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My bittersweet decision to retire from auto race announcing

313295_2193151200891_2247988_n37349_1453492869895_1732131_n(The photos were taken at Jackson County Speedway in Maquoketa, Iowa.)

This summer will be different from many of those in the past. This will be the first summer in some four decades that I have not announced auto races.

Over the years I have announced two to three nights a week. In recent years, though, I’ve worked only on Friday nights at Davenport Speedway.

But in January I informed the man who promotes the races there, Bob Wagener, that I was retiring.

It was a difficult, bittersweet decision. Announcing races has been a large part of my life and a part-time job I really enjoyed. Heck, I’ve done it for so long that in some families I’m announcing for their third-generation of drivers.

When I told Bob I was retiring, I hoped I’d be able to fade away without fanfare. I thought of a variation on a quote from Gen. Douglas MacArthur: “… I now close my … career and just fade away, an old soldier who tried to do his duty….”

But that wasn’t meant to be. Bob had his publicist, Mike McGuire, put out a news release. “When the stock cars take to local tracks for the 2015 season, it won’t sound the same,” was his opening line.

Some health issues, beginning with a torn cartilage in a knee a year ago that had me hobbling around for two months, caused me to first think about retiring.

A good friend, Dan Felsen, who is a few years my senior, put it something like this: When you are young, you believe your good health is going to last forever. But as you get older, you realize you’re not bulletproof.

Trips I have been putting off are another reason for the retirement. My wife Sherry and I like to travel and have taken some nice trips, but more remain on our bucket list.

The best time to travel, of course, is during the good weather months. Those are the same months racing is taking place. I decided it’s time to stop putting off those trips.

I grew up near Davenport Speedway at the Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds and have been a racing fan all my life. My teenage buddies and I all gathered on Friday nights on the top row of the west bleachers to cheer for our favorite drivers.

Some of those young friends, most notably Gary Webb, would go on to become drivers themselves. I, on the other hand, wanted most to become an announcer like my role model, Paul Liebbe.

Other than working on a stock car pit crew during my high school years in the late 1960s, my involvement in racing began in 1973, when I took over from Liebbe as host of the “Around the Track” motor racing news program on KWNT-AM radio.

I kept the program alive on that and other area stations through the 1990 season. In 1973 or 1974 I began substituting for then Davenport Speedway announcer Roger Meier when he had other commitments. From 1976 through about 1978, I also announced special events in Illinois, Wisconsin and Florida for former driver Bill Schwader, who had entered the race promotion business.

Promoter Ernie Cook hired me for my first weekly announcer job at his speedway in Maquoketa part way into the 1977 season. His announcer, he told me, had gotten angry about something and had abruptly quit. Ernie asked me to fill in until his announcer cooled off and returned, which he guessed would be several weeks. I was there for three years during that, the first of several stints at the track.

During my announcing career and in addition to my full-time jobs, I made time, often with the assistance of my wife, to serve as the publicist for two Midwest-based, late-model, dirt track touring series: the NASCAR Busch (and later O’Reilly Auto Parts) All-Star Series (1990-2001) and the World Dirt Racing League’s Polydome Super Series (2002-2009).

Sherry and I traveled with the All-Star Series, and I announced some of the series races in places like South Dakota and Tennessee. I generally worked from home when I was with the World Dirt Racing League. In addition, I wrote freelance articles about racing and racers in a number of local and national magazines over the years.

But weekly race announcing was my first love, and I’ve announced races at most every track in eastern Iowa and western Illinois over the last four decades. In doing so, I’ve tried to be supportive of the sport and racing people.

My philosophy has been that a racing announcer is like a combined football play-by-play announcer and color commentator. You need to tell people what’s going on and you also need to do analysis. You do that by studying the sport and paying attention to its competitors.

I reminded them that racing looks easy, but it’s not. I’ve driven a few times and can attest to that firsthand.

My commentary has angered some people now and then. That’s to be expected. But I guess I did OK overall. I wasn’t in the business to win awards but have been honored to have done so a few times.

