By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
JEFFERSON, Iowa, June 5, 2018 — If you’ve known Terry Rich well over the years, you’ll be shocked at this — when I asked him the other day what being named the 2018 “Bell Tower of Fame” award winner means to him, he lowered his chin, choked back some emotion and said softly, “This one humbles me.”
Rich is the retiring CEO of the Iowa Lottery, was earlier a mega-success in cable television, and he is widely regarded as one of the best promoters the state has ever known. “I’ve won a lot of awards over my career, and as you know, I’m usually yelling from the roof tops about them.” And then he added again, “But this one humbles me.”
When your home county’s highest award is given to you, “it’s coming from the people who mean the most to you — the people who helped raise you and the friends you grew up with. They know you better than anybody. I can’t wait to get there, see everybody and remember all the good times.”
Terry Rich is the 2018 Bell Tower of Fame winner back home in Greene County.
It’s quite a week for him. His 66th birthday is today. On Friday evening at 6:30 p.m., the opening ceremonies of the 38th annual Bell Tower Festival in Jefferson will be held on the south plaza of the Greene County Courthouse, and that’s where he will be presented the “Bell Tower of Fame” award and speak. Following the ceremony, there will be a public reception for Rich in the courthouse rotunda. On Saturday at 11 a.m., he will be grand marshal of the Bell Tower Festival parade.
And Saturday afternoon at 4 p.m., there will be another public reception for him in his actual hometown of Cooper (pop. 30, maybe). That’ll be at the Cooper Way Station, the rest stop on the Raccoon River Valley Trail, where there will be free refreshments and Rich will tell a few favorite Cooper stories.
And talk about a promotion!
You may not know that Rich has become an avid bicycle rider in recent years. He really wanted to include a bike ride on the trail sometime during Bell Tower Festival weekend. So for all who want to join him, there will be the “Terry Rich Million Dollar Bicycle Ride to Cooper,” co-sponsored by the Cyclists Of Greene bike club and the Committee For A Super Cooper community boosters. Bicyclists will gather at 3 p.m. at the Mahanay Memorial Carillon Tower in Jefferson, everybody should wear helmets, and Rich will lead us in pedaling the seven miles to Cooper. After the reception, those who want to will pedal back to Jefferson.
But what is the “Million Dollar” part of this bicycle ride?
“I’ll give a free Iowa Lottery ticket to everybody who is 21 years old and rides a bike or drives to the reception in Cooper,” the lottery boss said. “For those who are younger than 21, we’ll have other prizes. Everybody gets a prize! And who knows — somebody might win a million dollars or more with their lottery ticket!”
Let’s ride! Saturday afternoon at 3 p.m. from the Bell Tower in Jefferson to Terry Rich’s actual home town of Cooper, where there will be a 4 p.m. reception for all who ride or drive there. He’s shown here on an earlier bike ride on the Raccoon River Valley Trail with his Urbandale neighbor Chuck Safris. Ride with us, or show up at the Cooper reception, and you might win a million dollars (if you are 21 or older)!
And what “favorite Cooper stories” might we hear from him?
Of course, we’ll demand to hear his personal re-telling of the biggest Cooper story. That’s the one about how his promotional work during the tiny town’s (pop. 50 then) 1981 Cooper Centennial brought global publicity. That led to a 17-minute appearance on the “Johnny Carson Tonight Show” in late June 1981 by Rich and two other Cooperites, Gerald Lawton and Myrtle Whitcher. There they named Carson “Honorary 51st Citizen of Cooper, Iowa.” Then on July 11, 1981, a crowd of 12,500 people attended the actual centennial celebration! T
That Cooper caper, as fun and silly as it was, had two very serious elements to it, too, and those two things launched Terry Rich, who was then 28, to great business success, considerable wealth and a ton of fun the rest of his life.
The first of those was that Rich’s bosses at what was then called Heritage Cablevision — a Des Moines-based company that was also building cable television franchises in other central Iowa towns — saw what he could do in promoting events and products. They pulled him out of sales and made him vice-president of marketing.
The other thing that came out of the Cooper Centennial is that — unbelievable as this now sounds — the producers of Carson’s “Tonight Show” were at first considering doing their show live from the streets of Cooper. They were planning to use the then-new technology of “satellite uplinking” to transmit the TV signal globally. “I’d never heard of ‘uplinks’ then,” Rich said. “There weren’t many people in television who had.”
Reality set in, and the “Tonight Show” officials determined that moving Carson, the rest of his staff and all the essential equipment to Cooper, Iowa, was going to be waaaaaay too expensive. So that’s why they decided instead to invite the three Cooperites to come to the NBC-TV studios in Burbank, California, to do the show in its home quarters.
A huge moment in the life of Terry Rich (left), Myrtle Whitcher and Gerald Lawton — and the biggest moment in the history of Cooper, Iowa! Yes, that’s Johnny Carson hosting them on his “Tonight Show” in late June of 1981.
After the centennial, Rich heard his bosses at Heritage Cablevision moaning about how they were having trouble convincing Iowans and, for that matter, anybody that they should embrace this idea of 1) paying for cablevision hook-ups in their homes, and then 2) paying even more for “premium” channels like HBO, Starz and others. Rich made a call back to his new pals at the “Tonight Show,” and persuaded them to explain this “satellite uplinking” to him. Then he went to his Heritage Cablevision bosses and suggested that they should have someone who’s good on camera do promotional sales campaigns on video, and uplink those to cable TV systems across America and beyond. When they asked whom he’d recommend to do the on-camera work, Rich’s answer: “Me.”
