Influence Is Priceless

Jun 7, 2019   //   by bwilber   //   Bob's Blog  //  Add a Comment

Greetings blog faithful. I am, indeed, a day late and 72-cents short, but I’m here and that’s what counts. It has not been what I would refer to as “a fun week” for me, but it’s all part of life. The short and not-too-graphic version of it is this: We had a great day last Sunday, finishing it up with a wonderful dinner at Lakes Grill, here in Woodbury, before coming home to watch the new HBO “Deadwood” movie on our big screen. It was a terrific day.

A quick diversion, though, before I get into the “not-too-graphic” stuff… If you were a fan of “Deadwood” the HBO series, you absolutely must watch the new movie. I’m not kidding. It’s required. It’s almost some sort of law. If you never watched the series back when it was on from 2004 through 2006, the long-awaited movie may make no pertinent sense to you, but I’d still advise watching it just to see brilliance on display in terms of sets, scripts, costumes, and language. OK, maybe you better just spend most of this weekend binge-watching the series. Then, you’ll be good to go for the feature film.

The movie takes place 10 years after the series ended. That’s a noteworthy thing because South Dakota was going through a lot of changes then. Also, since all the surviving actors came back to be in the new movie, it fits perfectly in terms of how they look and act. It’s genius. I was just checking Wikipedia to make sure I had the years right for the series, and I followed a few links to various publications who now consider it one of the greatest series of all time. It grabbed you, held you, scared you, challenged you, and made you laugh. And I always say, it’s the only TV series I ever watched that I swore I could smell. The movie is all of that squared. It’s two hours of cinematic master work.

OK, back to the subject at hand today. After that great dinner and the movie, we went to bed and slept like bricks. But when I woke up on Monday morning I could tell things weren’t right. We’d both eaten the same thing at dinner, so it wasn’t that. My stomach, instead, felt as if some evil alien was inside it, trying to drill and bite its way out. I wasn’t too eager to see the special effects. To sum it up, let’s just say the next 48 hours were suboptimal.

To make it worse, I slept zero minutes on Monday night. Then on Tuesday, I might have fallen asleep five or six times, but only for little 10 minute increments.

And even when 48-hours of gross stuff was over, there were side-effects to deal with. My back muscles and stomach muscles (I hesitate to classify what I have as “abs”) were so sore I could barely stand even the slightest cough.

But now it’s Friday, and I’m ready to go. Still feels like I’m running on about five or six cylinders, but the truly bad stuff is behind me. So let’s get to the subject at hand…

I realize I’ve been introspectively writing a lot about things that have influenced me recently, such as books or music or momentous occasions. Today, it’s people. This list is just going to scratch the surface, and it’s not really in any specific order, although I’ll admit I’m leaving the two most obvious listings for last. These are people who showed me something, whether overtly or not. People who inspired me. Colleagues who led by example until I finally came to the realization of “Well, gosh, that’s what life is about.” They are not the types who shout opinions from a soapbox or feel they are the only smart person in the room. They are all influencers. Mentors. Leaders. I will always be thankful for having crossed paths with each of them and for what they’ve meant to me, and I’ll feel the same way about the hundreds of others who aren’t on this list but didn’t make this particular blog only because I can’t type that much. I hope you all know who you are and why you’ve impacted my life so much.

There is an old saying about leopards and their spots. Basically it means, you are what you are. Those spots will never move around or change. I detest that saying. It’s incorrect.

We are influenced by others in many ways. During our early years, it’s mostly by osmosis. We absorb what our parents impart to us. That’s why so many of us grow up as the next image of our folks. At some point, a lot of people put their foot down and say “This is what I am. This is how I was raised! Don’t try to change me.” I sigh when I hear that. I’m living proof it’s not true and it can be enormously unhealthy. There are many people who are influencing me right now, and yet they may not even know it.