In 2001, I was awarded the Racing OSCAR (Outstanding Support and Contribution to Auto Racing) from Quad Cities Racing Connection magazine. In 2010, I won the Tod Brinkman Memorial Award for outstanding support of auto racing, and in 2011 I won the Speedway Fire Rescue Presidential Award for outstanding support of that group of volunteers, to which my wife and I are honorary members.

While my involvement in auto racing over the years has been a lot of work, it’s truly been a labor of love. And the dollars I’ve earned doing a job I loved paid for things like family vacations.

But what I will miss most about retiring from announcing is not seeing my racing friends quite as often. From drivers to participants to officials to sponsors and fans, racing people are the absolute best. They are highly competitive, but if you need it they’ll give you the shirt off their backs. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen drivers loan parts — including engines— to those who need them to compete against those making the loan.

Since my announced retirement, I have been overwhelmed by the kind things that many people have said to me. That includes promoter Bob Wagener.

“I could always count on your guidance and knowledge to keep me in the right direction, and you were always an important part of the very best team officiating races — your presence will always be missed,” he wrote in an email.

“One thing we will have is all the wonderful stories and memories we have accumulated over the years, and know that your name will come up often in a positive light every time I share these stories,” Wagener added.

Maquoketa Sentinel-Press columnist Jack Marlowe wrote of me in his Jan. 24 “Sports Slants” column that “just hearing his voice made me feel comfortable at the speedway and helped me as a writer.

“Even though he is stepping down as an announcer, I think his love for the sport will not end.”

You’re right, Jack.

Copyright 2015 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises.

 
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Posted by on March 24, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

A super view, but not the best place to stay

P1000855P1000854We stayed at the Punta Gorda Waterfront Hotel and Suites (pictured), 300 W. Retta Esplanade, Punta Gorda, Fla., on Feb 18, 2015. Looking back, the hotel, which appeared to be undergoing some renovations, had both pluses and minuses.

On the plus side, I selected the hotel for two reasons: 1) We had an early flight on Feb. 19 out of the Punta Gorda Airport, and the hotel is not far away. It’s a 15-minute trip when there’s traffic and about half that when there’s little traffic. 2) The hotel location is beautiful. The facility is situated on the bay that separates Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte. Other plusses include a clean room with microwave, refrigerator, free Wi-Fi, etc.

Minuses included the price for one night, a whopping $211.68 ($189 plus $22.68 tax) for our standard room with the water view. The room had a desk and chair for computer work, but a round table was chairless, meaning there was only one chair in the room for two people. Even if the round table had come with a chair or two, it would’ve been difficult to use for dining etc. because it was so low to the floor.

My main complaint, however, was a requested 5 a.m. Feb. 19 wake-up call that never came! Before turning in for the night, I tried repeatedly to schedule the wake-up call using the hotel’s automated phone system. But all I ever got was a busy signal. So I called the front desk and made a verbal request to the desk clerk. As stated, that call never came the next morning. Had we not set one of our phone’s alarm as a backup, we would’ve missed our flight.

In summary, there are other hotels not far from the Punta Gorda Airport that go for a lot less money. Water view or no water view, I would recommend one of them over Punta Gorda Waterfront Hotel and Suites.

Copyright 2015 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises.

 
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Posted by on March 11, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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Circus fanatic or not, the Ringling complex in Sarasota is worth your time.

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P1000752If you are making a first-time visit to the Sarasota, Fla., area, be sure to include a stop at The Ringling Museum of Art, Circus Museum, Bayfront Gardens and Ca’d’Zan (That’s the name of the bayside former winter residence of John and Mabel Ringling). The attraction is located at 5401 Bay Shore Road in Sarasota. (See photos above)

Sherry and I were in Florida several days in February to visit her sister Cindy and Cindy’s husband, Mike. They spent January, February and early March in the Sunshine State, trying out condos in various locations and, thereby, missing out on a lot of winter weather at their home in western Illinois. Their condo was on Siesta Key, near Sarasota, when we visited.

