Many take a shot at JR

Published 11:39 am Monday, April 19, 2004

By By JOHN EBY / Niles Daily Star
NILES -- "I've been treated pretty cruel here tonight" said the man who's "been pecked by a hen. I've been spurred on the back of my leg by a rooster and nipped on the heel by a dog. When I was a little kid, a goose grabbed me on the back of my lap and it really pinched. I was going to be a bull rider when I was 10. That didn't work. The bull threw me up in a pile of wood" back home in Heber Springs, Ark.
His brother showed County Commissioner Johnie Rodebush of Niles how to grab the bull's left ear in his right hand and clasp the animal's tail in his right hand while wrapping his legs about its torso.
Another thing about the Cass County Democratic Party's Rodebush roast Saturday night at Southwestern Michigan College was the patriotic centerpieces surrounded by red-white-and-blue confetti flecked with yellow.
Yellow from kernels of corn scattered across the white tableclothes.
Rodebush carries corn in his pocket as a reminder of a lesson his father taught the baby of nine children when he was too young to feed pigs or gather eggs in the henhouse.
Holding a pail partly full of shelled corn, Rodebush at 7 thought it was all he could carry.
His dad filled it some more, then dropped in one last kernel.
Rodebush began his rebuttal by asking for a show of hands by anyone who ever stole a kiss or told a little white lie.
Rodebush's mother was a midwife with a third grade education. He was 5 when he helped deliver a baby in a two-room house with a dirt floor. The father worked in the timber business and only came home on weekends. "That's where I learned about waterbeds. One of the boys wet on my back." When a son was born to the family, "She laid that little baby in my arms, against my bare belly. That was a great experience. Ever since" he has enjoyed helping others.
When he wanted to nurse, his mother put chicken feathers inside her blouse. He leaped from her lap, ready to drink milk from a glass rather than risk another painful pecking.
Rodebush said he didn't have toys. His mother put molasses and feathers on his fingertips. He amused himself for hours trying to scrape them clean.
To show how he read the Grit paper or the Bible by lantern, Rodebush had the Mathews Conference Center-East darkened to just that sliver of pale, flickering light. He introduced Dr. Fred L. Mathews and recalled how as president of the Howard Township PTA, they went door to door 40 years ago promoting the creation of SMC.
At 11, Rodebush taught driver training. "I tried dog catching, too, crawling through brush and briars, day and night. After two years I got him. That was during the Depression, when gravy was considered a beverage. You have to have humor when times are tough. You probably won't believe this, but times were so hard that my neighbor and my brother took turns catching rabbits and milking them to make gravy."
The Depression meant going shoeless in the moderate Arkansas climate until October, when "the money crop," cotton bales, could be sold.
A neighbor alerted Johnie's father to a stock of women's side-buckled, sharp-toed shoes for a quarter a pair.
They were teased by a kid who was "kind of wealthy" because his mother was a Democrat and his father was a Republican, so no matter which party was in power in Washington, one of the parents was postmaster.
The principal warned that if anyone made fun of the way a student dressed, they risked a stay in "opportunity school" 45 minutes after regular classes. It was not punishment, Rodebush explained, but a chance to improve grades in particular subjects.
Rodebush landed in that auditorium when a Model A Ford hit a chicken and broke its neck. He picked it up by the legs, swung it around and his grip slipped. "It hit a girl in the back and knocked her forward about two steps."
His report card, part of a PowerPoint presentation by Maxine Snipes and Dan Gillis, "was mostly C's. My son Bob came home and had a C on his report card. I said, 'Bob, when Abe Lincoln was your age, he got all A's.' He said, 'When Abe Lincoln was your age, he was president.' "
To reinforce the idea of not making promises that can't be kept, Rodebush told about a father who wanted to go home to his farm to be buried. He opened the window and, propped shakily on his elbow, fired a bow and arrow to determine his eternal resting place.
He walked to school through the "hobo jungle," where he picked up head lice. "The difference between a bum and a hobo is a hobo will work. They ride the rails from one job to another. They made good stew. Mom let me take down potatoes, corn or tomatoes. They came to our house to mooch meals, for which they cut wood."
