My boss had a sense of humor

Erv PetersErvin Peters died recently at a hospice in Arizona following a stroke. Erv, 89, was one of my early bosses, and I’ll always remember him.

I’d been out of town for a few days and learned of Erv’s death when I arrived home Sunday night from NSP publisher Bill Tubbs, who knew I’d once worked for Erv.

Erv spent many years in sales management at what then was called Lujack-Schierbrock Chevrolet in Davenport. Then he struck out on his own and bought a Dodge dealership at 4020 N. Brady St. in Davenport.

I worked for him as a sales representative from the summer of 1971 to the summer of 1972. But I had known of Erv and his family long before that.

His son Steve and I were the same age. We attended school and were in Cub Scouts together. Erv’s wife, Charlotte, sometimes assisted at den meetings.

I never intended to sell cars for Erv or anyone else.

When I graduated from St. Ambrose in May 1971 as a 22-year-old married guy with a speech and drama degree and a teaching certificate, I intended to teach. But there were no speech and drama jobs to be found in the area at that time.

I went to work for Erv after a short, very frustrating stint as a radio advertising sales rep. That job didn’t go so well because I was selling for an FM station, and FM radio had not yet become popular.

Most people didn’t have FM in their cars, and if they did have an FM radio, they often didn’t listen to it because most FM stations either played “elevator music” or they simulcast the signals of their sister AM stations.

So I was one of several young men Erv hired to sell cars and trucks at his new dealership. He sent us to a sales school in Moline, and a few days later we were on the job.

What I remember most about Erv was his soft-spoken, easy-going manner. He had the ability to engage car shoppers in conversation and put them very much at ease.

And perhaps from growing up in the area, spending some 14 years at Lujack and through his club affiliations, Erv seemed to know everyone and, in some cases, members of their family, too.

He remembered faces, names, where people worked and the cars they had purchased in the past. He had a story for every occasion.

If one of his sales reps was having difficulty closing a sale, Erv would “happen” by and, more times than not, help make the sale.

If you did your job, Erv was easy to work for. There was one time, though, I made him angry. But only for an instant.

All of the sales people had new Dodge demonstrators to drive, and we were expected to keep them clean so they looked good for test drives.

One day during my lunch hour I went to a self-service car wash and washed my demonstrator, a new 1972 Dodge Coronet. Before leaving, I decided to vacuum the interior.

The car wash’s vacuum was mounted on a concrete slab that was about 2 feet high. As I pulled up to it, I misjudged my distance and tapped the slab with the right front bumper of the new car.

I didn’t think I could have done much damage because I didn’t hit the slab very hard. But the sudden stop had bent the bumper back, causing the fender to bow out over the right front wheel.

I was shocked.

Erv was self-insured for the most part, so I knew either he was going to be paying for the repairs or I was.

When I got back to the dealership, I mustered my courage, went into Erv’s office and told him I’d dented my demonstrator.

He looked unhappy and asked me where it had happened.

“At the car wash,” I said solemnly.

His frown changed to a smile, and he started laughing.

“At the car wash?” he asked with a chuckle.

“Yes,” I said. Then I explained how the freak mishap had taken place.

Erv, still smiling, told me to take the car to the dealership’s body shop, and he’d cover the cost of repairs.

Lucky for me that day, another of Erv Peters’ traits was his sense of humor.

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

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Posted by on March 13, 2014 in Uncategorized


Circa ’21 is planning a retirement party for lobby host Ed “Jonesy” Jones

Jonesy on the job.  thanks for 23 enjoyable years Ed,  not to mention the scores of bad jokes! Circa '21 photo.

Jonesy on the job. Thanks for 23 enjoyable years Ed, not to mention the scores of bad jokes! Circa ’21 photo.

My friend Ed Jones is retiring. I guess he’s earned it — he is in his mid-80s. I will still see him with a group of retired fellow broadcasters, the WOC Club, we’re part of when we get together for breakfast on a monthly basis. But I will miss seeing Ed as the lobby host at Circa ’21, where my wife and I are long time subscribers. Following is a news release that Circa put out about a retirement party planned for Ed.