Though we didn’t take time to visit The Ringling Museum of Art, all of us spent several hours touring the circus museum and gardens. I continued to enjoy the gardens on a 70-degree day and took a tram ride around the facility while the other three also toured the Ringling mansion.

I’ve seen a lot of circuses in my years and have an appreciation for the people — both those working behind the scenes and the performers — who make them happen. But I wouldn’t call myself a circus fanatic.

Nonetheless, I found the Ringling attraction impressive and well worth my time. Our foursome was there for several hours.

My favorite part was the circus museum, filled with circus memorabilia, all attractively displayed. Photos are permitted if you don’t use your camera’s flash. Among the items to see were glittering circus costumes, ornate circus wagons, videos of performances, a variety of historic circus posters and the 44,000-piece Howard Brothers Circus model.

Many of the displays are interactive. For example, you can try walking on a tight rope or do your best to cram yourself into a small clown car. The attraction also includes cafés and a gift shop.

Museum admission includes entry to the Museum of Art, Circus Museum, Ca’d’Zan and Bayfront Gardens. It’s $25 for adults, $23 for seniors 65 and over, $5 for children ages 6 through 17 and students 18 and over with an ID. Children under 5 are free and admission is only $10 each for U.S. active military and Florida teachers with an ID.

The website is ringling.org and the phone number is 941-359-5700. The museum is open daily from 10 to 5 and until 8 p.m. on Thursdays. The Bayfront Gardens are open from 9:30 until 6. Everything is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.

If you aren’t driving to Florida, you can do what we did — take a no-frills, but direct, flight on Allegiant Airlines from Moline to the small airport in Punta Gorda. Fla., about an hour’s drive south of Siesta Key. We flew to Florida on a Sunday and returned home the following Thursday.

An interesting sidelight: The day we visited the Ringling complex I was wearing a University of Okoboji T-shirt. The University of Okoboji is a fictitious university created in the early 1970s by three brothers who printed T-shirts with an “official” school crest. The word “Okoboji” refers to some lakes, including Lake Okoboji, and the town of Okoboji in Iowa’s Great Lakes Region.

Two people saw that shirt, correctly assumed I was from Iowa, and approached me. One man, who said he now lives in Maine, had at one time lived in Marshalltown. Another man said he lives near Lake Okoboji in northern Iowa. He even recited the motto of the fictitious University of Okoboji: “In God We Trust; Everyone Else – Cash.”

Copyright 2015 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises.

 
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Posted by on March 5, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

New website commemorates Q-C monster station KSTT

Ties and typewriters: (L to R) Bob Henry, Clark Anthony, Lou Gutenberger and Bill Vancil of KSTT.

Ties and typewriters: (L to R) Bob Henry, Clark Anthony, Lou Gutenberger and Bill Vancil of KSTT.

From a Jan. 2015 news release:

The idea to turn a little reunion site into a full blown extgravaganza of visual delights (www.ksttgoodguys.com) came at a mini-reunion of a few KSTT alums who got together in the small western town of Apache Junction, AZ in January, 2015.

The attendees, Bobby Rich, Dan Olson, Jim Orr, Jacque Cook, Clark Anthony and Bill Vancil exchanged stories and photos and all agreed that the legend of KSTT, Quad-Cities monster station, must be kept alive.

Bobby Rich was inducted into the Arizona Broadcasters “Hall of Fame” in 2013. The same year Bill Vancil was inducted into the Wisconsin Broadcasters Hall of Fame.

Bill was PD at KSTT in the ’60s, and Bobby was PD in the ’70s. Bobby is still on the air and recently celebrated 20 years at 94.9 Mix-FM.

Dan, Jim and Jacque are retired. Clark enjoys a lucrative voice over business from his home studio in San Diego.

 
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Posted by on January 24, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

Rest in peace, Janice Couper

Janice CouperJim Couper 1.jpgSincere condolences go out to former Walcott Mayor Jim Couper (pictured) of Green Valley, Ariz., on the recent loss of his wife of 45 years. Janice Couper (pictured), 64, died on Dec. 29.