Here we go…

Elon Werner and Dave Densmore

Elon and Dens. Two of the most unique and inspiring people I’ve known. (Click on any image to enlarge)

If you’ve spent more than just a few minutes within the sphere of NHRA Drag Racing and have been even a peripheral part of the Media Relations and Public Relations effort, you likely feel just like I do about these two gentlemen. They are “pro’s pros” who represent the height of what can be done in terms of promotions and publicity. They are also platinum-grade people. They both inspired me from the first moment I met them, and much of that time had them working side-by-side to promote John Force Racing and (at the time) Ford.

They’re very different, but very much the same. Elon is the type of PR rep who loves the thrill of the sales pitch. He’ll work and prod a major national publication for weeks or months on end, in order to finally get a story placed. Then he’ll bust his butt to make sure the entire thing comes off without a hitch. Densie is a numbers guy, and not just for Force. If you need to know who won the NHRA Finals in 1988, in the Funny Car class, just ask him. He’ll know. It’s a cliche to say this, but it’s true. He’s forgotten more stuff than I’ve ever known. So who won the FC title in 1988 at the Finals? I don’t know. You’ll have to ask Densie.

Most importantly, they have always led by example. Can you have fun while working at a job like this? Of course you can. It can be riotous fun. We’ve all had each other in tears on too many occasions to count. But when it’s time to get to work can you block out all the distractions to get it done? Of course you can. Just by watching these two, I became the PR person I finally ended up being.

Gary Gerould

The G Man. The definition of the term “class act”

There is really no-one like Gary. During his long stint as the top-end reporter for the NHRA TV broadcasts, I actually didn’t interact with him all that much on an official basis. At Worsham Racing and Team Wilkerson, we didn’t have the staff to have a PR person in the Media Center and another person at the top end, handling hats and getting drivers into place. Yet somehow, Gary befriended me. He’d make a point of stopping by to say hi and share long conversations before we both had to get to our assigned stations. From the first time we spoke, I knew I’d met a very special person.

I remembered Gary from his many years as a TV pit reporter for the Indy 500. He’s more than just a little bit of a legend in that regard. What I wasn’t fully versed in was his incredible career as a basketball play-by-play announcer. He’s held that role, with the Sacramento Kings, since 1985. Gary Gerould is a truly famous and talented man. He’d have every right to pick and choose which important people he’d even consider as friends. He had no need to do that with me.

And yet… I think you know where I’m going with this. The influence Gary had on me was stark and obvious. We all have our talents, but none of our are skills make us any better or put us in some sort of higher place than anyone else. Gary’s graciousness and friendliness makes you feel as if you’ve been “best buddies” since childhood. It’s always an honor to head down to Target Center when the Timberwolves are playing the Kings, just to have a few moments with him before he goes on the air to weave his magic. You can’t be around Gary and not be touched and influenced by him. I know I have been. If you go through life treating everyone like Gary Gerould does, you’ll be in a very fine place. Be like Gary!

Greg Halling

Every time I send Greg a note, it’s starts with “Hey Boss.”

This one should come as no surprise to anyone who read “Bats, Balls, & Burnouts.” Greg has been my mentor, my guiding light, my tour guide, and my inspiration since Day 1. I couldn’t have done it without him.

Neither one of us had ever really done anything like our partnership when we kicked it off in January of 2016. When I began writing, my confidence level was somewhere in the basement. At first, he acted like more of a professorial teacher, making changes and explaining them to me. I soaked it all up like a sponge.

Once he’d taught me those lessons, and I grew as a writer, he almost imperceptibly shifted into more of a motivator and guide. He’d still fix clunky parts, but he began to revel in giving me sincere compliments when what I’d just given him hit the mark purely and squarely on target.

Greg Halling has more to do with my writing style today, and much more to do with my confidence and self-worth, than he will ever know. And even though he has a backbreaking workload at his “real job” as an executive editor with a newspaper, he’s always stayed right with me in terms of my writing and his editing input. Currently, for the new book “How Far?” he’s actually waiting for me to catch up to him.

