By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
COOPER, Iowa, May 15, 2015 — Lee T. Gobble had a great career, a long life, enviable business success, meaningful philanthropy, and lots of love from people around his hometown of Fairfield in southeast Iowa. But I’m also going to remember him for sneaking into the Rose Bowl as a hotdog vendor in the late 1950s. Is it O.K. if I do?
Gobble died at 100 years old on April 27 in Fairfield, and actually, I haven’t quit grinning about him since then. I believe he’d like that.
His memorial service is this Saturday, May 16, at 10:30 a.m. at the First Presbyterian Church in Fairfield.
So anyway, about 35 years ago, my desk phone rang at the Des Moines Register. I picked it up and heard this: “Lee Gobble here. I’m a gossip columnist for the Fairfield Daily Ledger, and there’s something going on here you ought to come down and cover.”
His first contact with me was to explain that famous magician Doug Henning, a devoted practitioner of Transcendental Meditation, had been staying in Fairfield so he could be in the meditating community around Maharishi International University. Gobble gave me a quick reminder how the community’s 98-year-old Parsons College had gone belly-up in bankruptcy in 1973. Two years later, this strange new school MIU, founded by the Indian holy man Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, bought the Parsons campus and sent its first students and faculty to Fairfield. That school is today’s Maharishi University of Management, which is a strong, vibrant part of the community. Those at the university and in the meditating community have turned Fairfield into one of America’s most entrepreneurial small cities.
But for the first five years or more that the meditators were in Fairfield, there was a genuine social strain with local folks. They mostly ignored each other’s events. Then magician Henning, whom everybody was used to seeing on network TV, fell in love with another meditator Debby Douillard, and they decided they’d get married in one of the “Golden Domes” on the MIU campus. There was this grand reception set for a night or two before the wedding at the Fairfield Country Club, and there was going to be big attendance by both meditators and “Fairfielders” – really for the first time.
Gobble thought I should be there, and I did, too. Actually, I spent four or five days in Fairfield, writing several columns for the Register about all the fun going on there around the big, magical, mystical wedding.
So, I got to Fairfield, checked into a motel and made my way to the country club. Once in the big crowd, I was glancing around wondering how I’d identify Gobble. Suddenly, this very snappily-dressed man was right in front of me. “Are you Chuck Offenburger?” he said. When I said yes, he said, “There’s going to be a phone call for you from Donald Kaul,” who was a famous column-writing colleague of mine at the Register. This was way before cell phones, of course. But all of a sudden, a phone was indeed ringing. Gobble reached in the inside pocket of his blazer, pulled out a phone receiver with the coiled cord attached, answered and said, “He’s right here, I’ll hand him the phone.” I took the phone, feeling silly, and said, “Donald?” There was no one on the line, of course. When I told that to Gobble, he said, “Well, gosh, he was there. He’ll probably call back if it was urgent. Meanwhile…” And away he guided me on his mission of introducing me to everybody in the room.
He appeared in a whole lot of my columns over the next 20 or so years.
A BRIDGE BUILDER IN A TOWN THAT NEEDED ONE. That’s how friendship was with Lee Gobble – you never were quite sure what was coming next, but it almost always turned out to be fun.
I confirmed that in recent days in long phone conversations with some mutual pals in Fairfield – Bob & Martha Rasmussen and Ed Malloy. Bob Rasmussen was a former Parsons College PR chief, then the traveling exec of the Iowa League of Cities and for 28 years mayor of Fairfield. Martha came to Fairfield as student travel director for Parsons, then for much of her career managed the best women’s clothing store in the area; and she is serving now on the Fairfield City Council. Malloy was in the early wave of meditators who came to Fairfield, in 1979, and he has made it his home. He is president of a longtime oil brokerage Danaher Oil, and he is a partner in the newer “Heavenly Organics,” a firm that imports organic honey from India and uses it to manufacture candy in Fairfield. He is in his 14th year as Fairfield’s mayor, having succeeded Bob Rasmussen in 2002.
“Lee Gobble was a young guy working with his father Bruce Gobble, who was a huge retailer of men’s clothes and all kinds of sports uniforms, when I came to town for Parsons College in 1959,” Bob Rasmussen recalled. “One of my jobs at the college was to make arrangements for the trustees, and eventually I got Lee on as a member of the board. He was really independent there – there was always everybody else’s way and then there was Lee’s way, you know? But he was always a guy who kept the right attitude.”
Malloy recalls meeting Lee Gobble “soon after I came to Fairfield in 1979. I walked into his store, which was the men’s clothing store in the area. He got a lot of my business. You could see a real spark in his personality. He was a good, enthusiastic business owner who clearly wanted to do everything he could to take care of his customers.
“He knew just about everybody in the area, of course, so he knew if you were new, and he could figure out pretty quickly if you were a meditator,” Malloy continued. “He’d always extend a kindness and a welcoming attitude toward anybody from the meditating community. He was a quiet bridge-builder that way. He was so approachable that he had good friends in both crowds.”
Malloy recalled that in the mid 1970s, when MIU was so new and different in Fairfield, “there was a group of about 50 community leaders in Fairfield who decided they’d take a class to learn Transcendental Meditation, so they would understand better what we newcomers were doing. Lee Gobble was one of those who did that, and he continued to practice TM most of the rest of his life – at least well into his 90s.”
SELF-DEPRECATING HUMOR. As quick-witted as Gobble was, he was never a blowhard or know-it-all. In fact, he had a self-deprecating sense of humor.