Born April 3, 1950, in Hempstead, N.Y., Janice was a retired registered nurse but worked part-time as a barista at Starbucks, a job she really enjoyed. Inurnment will be at Parkland Memorial Park in Hampton, Va.

Jim notified his Facebook friends of Janice’s death with a short note the day she died.

Then, early the next morning, he wrote thoughtfully that his “heart was broken by the loss of my lifelong friend and soul mate. It seems that we go through life to be tested repeatedly on faith and our character. I can tell you that both are tested today.

“The Lord chose to take my Jan into his heart and for that I am grateful (because of the) pain, suffering and lack of quality of her vibrant life were already gone. For all who knew her, you know she was a true friend, devoted mother, wonderful wife and just a good-hearted person.”

Jim noted that Jan was loved by most who met her, and she always saw the best in people.

“It’s a testament to these qualities from the many warm thoughts and condolences from her/our friends on Facebook. She would be honored and a little embarrassed as to the wonderful things written by you.

“When the Lord calls our loved ones, he leaves a gift of memories. Hold on to those memories and let them guide you on how you might think of her from time to time; hopefully you will have a smile come on as big as hers.”

To retire and move to Arizona, Jim resigned from the Walcott mayor’s post effective May 31, 2013, months prior to the Dec. 31 end of his term.

He told me at the time that “everything had been geared up to leaving at the end of the year. The term was up, and I was also going to use that as my retirement date.”

But the Coupers put their house on the market, and it sold in 10 days. Jim said the buyers paid close to his asking price and needed to take possession, so he left office earlier than had been planned.

I’m glad the couple enjoyed the better part of two years together in Arizona before her death.

Copyright 2015 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises. This piece ran as a column in The North Scott Press, Eldridge, Iowa.

 
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Posted by on January 16, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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Santa Mike Peppers: Still giving back

Peppers as Santa from santaqca.com Ukraine orn3389Mike Peppers is generous and compassionate, traits that make him well-suited for his role as the Quad-Cities’ best-known Santa Claus.

Peppers, 72, of Davenport, received those traits – generosity and compassion — from his father, Tom Peppers, who died in 1964.

“My father and his brothers were raised in Boys Town because his mother couldn’t afford to feed her children,” said Peppers. Her husband had died at an early age, and “she had to split the kids up; she couldn’t afford to feed them in the Depression.”

As a result, Tom Peppers “learned to be a gentleman and a nice kid from Father Flanagan, and he passed that on to his kids.”

Monsignor Edward Joseph Flanagan, an Irish-born Catholic priest, founded the orphanage known as Boys Town located in Douglas County, Neb.

Boys Town sent Mike Peppers’ father and other boys to Nebraska farmers, who put them to work and fed them. Peppers said the conditions weren’t great. “They had to sleep in the barn.”

When Tom Peppers grew up, he became a machinist in Des Moines and was adept at grinding crankshafts, a job that took a lot of skill.

Later, in Davenport, he converted a model T crankshaft grinder to a late model crankshaft grinder run by an electric motor. Then he bought one piece of equipment at a time and built a machine shop, Pep Auto Shop, where he built race cars for others.

“Dad had a heart of gold,” said Mike Peppers. “He’d give guys motors and wait for them to pay. Some of them never paid. Some of them did pay. He trusted everybody.”

Tom Peppers and his wife Leona had six children, two girls and four boys. Things were tight financially. As he told the story, Mike Peppers paused to wipe away tears rolling down his cheeks and apologized.

“We grew up down below the railroad tracks by the (former) city dump, and we didn’t have anything. But Dad did his best. He was a little skinny guy because he didn’t eat like we eat today.”

Though Tom Peppers’ family was needy, he was always generous and compassionate.

Said Mike Peppers: “He had six kids’ mouths to feed at home, but when somebody’s car would break down coming through town … Dad would take them into his house and give them his bed – total strangers – and he’d put the kids on the floor. He and my mom then would sleep in the kids’ beds.”