And, in the beginning when I famously asked him “How do I compensate you for this?” his answer was, “Just let me do it. I want to be a part of it. That’s all I need.”

Leah Vaughn and Kelly Wade

When you try to “keep up” with people like Leah and Kelly, you push your boundaries.

This shout-out is unique, because I’m older and more experienced than either of these two, but they had their impact on me in obvious ways. I’m an old guy. I started out writing press releases on a typewriter. As an old dog, I’m often dragged kicking and screaming into the land of new tricks. During my long run in the NHRA realm, new things happened fast, and it was at times a struggle for this old pooch to keep up with the rapid fire pace of the explosion we refer to as social media. These two led by example, and by sheer determination. They are two totally self-made superstars. No luck of the draw. No easy path to stardom. Just hard work and a ceaseless ability to want to keep learning and keep getting better. Yes, they motivated me and influenced me.

They’re both very smart. They have great ideas. They’re not about to shy away from trying something not just “outside the box” but from a different box altogether. As I watched them develop and become ultimate pros, I was eager to learn and adapt. And, they’re great women who wouldn’t slow down for a glass ceiling if it tried to hit them on the head to stop their progress. They’ve smashed too many to count. And, they love what they do. You can’t be around Leah and Kelly without feeling that.

I met Leah when she was still in college, just a kid looking for a mentor. I gave her a few sincere words of advice and she’s never slowed down. Today, she works for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and is becoming a superstar on his hilarious streaming show “Dale Jr. Download.” She’s earned every bit of it.

I met Kelly when she joined the NHRA Media Relations Department, as a shy newbie who wanted to make it big in PR. As it turned out, she made it huge, but it was on the team side where she had her massive impact. She loves Pro Stock, and Summit Racing Equipment made the wise choice of retaining her for their effort in that class. And when that Wilber guy departed, and Tim Wilkerson needed a new PR rep, he finally worked it out so that Kelly could couple her Summit efforts with Team Wilk’s endeavors. Magic was made. When that was announced, I called Tim and Krista and said “You just struck gold!”

Jeff Romack

What would Jeff Romack do?

You may not have ever heard of Jeff. He was contracted to do the PR for Pontiac for many years when I was working for the Worshams and we ran Firebird bodies, and he was a real behind-the-scenes guy. He worked hand-in-hand with Fred Simmonds, who ran the NHRA program for Pontiac, so I interacted with both of them a lot.

I can explain Jeff as follows. The ultimate pro. A serious but wonderful guy. A person who would not just give you the shirt off his back but would then ask you if it fit. Pontiac was fortunate to have him. I was fortunate to get to know him and work closely with him.

Jeff can do it all. He can write, he is creative, he is alway willing to take risks and chances, and throughout the time we worked together he always embraced change. But, most importantly, what I saw in Jeff that impacted me the most was his enormous integrity. If any single person taught me the most about treating everyone with respect,  and treating the sport with respect, it was Jeff.

The bottom line with Mr. Romack was this. Whenever confronted by a choice that may or may not have created a positive result for me, personally, I could always just ask myself “What would Jeff Romack do?” And that would be your answer.

Phil Burgess

Just hanging with a priceless mentor at Spokane River Falls

It’s not at all inconceivable that I would not be writing this blog, today, without the impact Phil Burgess made on my life and career. That is not hyperbole.

Phil has been the editor of National Dragster since the day I met him. When the internet took over the world, his responsibilities expanded into overseeing and its many phases of growth. On a daily basis, he deals with business issues, tight deadlines, a staff of reporters and photographers, and a bevy of team PR reps who all want the cover or a main feature story. He handles all of it with professionalism and class.

I don’t remember when he first saw something in me that he liked, but it would’ve been very early on in my career when I wasn’t even half-sure what I was doing. Like a baseball scout who can see a “rough around the edges” prospect and then be able to project into the future to see what that player could possibly become if he was led the right way and taught the finer skills, he saw something.