For nearly two dozen years, patrons arriving at Rock Island’s Circa ’21 Dinner Playhouse have known that, in addition to dinner and live stage entertainment, they would be treated to one of the venue’s less-heralded treats: a warm greeting, and probably a joke or two, from the theatre’s resident lobby host Ed “Jonesy” Jones.

This past December, however, Jones decided to retire from his Circa ’21 position after 23 years of employment – even though, as the theatre’s producer/director Dennis Hitchcock says, he had actually considered doing so several times before.

“When Ed was initially hired,” says Hitchcock, “he was 62, and he said he thought he’d work until he was 65. And when he turned 65, he then thought he’d work until he was 70. And then it was 75. And then it was 80. And in the end, luckily for us, he chose 86 instead of 65.”

“It’s crazy,” says Jones himself, “because sometimes I wonder, ‘Why am I retiring?’ Because I want to keep going. But then I think, ‘Wait a minute! What are you thinking? You’re going to be 87 years old!”

But fans of the ebullient Circa ’21 lobby host will have at least one more chance to see Jones in his longtime Rock Island stomping grounds. On Tuesday, January 21, the theatre will host a retirement party for Ed Jones from 4 to 6 p.m., with the public invited to share in an afternoon celebrating the almost 24 years of dedicated and always entertaining service provided by this Quad Cities icon.

“Ed graduated from college wanting to be an actor,” says Hitchcock, “and this gave him a perfect role to play. He has the kind of personality that attracts people to him, and because of that friendly, outgoing personality – and because he can talk to anybody about anything – he really became the face of Circa ’21.”

The job, in many ways, was a natural fit for Jones, who grew up in the Boston area and always had a particular fondness for the world of show business.

“When I was in grade school,” he says, “I was the only kid in school who tap danced, and who put on dancing shows at lodges and such. And after that, I was the only kid in school who, every Saturday, would be on the train going to Boston to see the latest musical or the latest play – all the shows would try out in Boston before they hit New York.

“So I got to see famous stars from Gloria Swanson to Edward G. Robinson … people like that who would come to appear in a play between pictures. Everybody you can think of. And I’d go to the nearest town and just sit in the radio studio and watch the guys do a radio program … . I was thought of as an oddball, I suppose, but I was the only kid in school who ever wanted to do any of that!”

After graduation and two years spent serving in the U.S. Army, Jones did find entertainment-related employment, working at a summer theatre in Vermont and a radio station in Louisiana, and, locally, serving 25 years as a director for Iowa’s first television station, WOC-TV.

It was in 1990, after retiring from WOC-TV, that Jones saw an ad in the newspaper stating that Circa ’21 was seeking a lobby host. “I didn’t know what they were talking about,” says Jones, “but I went over there to see them, and a week later I started work as a lobby host.”

“The position, as I see it, is that of a host welcoming our guests to the theatre,” says Hitchcock. “And up to the point of Ed’s hiring, we had sort of been rotating the people in that position from the dining-room staff. But I think some of the younger people were intimidated by the job, and didn’t have Ed’s gift of gab, and so they couldn’t serve as well as a more mature person. The job, after all, was about communicating, and Ed spent his whole life in the communications industry.”

“I enjoyed the job from the start,” says Jones. “And I don’t know how I got into it, but pretty soon I had the idea: ‘What if I could find a costume that would kind of fit with the show?’”

Jones’ greeting of patrons in an ever-changing series of costumes – wardrobe associated with whatever musical or comedy they were about to see – quickly became an element of the Circa ’21 experience that guests most looked forward to. Says Jones, “People would start coming in saying, ‘You know, we were talking on the way over here, and we were wondering what who’d look like tonight!’

“So I’ve been a priest, I’ve been a nun, I’ve been a grandmother, I’ve been a track coach … . For The Full Monty, I had a short bathrobe on. People didn’t know I also had a bathing suit on, and thought I was naked underneath. I had a lot of fun with that one.”

“I think my favorite,” says Hitchcock, “was the long underwear that he wore for Who’s Under Where? But there were so many clever ones over the years. He would go to Greg [Hiatt], our costume designer, and talk to him about what he should wear, and he would frequently have his own ideas. Ed was very, very serious about it, and it was very important to him, and that’s part of why he was such a wonderful choice in that position.”