There wasn’t much money for gifts at Christmastime, but thanks to publicity in the local paper, people “would actually bring gifts to our house.”

That act of kindness nudged Mike Peppers toward his role as Santa, and he is now in his 45th year.

When his brother Bob was president of the Davenport Jaycees, Bob asked him in 1965 to help the Jaycees to deliver toys.

“So we started going house to house, delivering toys to needy families and it just stuck, and I never quit.”

Mike Peppers’ journey toward becoming the Quad-Cities best-known Santa Claus took a turn as he served in Vietnam in the Army.

“We had parties for the kids over there. People would send us stuff we didn’t need (like Christmas ornaments and decorations) in the mail. So we’d give it to the kids.”
When his two-year hitch in the Army ended, Peppers, then a sergeant, came back to the states and took up where he’d left off — delivering packages to needy children with the Jaycees.

“Back then you couldn’t buy a Santa hat,” said Peppers. So his wife Kathie bought some material and made him one. He went to a T-shirt shop and ordered a red T-shirt that said “Santa’s helper” on it. And he bought himself a red coat.

Kathie eventually found a pattern and in 1969 made Peppers an entire Santa suit. “So that’s how it all began,” he said.

Peppers encountered some sad environments. Some children were clothed only in their underwear and lived in filthy, roach-infested apartments that smelled of urine.
The Jaycees used to tell him how lucky he was that, as Santa, he got to go inside while they waited outside in the cold. So Peppers invited them to join him.

“After about one or two minutes inside the house, they were back outside,” he said.

Often there were no Christmas trees in the poor children’s residences. So the Jaycees went to Christmas tree lots and looked for trees that no one wanted, then delivered them to the houses of the needy children.

Today, a dozen custom-made Santa suits hang in the closet of Mike Peppers’ office at Sergeant Peppers Auto Shop in downtown Davenport. They are of various weights for various weather conditions.

Though stained with perspiration, Peppers still uses a 6-foot black belt made in 1978 for him by a friend who did leather work.

Peppers takes his role as Santa seriously. He looks the part every day of the year. With white hair and a roly-poly build, he wears red shirts seven days a week. With the help of his elves, he creates a colorful Santa trading card each year that he happily hands out to those he encounters. He doesn’t use the computer himself, but he has a website, santaqca.com.

The office that Peppers and his assistant share is a shrine to Christmas and Santa Claus. Hundreds of ornaments of Santa Clauses of all shapes and sizes line numerous shelves. They are made of glass, ceramics, wood, cardboard and steel.

Peppers didn’t set out to start a collection of Santa memorabilia. But he bought some Santa Clauses for himself, then other people started giving them to him.
Some of the Santas and ornaments are from foreign countries like Italy, Norway and France. He has a snow globe from Germany.

There is a wooden Santa Claus from Ukraine. It really is a series of hollow Santas, one inside of another.

“They get snowed in all winter, and they make these to sell to the public,” explained Peppers. “The whole family works on them.”

Some Santas have special meaning now because of who gave them to him. Peppers, the official Santa of Quad City Arts’ Festival of Trees, has several items given to him by the late Festival of Trees chairman, Karen Getz.

“Karen was a mentor and pushed me to keep me going,” he said.

He also has a Santa from the late Deb McDaniel, festival staff director from 2005 to 2013.

One of Peppers’ prized possessions is a Scott County sheriff’s badge, proclaiming Santa a special deputy.
“Mike has put a local face on Santa in the Quad-Cities,” Sheriff Dennis Conard told The NSP. “The Santamobile with a smiling Santa at numerous parades and local events has become an institution of the Christmas season.

“The Sheriff’s Office, particularly our bicycle restoration program, owe special thanks to Mike volunteering to be Santa at the yearly bicycle giveaway we have with Friendly House. Santa makes the giveaway of restored bicycles to needy children a special event.”

Peppers is also quite proud of having won the Hometown Heroes Award, one of many honors bestowed upon him over the years.

There are photographs in Peppers’ office of him as Santa plus a Ward Olson painting of him flying through the air in his Santamobile, a large, red, sleigh-like convertible that’s been commemorated as an Isabel Bloom figurine.