He never really “coached” me in terms of style, but he gently pushed me away from a lot of the overly flowery stuff I tended to write. I’m sure I did that in a sort of peacock effort to show how impressive I was. His guidance was subtle, but every time he made a comment or a change, I absorbed it.

And of course, in August of 2005 he put the biggest challenge yet right in front of me. It was the blog. I wasn’t intimidated but I had no clue what I was doing. It took a while for me to settle in, but it wasn’t long before my goofy inane stuff was the leading blog, in terms of readers, on the page. And here I am still, on a different site but still writing the “stream of consciousness” nonsense that got me here.

When he challenged me to write a column for the magazine, that was once again him pushing me outside my limits. Writing press releases is one thing. Writing a goofy blog is another. Writing a formal magazine column is something altogether different. More than anything, Phil Burgess was about growth and expansion of one’s skills. I wouldn’t be here without him.

And, there’s rarely a week that goes by when I don’t ponder just how much I thank Phil for seeing whatever it was he saw in me.

Bob Hughes

Bob Hughes. Standing just off my left shoulder. No. 17 with the classic mustache. Best coach ever.

OK, there kind of needs to be one baseball influencer in this list. Right?

Bob Hughes was a top prospect in the Dodgers organization, playing with future superstars like Ron Cey, Steve Garvey, and Bill Russell in the minors. Then the Vietnam war got him. Just before his year in-country was up, he stepped on a landmine. Somehow, the M*A*S*H surgeons saved his legs, but nobody could save his career.

He showed up in 1976 as an assistant coach for our team at SIUE, when I was a young and impressionable sophomore, and he held that position for the two seasons when we earned trips to the NCAA Div. II World Series. Both of those teams are now in the SIUE Athletic Hall of Fame. I don’t think any of that is coincidence.

Later, once my minor league days were over, Bobby invited me to come out and play a game with a new elite semi-pro team called the Sauget Wizards, based just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. I was hooked.

Bob Hughes was a mentor, a coach, a friend, and an amazing instructor. It’s true that I blossomed late as a ballplayer. Had I been the all-around player (especially as a hitter) coming out of college as I was when I joined Coach Hughes on the Wizards, I probably would’ve gone a lot further in my pro career. I was simply a better player, but it took too long for that to happen, in terms of pro ball.

But then Coach Hughes made it a personal mission to see just how much better I could be. I played a simple game then. See the ball, hit the ball, run the bases. I was an outstanding outfielder, so we didn’t waste time on that. But we spent hours working on not just the physical art of contacting a round ball with round bat, and attempting to hit it square. He was always willing to work with me, throwing endless hours of BP. We’d sit in the dugout or stand behind the cage, as he talked me through the mental part of the game. The ability to have at least a clue what the pitcher was thinking, and how he wanted to get me out, which can increase a hitter’s chances of getting it right. We worked on hitting the ball to all fields, rather than just trying to pull everything. We worked on everything. And his influence wasn’t just there in my MVP stats and the big home runs, it was also there in my mind. It was a totally different game. The best baseball I ever played was with Bob Hughes as my player-manager, on the Sauget Wizards.

To top it all off, he was one of the funniest guys I’ve ever shared a dugout with. But most importantly, he was a mentor and a teacher. He was a motivator and skilled coach. We were all impacted and influenced by Bobby Hughes. That’s why the Sauget Wizards were so damn good.

And finally, these last two.

Barbara Doyle

My best friend. My wife.

That leopard and his spots. That would’ve been me for much of my first 40 years of life. I was what I was, and it wasn’t always pretty. And then Lance McCord introduced us to each other and the world changed.

Barbara is the single smartest person I know. Her jobs have always been elite executive positions since the day we traded those first emails, and she carries that insightful thought pattern into the rest of her life. She is beyond dedicated, and very much focused on doing everything she does to 101% of her abilities. She really doesn’t know how to just cruise through life on a half-effort.