Jones could also always be counted on to greet Circa ’21 guests with a joke which, depending on the patron, could be anything from G-rated to … not G-rated.

“One of my nicknames over the years was Fast Eddie,” says Jones. “And people would say, ‘Why do they call you Fast Eddie?’ And my response would always be, ‘I’d rather be Fast Eddie than Half-Fast Eddie.’ Because when you say that fast … .” Laughing, Jones adds, “Nobody seemed offended, though.”

“He really cares about the people at Circa,” says Hitchcock, “and he really is the person people miss the most when he’s not here.”

Jones, meanwhile, says he misses his Circa ’21 family as well, even though he and his wife Jeannie are greatly enjoying their newfound time together. “She retired, too, just three weeks ago,” says Jones, “and so she’s home all the time, and I’m home all the time, and we’re trying to take little trips and do more stuff together.

“But it is like family over there. Not only the people that work at Circa, but all the subscribers that I’ve known for almost 25 years. I’ve made millions of friends at that place. But I’m still gonna go to all the shows!”

Ed Jones’ retirement party, open to the public will take place at the Circa ’21 Dinner Playhouse (1828 Third Avenue, Rock Island, IL) on Tuesday, January 21 from 4 to 6 p.m., and more information on Circa ’21 events is available by calling (309)786-7733 extension 2 or visiting

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Posted by on January 15, 2014 in Uncategorized


QCCVB’s new Quad-Cities Activity Guide is better than ever

QCCVB's 2014 Activity Guide

QCCVB’s 2014 Activity Guide

“You are one of the first people in the universe to receive one of these,” said Joe Taylor, president and CEO of the Quad-Cities Convention and Visitors Bureau (QCCVB), the official tourism destination marketing and management organization for the Quad-Cities region.

It was Jan. 3, and Joe, without doubt the most enthusiastic cheerleader for the Quad-Cities and vicinity, proudly handed me a hot-off-the-press, full-color, 56-page booklet, the QCCVB’s new Quad-Cities Activity Guide.

Joe and I have been friends for a long time. We have a lot in common.

For one thing, he has a background in journalism and is superb in his dealings with the media. We also both share an interest in the sport of auto racing.

But most importantly we both believe strongly in tourism and that every community in this area — not just the larger ones — benefits when people visit the Quad-Cities and spend their entertainment dollars at tourist attractions, stores, restaurants, gas stations, movie theaters and hotels and motels.

Tourism is big business, too: Visitors generated an economic impact of $810 million from more than 1.6 million visitors to the Quad-Cities in 2012.

As I thumbed through the new booklet, Joe called attention to its new name. In the past it was known as the Quad-Cities Visitors Guide. Now it’s the Quad-Cities Activity Guide.

Joe explained the reason for the change — it’s not just visitors to this area who use this guide — and that makes sense.

The guide is used by visitors, residents, group tour planners, meeting/convention planners, sports tournament planners, business recruiters and the media as a resource for information on the Quad-Cities and the things to see and do in the region.

The cover and interior page design of the guide also complement the new community brand – Marvels on the Mississippi — the QCCVB introduced last fall.

“The process used to build the new brand focused on understanding what makes the region unique,” according to a recent news release. “This research led to defining the Quad Cities’ most relevant and engaging brand attributes: the Mississippi River, festivals, special events, live music, casinos, affordability, Midwestern hospitality and the fact that the area seems easy to navigate.”

If you’d like a print version of the Quad-Cities Activity Guide, they are available free by ordering from the QCCVB website,, by calling the QCCVB at (309) 277-0937 or (800) 747-7800, or by visiting one of the QCCVB visitor centers in the Quad-Cities.

An online version of the Activity Guide is available at and is mobile accessible.

More than 110,000 copies of the guide are distributed annually. Last year’s online version of the guide was viewed almost 10,000 times during 2013.

Copyright 2014, by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises. This piece was submitted as a column to The North Scott Press, Eldridge, Iowa.

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Posted by on January 14, 2014 in Uncategorized


Race driver Ernie Derr has died

Ernie Derr from the funeral home website.

Ernie Derr from the funeral home website.


A more recent photo from the funeral home website.

A more recent photo from the funeral home website.


Bulldog 150 news conference participants.

Bulldog 150 news conference participants.