First to speak was Rodebush's wife, Barb. "After 11 1/2 years, this is the first opportunity I've had to talk," his "silent partner" said, unfurling a scroll. "To make sure I have a home to go to, I must say that I love this man and I wouldn't trade the last 11 1/2 years for anything. This is all blank."
Tim McGuire, Michigan Association of Counties executive director, related Rodebush's selection nine years ago as MAC president of the state's 699 county commissioners from all 83 counties.
McGuire related how at a national convention in Minneapolis, Michigan was able to get an Escanaba man elected to a vice presidency by getting Rodebush to prevail upon the Arkansas delegation for support.
At another convention, Rodebush found himself sharing his room with a UP man known as a noisy snorer. "I got up about 2 o'clock in the morning, kissed the guy on the cheek, patted him on the rear end and he stared up at the ceiling the rest of the night" while Rodebush slept soundly.
Rodebush frequently boasted of his ability to train hunting dogs. Finally, a curious McGuire came to Niles to see for himself. He was puzzled when the dog kept racing into the woods, returning with a stick it shook vigorously up and down. "The dog's trying to tell you that there's more rabbits in that woods than you can shake a stick at," Rodebush interpreted.
A nationwide search yielded 134 applicants for the job McGuire holds.
In 1969, when Rodebush first became a county commissioner, McGuire's father, Barry, guided MAC. Tim started as an intern after law school. "Johnie's outlasted three executive directors, including my dad and my mentor," McGuire said. "He's a great man and does a great job for our organization. What a tribute it is to him for all of you to be here tonight."
In the mid-1980s, when Rodebush was involved in establishing Barn Swallow Theatre, he and Al Federowski rented a truck and drove to Kansas City in an ice storm to procure theater seats.
Robert Powers, a former commissioner who now heads the Road Commission, offered a "rumor" that a woman in the audience "spent some time in a hotel room in Elkhart and also some time in a hot tub with Johnie," which Mary Peoples, former Board of Commissioners chair, happily confirmed.
Powers served with Rodebush on the committee which oversaw the building of the Medical Care Facility. "He's a man I've admired and respected for a good many years. We had 12 Republicans and one Democrat. We didn't know what to do with him, so we made him chairman."
Eileen Toney of Chemical Bank, a resident of Howard Township for 20 years, revealed that at 11 Rodebush taught driver training to fourth and fifth graders until "the donkey died. His donkey experiences drew him to the Democratic Party."
She sprinkled her remarks with "y'all" as proof of her involvement with Toastmasters, which Rodebush joined in 1964. "Johnie taught me proper Southern grammar and to speak faster. The problem I have now is my family, friends, co-workers and customers can't understand a word I'm saying."
His grandson, Jeremy, presented Rodebush with a "round tuit" for the promised childhood moped ride he's still awaiting.
Tim Bennett dressed up in a gray wig for a gruff theatrical tribute on behalf of the Council on Aging.
Rodebush was credited with donating the first dollar to get the Southwestern Michigan Tourist Council started.
The council stated: "Johnie is a man of strong faith. A man with integrity and character. Johnie's real. He puts on no airs. What you see is what you get. Johnie means what he says and he always stands by his word. His wisdom and direction have helped guide our organization for more than 20 years."
So early that his family got in the habit of filling the coffeemaker the night before. That worked fine until Rodebush added water to an already-full machine.
Now the family tradition includes setting out a mop before retiring.
Another tradition is sign language that gave their table the appearance of an auction as relatives held up the number of fingers signifying how many times they've heard Rodebush tell a particular story.
Rodebush and his first wife, Marge, whom he married in 1947, had three children, Vicky, Diane and Rob.
Commissioner Minnie Warren served as mistress of ceremonies for the roast organized by Ed and Jackie Goodman, Warren and Snipes.
Warren read letters from U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, SMC's Ron Gunn, Republicans Grafton and Barbara Cook and Gloria and Dick Cooper.
The evening concluded with the audience joining in to sing "Happy Trails to You."