT team or commander of the SWAT team, where he implemented the sniper program and was a sniper himself.
“The SWAT team was the next best thing to the military,” Kropff said. “You have brotherhood, comradery and esprit de corps. You have your police team family and within your police team family you have your SWAT team family. Nobody knows what it’s like to go through a door with somebody else unless you’ve been there and you’ve done that.”
The only thing Kropff didn’t enjoy about SWAT was sending his guys into trouble.
“I disliked ordering people into or setting the plan in motion to send them into harm’s way,” he said. “I want to be in the stack, part of the solution to maybe the problem I created without even knowing it.”
Third base: Minor league baseball
After two decades of service as either a military or civilian police officer, Kropff was ready for a change when his phone rang one day with an intriguing, completely different opportunity: operations manager for a minor league baseball team.
“I didn’t know anything about running a stadium when I got the call,” Kropff said. “I like challenge, though. That’s why I joined the Marine Corps. That’s why I was a police officer and on the SWAT team.”
The job as Director of Stadium Operations with the Round Rock Express would require a move and switching his son’s high school during his sophomore year. The family discussed the pros and cons and decided to go for the change.
“If an opportunity arises we’re ready to go,” Kropff said. “We don’t hold ourselves captive to the fear of the unknown; we look at it as an opportunity, not necessarily something frightful.”
Kropff connected with the leadership and staff of the Round Rock Express and their values immediately.
“The core values are: do more with less, practice humility and passionately serve the community,” Kropff said. “Every organization I’ve ever been a part of…that was the essence of what we did.”
When it comes to managing the stadium’s operations team, Kropff does what he’s always done: lead by example.
“I don’t sit in my office. I don’t do it for show,” he said, about getting out and on the field with his employees. “I do it because I enjoy it and because I care about them as people and as employees. I want them to know I’m not going to ask them to do anything I’m not willing to do myself.”
Home plate: lessons for the team
Kropff’s life has had three different, distinct bases, but each one has complimented the other, culminating in a life of leadership, wisdom and success.
“I do feel like my life has been in sections or phases,” he said. “In each section or phase I try to improve myself along the way; take what I’ve learned and apply it to whatever situation I’m faced with.”
For vets just separating from service, his advice is simple, solid and broken in:
“First and foremost don’t sell yourself short. Don’t think that based on your MOS you’re not equipped for a certain job…interpersonal skills, dedication, motivation and willingness to do a job equals success. Make sure it [your job] is something you enjoy doing. The success will come. Don’t worry about success. Forget about success. Don’t work for success, work to be the best at your job that you can be and then figure out what the next step in your job is and begin preparing for that. Don’t be satisfied. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box and try different things. Always be looking for a challenge.”