Getting ready to hear the pipes "fry."

Getting ready to hear the pipes “fry.”


Phil with Ramo Stott, who was recovering from burns.

Phil with Ramo Stott, who was recovering from burns.


Phil with Davenport driver Terry Ryan.

Phil with Davenport driver Terry Ryan.

Legendary Keokuk, Iowa, race driver Ernie Derr has died at age 92. Like the World War II veterans, one by one we’re losing all of the old-time race drivers.

I first saw Ernie, whose obituary follows, race when I was a teen and he’d occasionally bring his Dodge to Davenport Speedway. Homer Melton was the promoter. I have always suspected Homer paid Ernie to show up to spice up the field of Late Model entries, but I don’t know if that’s true. Ernie did, though, add to the excitement.

I met Ernie in about 1974 at a news conference at the Iowa State Fair Speedway in Des Moines regarding an upcoming USAC stock car race (the Bulldog 150, promoted by Jack Housby of Housby Mack trucks) in Des Moines. I had a radio program called “Around the Track” and likely recorded an interview with Ernie, who was one of several drivers who attended the news conference. I’ll be looking that up. Unlike the others there that day, Ernie brought his race car, a red and white Dodge, number 1.

(Some of my photos from that news conference appear above along with a couple from the funeral home.)

As the news conference concluded, another reporter I climbed into Ernie’s car at his urging for a trip around the track. I foolishly assumed it would be at a slow speed. Another reporter step aside Ernie upfront; I climbed in behind them. That’s when the cockpits of cars were open and not covered with sheet metal. I sent a photo, then went for the ride of my life.

You see, Ernie drove us around the track a lot faster than I would’ve preferred with no seat belts, helmets etc. right up next to the concrete retaining wall. He said it was so to hear the pipes “fry.”

The exhaust pipes exited the right side of the car, and the exhaust sound echoed off the concrete wall as he ran just inches from it.

“Can you hear the pipes fry?” he asked. “Yes, yes,” we answered, hoping he’d then slow down. He had a big smile on his face, and I know he was enjoying scaring the crap out of both of us.

I’ve tried to interview Ernie a couple of times in recent years but was unsuccessful. I would’ve done it by phone or I would’ve driven to Keokuk and met him in person had he permitted that. But his wife fielded his calls, and when she found out I was a writer, Ernie suddenly was “not at home.” 

It was a disappointment; I’m sure he had some stories to tell.

Comments from two of his sons in an article in the Keokuk paper ( explain Ernie’s attitude.

“He didn’t like talking about himself,” Russ said. “He didn’t like to visit. He liked racing, but when he quit, he didn’t go watch races in person. He would watch on TV, but he wasn’t necessarily a fan. It was a business to him. It was a profession.”

“The one time at the (Keokuk drivers’) reunion they wanted to interview him,” Randy said. “He went over and started his race car. That was his talking.”

Copyright 2014 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises.


Posted: Thursday, January 9, 2014 12:00 pm

Ernest “Ernie” Virgil Derr, 92, of Keokuk died Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014, at his home in Keokuk.

He was born Oct. 29, 1921, near Donnellson, the son of Virgil Emery and Alice Marie Frueh Derr.

He is survived by his wife of 67 years, Marianna Lewis Derr of Keokuk; and his children, Nancy Ann (Steve) Smith, James Michael (Barbara) Derr, Steven Wayne (Carolyn) Derr, Russell Lewis (Judith) Derr, Randy Eugene (Nancy Jo) Derr, Danny Joe (Celley) Derr, Karen Garland (Floriday) Derr Anderson, all of Keokuk; 15 grandchildren, Jeff Bennett, Beth Guy, Dannette Sargent, Ashley Haney, Stephanie Ragar, Angie Miller, Bruce, Ryan, Jacob, Alex, Zachary, Austin and Aiden Derr, and David and Douglas Anderson; 11 great-grandchildren, Makenzie, Taylor and Madelyn Guy, Bronson and Irelynd Sargent, Hayden Derr, Charli and Josi Haney, Ava Rae and Lincoln Derr, and Mia Miller; and two siblings, Verna (Don) White and Virginia LeMatty.