Looking back on our early years, I just wonder what the hell she saw in me. I was a different person then. Yes, some of my spots have stayed in place, but most have moved. And they’ve moved into better places because of her.

She has pushed me, pulled me, guided me, taught me, and supported me. Always. I’ve learned some the lessons the truly hard way, but I’ve only learned the rest of them because she continues to make sure I’m the best person and husband I can be.

We’ve lived a challenging 22 years of marriage, with near constant travel and heavy workloads, but we’ve always made sure we had fun, at least when we could be in the same place at the same time. Yes, we’ve had to live apart a few long stretches, when work came before life, but we somehow overcame it. Just normal work life was hard, with her traveling mostly during the week while drag racing happens on the weekends. But we persevered. We’re just like anybody else when it comes to the ups and downs of a marriage, but here we are more in love today than we’ve ever been.

I consider myself the luckiest guy in the world. Without Barbara’s support, I couldn’t have done what I did in the NHRA world, at least to the successful degree I was able to accomplish it. She always supported that. She always showed me how to treat people with respect, and to put aside the differences that the world and the media try to insist are the things that define us. That’s nonsense. It’s the kindness and respect within you that defines you.

I hope I’ve had some small impact on her, in return. I think so, but that’s not what this is about.

I will never forget watching Tim Wilkerson’s car idle down the track on the my last day as a PR rep, at Pomona in 2015. It was Barbara who hugged me and shared that moment with me. Like I said above, I’m the luckiest guy in the world, even if I forget to appreciate that every now and then,

Taffy Wilber

She could do, literally, anything.

This one is easy. As opposed to everyone else referenced here, my mom is the only one who instilled her DNA in me. She lives within me, though she is long gone. I still feel her.

She came from a dusty town outside of San Antonio. Her given name was Edna Mae, and many of her friends called her “Eddie” when she was growing up. But before long, when her beauty became unmistakeable and her hair was a rich and thick dark blonde, she landed the nickname Taffy and that stuck with her for the rest of her life.

You wouldn’t necessarily think that a young girl from San Antonio, growing up in the 30s and 40s, would end up as a such a groundbreaker. She never stopped to consider that. She was Miss Air Force at Lackland Air Force base during World War II, and she met the catcher on the base baseball team. She liked to dance, and my dad wasn’t too into that, so she’d go dancing with other soldiers during the late afternoon and Big Del would sit with her dad, one Posey Archibald Bennett, in their house until she came home. He won her over.

She raised five kids while caught in the whirlwind of my dad’s major and minor league career. “Where will we live this summer?” was an annual question they could rarely answer. She was the best mom ever.

She supported me through every trial, tribulation, and disaster I created. She applauded me and hugged me when I succeeded. She loved watching me play baseball.

She instilled so many positive attributes in me, most of which can be boiled down to this: We’re all the same. Cut us open, and we’re all the same. Color doesn’t matter. Religion doesn’t matter. Country of birth doesn’t matter. Sexual orientation doesn’t matter. Politics are nonsense. Some people are happy and others are bitter. Be with the happy people. There’s no time for bitterness. Life is short.

There were no gender-based ceilings in my mother’s mind, and that world was based in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. She was a radio host on one the biggest and most influential stations in the country. She worked in the Cardinals’ front office, doing groundbreaking work in terms of women’s and children’s promotions. She started her own PR agency, and later in life when Public Access cable shows were around, she dove into that to produce a show that helped senior citizens get the help they needed.

She was a pure inspiration. She still is. I’m the luckiest kid in the world.

I hope you enjoyed this. I enjoyed writing it, for sure.

See you next week. Here’s hoping for more inspiration but no more aliens trying to bite their way out of my stomach.

And if you just read this, and liked what you read, please click on the “Like” button at the top. Thank you!

Bob Wilber, at your service a day late but I think it was worth the wait.



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