After he graduated from Fairfield High School in 1933, he attended Parsons College, but I don’t believe he ever graduated. Some may remember that when Parsons was growing itself into big trouble in the mid to late 1960s – enrollment hit 5,000! – the revered Life Magazine dropped a bomb on the place. The magazine reported how the college was making hay by admitting students who had flunked out of more prestigious colleges around the nation, especially in the East. It nicknamed Parsons “Flunk-Out U.” Whereafter, Gobble would sometimes tell people he was “a flunk-out from Flunk-Out U.”
For years after Parsons closed, Gobble Clothing continued selling the old school’s sweatshirts and other memorabilia. One of Lee Gobble’s favorite items was a sweatshirt with the legend, “Parsons College – as advertised in Life Magazine.”
He would often tell people that he was the fourth-generation in his family to own Gobble Clothing, and then he’d add, “a real self-made man, huh?”
But I’ll never forget one business lesson he gave me. “You know, the first 20 years or more I was running the store, I’d worry about every dime that went out of this place, and I was always turning down students when they’d come ask for a contribution for their big school events,” he said. “But then when I started having more confidence about things, if students came in with a good project, I’d hand them $100. And you know what started happening? The money came flowing back into the store tenfold!”
He was married & divorced twice – he bluntly said with embarrassment that he “failed at marriage, too.” A daughter in North Carolina, a grandson and two nieces survive.
He always loved a good prank, whether pulling one or being the butt of one.
A major fan of the Iowa Hawkeyes, he decided he wanted to make one of their Rose Bowl trips in the late 1950s a bit more memorable. So after he got to Los Angeles, he went out and bought a vendor’s box with a strap, a white service jacket and a white paper garrison cap. He walked right through the vendors’ gate in Pasadena as a hotdog seller, then pitched his uniform and watched the football game free.
TINKER TO EVERS TO CHANCE — TO GOBBLE! He was a collector of antiques and curios. He was a regular at estate auctions around southeast Iowa. One time he was at one in the neighboring small town of Stockport, and “the auctioneer held up two or three bags he said were full of rags – ‘but good useful rags’ – and then started the auction. He saw me standing over in the crowd, and ‘stuck me’ with a bid I didn’t really make. Next thing I knew he said he sold them to me for $5 or whatever it was.” He had a good laugh, along with everybody else in the crowd – they all knew Lee Gobble.
He put the bags in the trunk of his car, and it was several weeks before he remembered to remove them. When he did, he was sorting through the rags and was shocked to find an entirely wool jersey and knickers pants that appeared to be an old Chicago Cubs uniform. Inside the jersey collar and in the waistband, he found written in stitches the name, “Frank Chance.” Gobble recognized the name as the legendary first baseman of the Cubs from 1905 to 1912 – the Cubs’ glory years! And Chance even became more famous as a result of a poem about the Cubs’ double-play combination of “Tinker to Evers to Chance.”
Gobble called an old friend in Stockport, and asked him if he was aware if the Chicago ball player Frank Chance ever had any connection to anybody in that community. The old friend said, yes, he could remember that in early years, Chance had arranged for some used Cubs uniforms to be shipped to a relative of his who was a player on the Stockport town baseball team!
From that moment on, when opening day of another baseball season would roll around, Gobble would do a neat window display of baseball memorabilia in his store’s front window – prominently featuring the uniform of Frank Chance. “I had several collectors hear about that, come in the door and offer me several thousand dollars for that uniform,” Gobble told me. I don’t know what became of it.
As you’d expect in a clothing store owner, Gobble was always a sharp dresser. And in later years, he’d use his stylish reputation when flirting. A favorite stunt was to wear dress shirts that had button-down collar tips. But he’d purposely leave one unbuttoned. “When I’m cruising around in a crowd, some good looking women might come up to me and say, ‘Oh, Lee, honey, you forgot to button this side of your collar!’ She’d lean in close where I could get a good look while she buttoned it for me. If she seemed like a good prospect, I’d start up a conversation. If she didn’t happen to be someone I thought I’d be interested in, then I’d excuse myself, go around a corner, unbutton the collar and start over.”
A MONUMENTAL FINAL PROJECT. Gobble’s last project for the Fairfield area was a big one in 2004. Back in 1949, the original steeple on the Jefferson County Courthouse there had weakened and was removed. It left the classic building looking like it had an awkwardly-lopped-off top.
“Lee had made a pledge to his father about 60 years ago that before Lee died, he’d get that steeple back up there,” said Mayor Malloy. “He made a big donation himself, and then he went out and raised matching donations,” coming up with the $50,000 required. A local contractor did the metal fabrication and built the new steeple.
When Gobble, then 89, was introduced to the crowd at the dedication of the new steeple, he said something “a little bit off-color but it was just classic Lee Gobble,” Malloy said.
Gobble looked up at the steeple and then told the crowd, “I never thought I’d participate in another erection in my life.”
Eyes rolled. “The joke did not go over very well,” Malloy said.
“But I was the next person being introduced, so I did my best to save him. I opened with, ‘Lee, did I hear you right? – ‘election?’ – that you thought you’d never participate in another election? Well, that’s appropriate because this is a courthouse, after all, and elections happen here. In fact, there’s another one coming up soon, and you can participate in it, too.”
(Malloy said that Gobble “was forever thanking me for that afterward.”)
The mayor wound up his remarks that day by saying that the steeple restoration project was especially significant because it was done “on one of our most cherished buildings, spearheaded by the efforts of one of our most cherished citizens.”
And grandest characters.
You can email the columnist at chuck@Offenburger.com or comment using the handy form below here.