He was preceded in death by his parents, Virgil and Alice Derr; mother and father-in-law, Isaac Newton and Cora Christy Lewis; maternal grandparents, John and Mary Frueh Derr; paternal grandparents, Screno and Arvilla Allan Derr; his only brother, Guy Derr, who was killed in action in Auchen, Germany, while serving as a private in the U.S. Army during World War II; sister, Mabel Leeper; two brothers-in-law, Harry LeMatty and Raymond Leeper; nieces, Lori Leeper and Gina and Harriet LeMatty; nephews, Rocky, Thad and Thomas LeMatty and Gary White; and great-nephew, Kelly Stenson.

From the time Ernie was old enough to work, he helped his father in the farm fields. As he got older, he worked as a farm hand for neighbors for one dollar a day and his dinner. Then as a young man, he got a job working in the Marshall Auto Store in Keokuk.

In 1941, he married Urbina Gardner. They had one daughter, Karen. They were later divorced.

In 1942, he joined the U.S. Army and served in the European Theater. He was in the 6th Armored Division and drove a weasel and went ahead of his company and laid wire for communications. He earned the rank of corporal and received the bronze star and other commendations. He was proud to have served his country.

He was honorably discharged in 1945 and returned home and went back to work at the Marshall Auto Store. He eventually transferred to the Fort Madison store and became the manager for a few years. In 1946, he met and married Marianna Lewis.

In 1950, he began his stock car racing career in the I.M.C.A. circuit. In 1952, he quit working at the Marshall Auto Store, moved back to Keokuk permanently and made racing his life career. He worked many long hard hours to prepare the best race car possible. His dedication and perseverance allowed him to win a great number of races and he was a 12 time I.M.C.A. champion. He raced for 26-plus years and in 21 states, plus Canada. He was honored as a member of several racing sports halls of fame.

Visitation will be Sunday and services Monday, with times to be announced.

Burial will be in Keokuk National Cemetery.

In lieu of flowers, memorials can be made to Wounded Warriors.

DeJong-Greaves Celebration of Life Centers is in charge of arrangements, and tributes and condolences may be entered at


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Posted by on January 10, 2014 in Uncategorized


Stan Fox was a nice guy who got some bad breaks

Stan Fox Sep 1996Roberts&Stan Fox Sep1996Note: This piece was written for a track history section on the Davenport (Iowa) Speedway website.

Stan Fox (born in 1952 in Janesville, Wisconsin – died in 2000 near Waiouru, New Zealand) was a United States open wheel race car driver. And, as Wikipedia puts it, Fox was one of the last links between the midget car racing world and the Indianapolis 500.

Although Fox never competed at Davenport Speedway, he spent some time at the track. Fox was a guest of the racing history group, Midwest Oldtimers, for the Midwest Oldtime Days racing weekend in September 1996.

In the photos above from the Phil Roberts collection, Fox is shown that weekend sitting in an antique midget car owned by Davenport’s Ron “Auto Ron” Williams and also standing with Roberts, who handled publicity and did some announcing for Midwest Oldtimers.

Fox began his career as a midget car racer. Fox also competed in the Indianapolis 500 eight times between 1987 and 1995, driving for A.J. Foyt and Ron Hemelgarn. He was also a motorcycle racing enthusiast.

While driving for Hemelgarn, Fox was seriously injured during the 1995 Indianapolis 500 in one of the most horrifying accidents in the history of the race. After starting ninth, Fox went low into the first turn on the first lap of the race and spun.

His car connected with the car of Eddie Cheever Jr., and several other cars also were involved in the wreck. The entire front nose cone was ripped from Fox’s car, leaving the pilot’s legs exposed. Fox suffered serious head injuries.

The accident ended Fox’s racing career but he continued to stay involved with the sport. He started the non-profit organization Friends of the Fox, which supported people with head injuries and brought them to the track each May to meet the drivers and get VIP treatment.

Fox never gave up his dream of driving a race car again, but he was not destined to achieve it, either.

In December of 2000, on the Desert Road some 200 miles south of Auckland, New Zealand, Fox’s van collided head on with a car, and he was killed. He was 48 years old.

Copyright 2014 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises.

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Posted by on January 6, 2014 in Uncategorized


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Singer’s persistence turns reindeer song into bestseller

Elmo in rocking chair with corn cobb pipe

Dr. Elmo. Photo by Pam Wendell.

