When the Green Bay Packers lost the NFC Championship game in rather painful fashion a couple of weeks back, my mind kept drifting to thoughts of Bob Heffner, for a couple of reasons.
Bob would come into the newspaper office on Monday mornings after a Packers loss and relate every “dumb play” our boys over in Green Bay had made to lose the game. Then he’d say, “I get so mad when I’m watching that I should be locked in a room with rubber walls.”
So, that title game loss to Tampa Bay would have warranted another “rubberized” situation for Bob’s TV room. Except, he wasn’t watching. And that’s the other reason for my mind’s preoccupation with Bob during the game — I had learned that very morning of Bob’s passing a day earlier.
It was a shock, no matter that Bob was 89 years old. Covid-19 took him quickly. The former newspaperman was still active, walking and driving here and there, and keeping up with his turn in this newspaper’s Ink Blog column. I was asked to get word to him in early January as something had to be done with the boxes of his Rice Lake history book, “Gem of the Red Cedar Valley,” before the newspaper office was relocated. I couldn’t get ahold of Bob, but was assured by his son’s family that he was well and that they would get the message to him.
A week before he died, Bob went to The Chronotype office and worked out a plan for the books. That would be the office where he had toiled as sports/rural editor and news editor for 33 years, from 1960 to his retirement in 1993. That would also be the office where I first met Bob. What a break for me, to be brought into the community newspaper fold by such a kind-hearted and helpful person.
Since that Sunday, I keep thinking of Bob and my favorite Bob Heffner stories. You see, he wasn’t just a hard-working, copy-producing photographer/reporter. He was a personable good guy who kept the newspaper office light, taking the edge off hard assignments and deadlines with his quick wit and steady demeanor (not counting Packer games). Bob befriended me immediately, no matter that I was more than 20 years his junior. I knew I could look to him for advice or consolation when I messed up and someone told me so.
Yup, there was Bob with that little smile across the desk, signaling, “Don’t worry about it. You’ll know next time.” And soon he’d say that we should go to coffee, where we sipped away the day’s problem. And where Bob invariably wanted to buy; I think he knew I started newspaper work at $3 an hour.
That’s where I could begin with the Heffnerisms, for on the rare days he forgot his billfold and I’d pony up, Bob would flash his mischievous smile and say then, or anytime someone did him a favor, “I’ll pay ya when I see ya.” I find myself saying that to this day and I’m still not sure what it means, though I think Bob said it came from an old acquaintance who owed everybody money.
Bob was full of little sayings and jokes, some of them so corny that you just couldn’t wait for him to say it again. They never got old, including his classic, “Udderwise she was a pretty good cow.” If you saw Bob somewhere outside the office — and it was always a treat to see him anywhere — and greeted him with “Hey, Bob Heffner!” he’d come back laughing with “That’s my name too!” while extending his hand. Happened every time.
Bob liked music, and I remember at a newspaper convention looking for him after the banquet. Sure enough, Bob was in the lounge where there was a piano in the corner. Some guy was playing the piano and Bob and a few others were leaning on it and singing old songs. A real piano bar, which was right up Bob’s alley, sharing laughs and songs with people he had just met. When I asked him about his musical leanings he’d say, “Oh, I don’t know much about music,” and then quickly add, “But I can play footnotes on a shoe horn!”
At an office Christmas party I walked into the festive scene and saw Bob having a great time, drink in hand. I walked up to him, and he pushed his head forward and squinted his eyes and said, “Do I know you? You’re so drunk you’re blurry.” That was another Heffnerism that never got old. And at maple syrup time we could count on Bob saying, “The sap is running in the woods,” followed by clownish gyrations as he acted out the personality definition of sap.
Monte Olmsted came to the newspaper in 1990 as courts/crime reporter. He was younger than I, but again, Bob befriended him, and the two matched quick wits constantly. Monte was the inquisitive type who liked off-beat stories of character quirks, so he never quit drilling Bob for more. When Bob couldn’t remember somebody’s name he’d say, “Oh, gosh, you know, old dinglebones over there.” Dinglebones wasn’t lost on Monte, who upon Bob’s retirement put together a “Dinglebones Times” front page. It was all a parody about Bob, including a police log with every entry’s subject as Bob Heffner. It also included one of Bob’s headlines that us young smart alecks rode him about: “Artist Turns to Wood.” We put it to the tune of ELO’s “Turn to Stone” song.
Bob got into walking, saying, “A good walk really clears your head.” Monte, now living in Minneapolis, says he has since found that to be true. But he said he doesn’t do the Walk of Heff. You see, Bob heard that swinging your arms in front of your body while walking added to the aerobic workout. Monte recalls, “You could spot Bob walking from blocks away.”
Maybe the walking bit started in the Navy. Bob told of his Navy days of trying to look busy lest he be assigned to scrubbing the deck or some other menial task. “I would get a piece of paper and look at it while walking fast from one end of the ship to the other. Nobody bothered me.” I took note. It’s a ploy I used a few times while trying to avoid the scrutiny of security guards at state tournaments.
At times, Bob was probably too kind to be covering hard news, such as when controversies arose that involved his longtime friends. When someone came in to challenge what we had printed, Bob would respectfully listen and sometimes back down a bit while politely explaining the newspaper’s side. Many times the confrontation ended with smiles. What I remember most, however, was Bob coming back to his desk and kidding with a gruff voice, “I shoulda told him (or her) …” and leave it hanging with a laugh. It got to be an office joke.
Troy Espe, another young reporter, arrived in Rice Lake only months before Bob’s retirement. “He was gracious with a cub reporter who didn’t know how to load film into a 35mm camera,” remembers Troy. “I did two stories for him, and not a single photo turned out. He never gave me a hard time about it though. I wish I had worked with Bob longer.”
Troy, Monte and I still share stories and fond memories of Bob when we get together. When Monte was leaving Rice Lake in the summer of 1994, a year after Bob retired, I was helping Monte load a trailer at his residence across from St. Joseph Church, where Bob attended. Right on cue, Bob came walking by after services. Monte shouted, “Hey, Bob Heffner” (you know what Bob said). Then Monte asked Bob if he’d been to confession. Bob started laughing and quipped, “I wish I had something to confess.”
That was pure Bob. He was one of the funniest and most good-natured people I’ve ever known. He deflected praise, rarely talking about himself, including his many contributions to the community, including as a councilman and his work in establishing a walking trail. I worked with him for years before I knew he won the Barron County Baseball League batting title in the early 1960s.
You just wanted to be around Bob in or out of the office. He made you laugh. He made you feel good. I will always be indebted to him, which gets me thinking how much I’d like to say to him one more time, “I’ll pay ya when I see ya.”