But not everything in Peppers’ collection is Christmas related. There is a flight suit and helmet that a former two-star general, who now is in a nursing home, wanted Peppers to have. “He wore them in Vietnam.”

On Peppers’ desk, next to a basket of complimentary candy canes, is the 2014 schedule of appearances Santa must make. Typewritten, it fills nearly two legal-size sheets of paper beginning with an Oct. 4 appearance.

It’s a rigorous schedule, and some years – like one in which he was fighting cancer — have been more difficult than others.

Does he ever get tired of being Santa?

“I never answer that question until January,” Peppers said with a laugh. “I always wait to get past December. Because like right now (early December) I’m pretty worn down after 12 days of the Festival of Trees.”

How long will he continue as the Jolly Old Elf? “We take it year by year.”

Peppers and his wife Kathie don’t have any children, although he has a grown daughter from a previous marriage and a grandson.

But depending upon how you look at it, Mike Peppers really has lots of children. “We handle about 8,000 children per year,” he said.

Copyright 2014 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises. This ran as a feature in The North Scott Press, Eldridge, Iowa.

 
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Posted by on December 25, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Someone is watching, listening

Someone once offered some advice that went something like this: “If you don’t want your grandmother to read it on the front page of tomorrow’s paper, don’t say it.”

That could be expanded these days to, “If you don’t want your grandmother to read it on the front page of tomorrow’s paper or potentially everyone with a computer read it on Facebook or see it on YouTube, don’t say it, write it or do it.”

That’s because in this age of instant communications and social media, someone or some device is generally near you, ready to capture your every written or spoken word and all of your actions.

Broadcasters and public figures, like politicians, have always been warned to treat microphones as if they are live because they could be. But now all of us — not just broadcasters and public figures — are at the mercy of not just open microphones but surveillance cameras, miniature audio recorders and cell phones that record sound, take photos and make videos.

Drones equipped with video cameras can peer into your window and watch you get dressed or hover over your backyard and watch you sunbathe.

Some people have learned about the lack of privacy the hard way.

They have been caught making private remarks to individuals or small groups that ended up going public and came back to haunt them.

U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley of Iowa made some remarks to a group of lawyers at a Texas fundraiser that no doubt cost him some votes in his unsuccessful bid for a U.S. Senate seat.

Braley, a lawyer, was caught in a videotape posted online disparaging Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, who is a farmer.

“If you help me win this race, you may have someone with your background, your experience, your voice — someone who’s been literally fighting tort reform for 30 years in a visible and public way — on the Senate Judiciary (Committee),” Braley told the group. “Or you might have a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school, never practiced law, serving as the next chair of the Senate Judiciary. Because if Democrats lose the majority, Chuck Grassley will be the next chair of the Senate Judiciary.”

Braley later apologized to Grassley, but the damage was done.

Another person whose comments have recently caused controversy is MIT economist Jonathan Gruber, described by many as an architect of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and Romneycare in Massachusetts before that.

In a 2013 video Gruber said of Obamacare, “If you have a law that makes explicit that healthy people pay in and sick people get money, it wouldn’t have passed. Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage and, basically, call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever. But basically that was really critical to getting the thing to pass.”

Gruber has apologized on MSNBC for what he calls his “off-the-cuff” remarks.

On the local level, a staff member of Illinois U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos resigned in October for saying that constituents in some parts of Rockford spend more time in jail than in church.

District director Heidi Schultz quit after Bobby Schilling, who later lost to Bustos in the November general election, released an audio recording of Schultz making the comments to a constituent last winter.

Schultz said she did not know she was being recorded. Bustos called the comments “unacceptable on every front.”

Yes, someone’s listening, and someone’s watching. We worry about Big Brother — the government — keeping track of us. But maybe we should worry more about being studied by others like ourselves.

Copyright 2014 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises.This piece ran as a column in “The North Scott Press,” Eldridge, Iowa.

 
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Posted by on November 26, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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