Dr. Elmo. Photo by Pam Wendell.

Dr. Elmo. Photo by Pam Wendell.

Some like it. And some don’t. But I doubt there are very many people who haven’t heard — and hummed — the catchy song, “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”

That tune, made famous by former veterinarian Dr. Elmo Shropshire, has sold more than 11 million copies since it was first broadcast in 1979.

But it took several years – not to mention persistence, risk-taking and dollars on Dr. Elmo’s part — for the song that’s been the most requested holiday song of the past three decades to achieve national exposure.

Dr. Elmo, 77, shared his story with me in a recent phone interview. A Kentucky native, he was 31 when he moved to the San Francisco area in 1967. He opened an animal hospital and became a competitive runner. Four years later he began playing the banjo and formed a bluegrass band that played throughout northern California, Nevada and on ship cruises.

“I really love playing music,” he says.

Dr. Elmo says he was writing and singing some funny songs in 1979 when his band had an engagement at Lake Tahoe.

At the conclusion of the performance, “a very clever guy” named Randy Brooks came forward and said he had a song, “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” that he thought would be perfect for Dr. Elmo.

Dr. Elmo invited him to come onstage with the band and sing the song. There wasn’t a lot of response to it from the audience, but Dr. Elmo says he was impressed.

“From the moment he sang it, I thought, ‘You know something, this is the most original idea I’ve heard for a Christmas song yet.’ The other thing about it was, it had all the trappings of ‘White Christmas’ and ‘Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire’ except for the fact that grandma got throttled by the reindeer — that really threw a curve in it.”

Dr. Elmo released the song and KSFO in San Francisco played a tape of it in December 1979. It immediately became a regional phenomenon.

“Some people called in and requested it,” he says. “A lot of other people called in and requested that they never play it again.”

The following year Dr. Elmo thought the song’s success was over. Stations, however, distributed a tape of it among themselves, and it was still getting airplay.

So Dr. Elmo began a quest to get the song distributed nationally. But by 1983, he says, he had contacted every record company, “and they all acted like I was crazy.”

There continued to be a lot of buzz about the song on the radio and some controversy, too, says Dr. Elmo. Some people complained about grandma getting killed at Christmas, “but others suggested they lighten up.”

Despite his inexperience, Dr. Elmo decided that year to self-produce a music video of the song. It was a huge risk. He sold his veterinary hospital, where he’d made a decent living, to finance the project.

Rather than making a video of himself singing the song, he produced a video of the story itself. Dr. Elmo played the parts of both grandpa and grandma.

The video cost him about $30,000, he says, “which was a huge amount of money to me then. It was a big chunk of what I got from selling my veterinary hospital.”

He also spent $10,000 to $12,000 to produce his original album.

But Dr. Elmo was about to get two big breaks:

1) A Nashville company pressed 250,000 “Grandma” records, and sold them all within a couple of weeks.

2) MTV started regularly playing the video Dr. Elmo had sent to the cable channel.

“On December 18th of 1983, ‘Grandma’ was No. 2 behind Bing Crosby’s ‘White Christmas’ on the Billboard Christmas chart,” Dr. Elmo proudly proclaims. “By December 24th, it was No. 1. And it stayed there for a few years while Billboard had a Christmas chart.”

The icing on the cake came a year later when Epic Records stepped up. By December of that year, Epic had “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” albums and singles in every store in America.

Dr. Elmo says “Grandma” was Epic’s big seller for that month, and its competition included Epic’s Michael Jackson album, “Thriller,” released in late 1982.

The “Grandma” song also got some unexpected national publicity in December 1986, courtesy of a Davenport deejay. According to news accounts, the WLLR disc jockey, whose on-air name was Jack Daniels, was suspended for playing “Grandma” 27 times in a row. He said he had been attempting to play the song for his entire four-hour shift because he was depressed.

Dr. Elmo and “Grandma” remain popular to this day. His wife, Pam Wendell, reports that a “Grandma” application for tablets is among the most-used apps for the holidays.

But Dr. Elmo has another other claim to fame. In October 2012, he competed in the U.S. National 5K Cross Country Championship in San Diego.