It worked. Oh did it ever work! Big time!
When he had joined the sales team at Heritage Cablevision in 1974, when he was straight out of Iowa State University, it was a business “in the $25 to $50 million per year” range. When he and his bosses Jim Cownie, Jim Hoak, Bill Riley and the others sold to Mediacom and cashed out in 1992, the company had become “a $2 billion per year company being traded publicly on the New York Stock Exchange.”
At that point, Terry Rich nearly became a Greene County farmer, coming close to purchasing land near Cooper before the deal fell through. He decided instead to start his own new business, Rich Heritage Inc., to do TV production, promotion and sales.
“I was cautious about it,” he said. “I decided I’d put $10,000 into starting the new company, and if it worked, great. If it didn’t work and I lost the $10,000, I’d get out.”
Within two weeks, he’d landed a $1 million uplinking deal with a major communications company, and Rich Heritage Inc. started on a decade of eye-popping success and growth.
Terry Rich told his own story and his philosophy in this book published in late 2016.
Then in the first years of the 2000s, he saw the “dot.com bust” developing, was wearing out being on the road so much, and told some colleagues around Des Moines he might be ready for something else. Soon, former Governor Bob Ray was on the phone to Rich, saying that his wife Billie Ray was chairperson of the board at the Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines, and that the zoo was in financial trouble. Rich took it over from 2003 to 2009 and raised more than $10 million to turn it into one of Iowa’s most popular tourist attractions.
In 2009, new Iowa Governor Chet Culver appointed Rich CEO of the Iowa Lottery, he was reappointed in 2013 and again in 2017 by Governor Terry Branstad, and he now works for Governor Kim Reynolds. He has grown the Iowa Lottery into “a $350 million a year” enterprise, “nearly a million dollars a day. Isn’t that something?” Earlier this year, he announced he would retire “late this year or early next year, whatever the governor wants.”
When it comes to Terry Rich stories, I could go on forever, as I am demonstrating here. But just three more that popped up in our chat last Friday, and then I’ll close:
–When Rich was talking about his political appointments, by both Democrats and Republicans, it reminded me how politically active he was early in his life. He served as an alternate delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1972, served as president of his freshman class at Iowa State, then got beat for ISU student body president as a junior, and he helped in some other campaigns. So I asked if he’d ever seriously considered running for a state office (“yes, but it just didn’t work out for me with other things happening in my career”), or what specific office he would’ve sought? “The elective office I most would have liked to have had,” he said, “is Iowa Secretary of Agriculture.” I was stunned. Really? “Well, remember, my ag background, growing up outside Cooper raising cattle and sheep,” he said. “I would have loved being in that Secretary of Agriculture position to really market our ag commodities and to promote Iowa as a state.”
–Any other Cooper story we should know about? “Well, it’s not as big as the centennial celebration, but still today, anytime it rains, I have a real calm that comes over me, and that goes back to Cooper,” he said. “When I was growing up on the farm, it seemed like we were always working. But when it would rain, Dad would say, ‘Come on, let’s go into Cooper and have a bottle of pop.’ We’d go into the Cooper elevator office, the same building that is the rest stop on the bike trail now, and get a pop. Sitting in there would be John Travis, Toot Stofer who didn’t have a tooth in his head, George Meinecke, Gerald Lawton, maybe some others. I was the youngster sitting in there, listening to them tell the same stories over and over. They were always laughing. They were so happy! I’ve never forgotten that.”
–His family. His parents Clarence “Bud” and Betta Rich have been gone about a dozen years, but Terry’s sisters are alive and well — Cheryl Sheer in Jefferson and Shirley John in St. Joseph, Mo. For four years right after college, Terry was married to Sue Jacobson Rich, a native of Sheldon, who died in 1978 from cancer. “We knew she had it when we got married,” he said. “We fought it five years and hoped for the best, but it took her. I don’t know how you get through something like that, but you do. I keep in mind that if that hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have all I do now. My wife Kim — she was Kim Vannatta from Marshalltown — and I have three wonderful kids now all grown up in good marriages with kids of their own. They all live around us in the Des Moines area and we see them every week. I think about that and realize that, yeah, there’s been some sadness along the way, but I have been blessed beyond all expectations, and that means more and more to me all the time.”
This is classic Terry Rich here. At the birth each of his three children, he did something special to celebrate. When daughter Amy was born in Ames, Terry had Des Moines radio station WHO’s traffic reporter “Captain Jack” fly over central Iowa with a banner saying, “It’s a Rich kid!” When son Adam was born, ol’ Dad had the Iowa State University Singers serenade Kim, and signs heralded “A Son-of-a-Rich!” (Terry also sent cigars to Prince Charles and the Pope!) This photo was taken at Iowa Methodist Medical Center in Des Moines, immediately after the birth of son Alex. Terry had persuaded a bunch of his Des Moines media pals to show up with well wishes. Recognize anybody? And wasn’t Kim about to wring his neck at these stunts? “She was only an hour out of surgery,” he answered, “so she probably didn’t really know what was going on.”
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