“I won a gold medal in my age division to my total amazement,” he says.

Then, in October of this year, Dr. Elmo won another gold medal in the World Master’s Games as part of the USA 4 X 400 USA relay team in Brazil.

“It’s the Olympics for people over 35 years old,” he says. “It was a high time of my life. The stands were full. It was just like the Olympics.”

But like it or not, nothing Dr. Elmo Shropshire achieves will likely bring him the fame that “Grandma” has brought him.

He sums it up this way: “Some people have described that song as being a career-stopping hit. No matter what I do after that, it’s never going to measure up.”

Copyright 2013 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises. This piece appeared as a column in the North Scott Press, Eldridge, Iowa.

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Posted by on December 19, 2013 in Uncategorized


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Good-bye to a mentor and a friend

Julie Jensen McDonald copyI have been a writer and reporter for many years, and I owe many people for any success I’ve had.

But no one deserves more credit than writer, reporter, author, playwright and teacher Julie Jensen McDonald of Davenport, who died November 25 at age 84.

When I was merely a self-taught writer of freelance magazine articles, Julie read some of them at a writers’ conference where she was teaching during the summer of 1988. She encouraged me to keep writing.

I was at a turning point in my life then. I had lost my job in the office at the Davenport Caterpillar plant the prior March due to the plant’s closing. I had worked in radio off and on, both part time and full time, since 1968 and was considering returning to college to study journalism.

In late August of 1988, in no small part because of Julie’s encouragement, I returned to St. Ambrose, where I’d graduated in 1971 with a speech and drama major, to spend two semesters earning a second major in mass communications with an emphasis on journalism.

Julie was one of my instructors there; I took her print journalism classes in news reporting and feature writing.

Julie told the students in my class that we were expected to attend. In earlier times, she said, she had baked cookies and brought them to class to encourage attendance.

But when that had not worked, she took to knocking on the dorm room doors of students who had skipped to ask them why they weren’t in class. They had better be sick!

That was typical Julie Jensen McDonald.

In those classes, I learned writing principles from Julie that I recall nearly daily. Others did, too.

TV producer Kelli Hoag says Julie “was tough and used red ink freely, but she helped me become a better writer. When I got my first ‘A’ on an article, it meant something to me. I met her again several years later and she remembered me, and that meant something to me, too.”

I vividly remember Julie waving her arms and swooping about the front of the classroom like a giant bird, saying “over” refers to a location — not quantity — as in “a bird flew over the city.” Per Julie: “The robber took over $100” is wrong. “The robber took more than $100” is correct.

“To this day, I can’t use the word ‘over’ when talking about an amount,” admits Hoag.

“And does ‘impact’ as a verb also set your teeth on edge?” asks publicist Lisa Lockheart, another former Julie McDonald student.

“I, too, learned a lot from Julie way back when,” says TV news anchor Kris Ketz. “Talented. Tough. She hated unnecessary words or phrases. Even as I write stories today, her classroom teachings almost ‘haunt’ me and that’s actually a good thing. A very good thing.”

In late 1988, while I was still her student, Julie arranged for me to become a correspondent at The Leader, a now defunct weekly paper.

Then, following my completion of the journalism major at St. Ambrose, The Leader hired me (at age 40!) as its summer intern. I have no doubt that Julie had a part in that decision.

When the internship ended, I stayed on as a reporter. Then I worked as the associate editor and later the managing editor before leaving in January 1997.

While working as an editor at The Leader, in an interesting role reversal, it was my honor to have Julie serve as one of my reporters.

Not surprisingly, she turned her stories in on time, and they were always “clean,” meaning they needed little to no editing, and they left no unanswered questions in the minds of those who read them.

Rather than working the phone to interview people for stories, Julie did it the old-fashioned way. She made an appointment, jumped into her pale yellow Buick and went to see them in person.

“I want to look them in the eye,” she said.

There is, of course, an advantage to doing it that way if you have the time; you get to see the interviewee’s reaction to the question you’ve asked.

Julie was a great writer, a nice person, a mentor and a friend. She had made a huge, positive difference in my life, and I had told her that more than once.

I will miss her. But like her other students, I’ll long remember the writing principles she taught.

Copyright 2013, 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 December 4, 2013 in Uncategorized




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