The Rich life
By ANDREW MCGINN
It remains to be seen whether Terry Rich could actually sell ice to Eskimos, but there’s probably at least a half-dozen Inuit families who upgraded their cable 30 years ago because of his on-screen sales pitch during free HBO weekends.
“Now’s the time to call.”
If you had a wooden Cooper Centennial nickel for every time Rich — the man once deemed Cooper’s most famous native son — said that throughout the course of a career as an early cable-TV pioneer, you might have enough for a burial plot in Cooper.
Right next to the free plot the town gave Johnny Carson in July 1981, when they adopted the late-night legend as the honorary 51st resident to promote its centennial, which ended up drawing national media attention and a crowd of 12,000 that summer.
The man behind that publicity stunt?
None other than Mr. Terry Rich, the 1970 graduate of Jefferson Community High School who seemed born to convince people that they should pay for TV when they already had four perfectly good free channels.
And, then, ages before “Game of Thrones” or “The Sopranos,” he persuaded those same people to upgrade to another, more expensive channel called HBO, because, well, who hasn’t wanted to be able to watch “Arthur 2: On the Rocks” commercial-free from the comfort of home?
“Now’s the time to call.”
Switching gears later in life, he single-handedly turned around the Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines as its “CEO/Zoo Dude.” Attendance shot up only after he raised the price of admission, an object lesson in either psychology or voodooism.
“I’ve failed many times,” Rich confessed last week in his office at Iowa Lottery headquarters in Clive, where he has about a year and a half left in his second, four-year term as Lottery CEO.
“If you do it right,” he said, “people don’t remember your failures.”
“Unless,” he added, “you wind up in jail.”
Like a cross between P.T. Barnum and the Iowa Nice Guy, Rich at 63 is now at once retrospective and still looking ahead.
A new book, “Dare to Dream, Dare to Act: Unlock Your Ideas to Greater Success,” is part autobiography, part self-help book.
He hopes to use it as a springboard for his next career, speaking globally about innovation — which would mark his fifth or sixth career, each one a little more interesting than the last.
A breezy read at just 97 pages, Rich became a first-time author for all the right reasons.
“They told me that if you have a book,” he explained, “you can charge ‘x’ more dollars (as a speaker).”
Even in the digital era, with newspaper and magazine circulation in the tank and everything in The Cloud, it would seem a book is still the fastest way to provide credibility to a keynote speaker.
Either that or Rich felt his life story would only be believable if it was written down in black and white.
For a kid from Cooper, it’s been a wild ride.
And while he has a burial plot of his own ready for occupancy back home, he’s not ready to get off.
“Happiness happens on the way to success, not when you succeed,” he said, pulling a line from the book. “The fun was doing the deals and being crazy.”
“I would say I’ve got a couple of ideas left,” he added, leaving it at that.
Gov. Chet Culver, a Democrat, appointed him CEO of the Iowa Lottery in 2009. Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, reappointed him.
So, yeah, he’s now technically a bureaucrat — that is, a bureaucrat who once spun records on KIOA and thought he might like to be a TV game show host in Hollywood. (He ended up as a contestant on “Card Sharks.”)
He’s the rare public official who embraces the media — but only because he knows how the media works.
Rich prides himself in getting out in front of the Iowa Lottery’s recent entanglement in a Hot Lotto scam in which a third-party IT worker rigged a 2010 drawing.
Hot Lotto sales, he said, are up.
This week, he was in Sweden, speaking to lottery officials there about gaming integrity.
“Integrity is one of the things you don’t ever want to lose,” he said.
When you’re born with it, though, it’s a little harder to misplace.
Now a grandfather to three, Rich has been married to his second wife, Kim, since 1979.
His first wife, Sue, died of cancer in 1978 at 28. They married knowing she had terminal cancer.
He still takes care of Sue’s elderly mother in Sheldon.
“It’s what you do,” he shrugged. “We’re in Iowa.”
Many business deals were finalized with merely a handshake.
“Business-wise, was that smart?” he asked himself.
“That’s the Iowa way,” he answered. “You do business with who you trust.”
Even those supposed failures of his have a certain charm to them.
Take “Socker Slam,” for example.
Around Y2K, acknowledging the enduring popularity on cable of World Wrestling Entertainment, Rich looked to cross the WWE with another sport — in this case, soccer.
The full-contact World Championship Socker League was born.
He was its commissioner; its Vince McMahon.
The league was made up of four teams: The New York Bruisers, the L.A. Surf, the Miami Storm and the Toronto Loons.
And it was all fake.
“It was all made up,” Rich said.
“It was all done in the arena over here,” he said, pointing in the direction of Urbandale, where the fake teams squared off on artificial turf in the Hickman Road home of the Des Moines Buccaneers hockey team.
The league’s show, “Socker Slam,” made its way to Fox Sports.
“They got more hate mail than anything they’d ever done,” Rich said.
The show then moved to the Hispanic cable network Galavision.
Latino comedians were brought on board to do play-by-play. Rich still has absolutely no idea what they were saying.
It petered out around 2002.
On the surface, “Socker Slam” would appear to be a failure.
But wait — someone went and made an unauthorized video game version for PlayStation 2 and Xbox.
Rich recognized that the only thing different about “Sega Soccer Slam” was the spelling.
He still owns the TV rights.
A guy with a b.s. in speech — that is, a bachelor of science degree — from Iowa State University, Rich initially thought he might become a math teacher when he left high school.
Growing up near Cooper, where his parents cash-rented farmland, he was tagged as “ornery.”
“By high school,” he said, “I heard the word ‘creative’ a few times.”
But mostly just ornery.
He was cut out of the 1969 Jefferson High yearbook for flipping the bird in the band photo.
As in literally cut out.
“They cut my body out of the picture,” Rich said. “You can see my knee and finger.”
In college, Rich found an unlikely mentor in Bill Riley, the now-late state fair talent search impresario.
Riley was head of programming at an early cable company called Hawkeye Cablevision and, because of his celebrity status in the state, was the go-to guy to convince municipalities to award Hawkeye their community’s cable franchise.
Hawkeye wanted the cable franchise in Ames, but it had to be voted on. Rich was tapped to secure the student vote at ISU.
Hawkeye lost at the polls, but won 90 percent of the student vote.
Rich was offered a job.
The company later became Heritage Communications, but Rich was there promoting cable TV when streaming was still just something the Raccoon River did.
“We had an old black and white movie channel we played,” he recalled.
There was a weather channel.
He hosted a bingo show. (People played along at home.)
And he read the Sunday funnies to kids. Like, right out of the newspaper.
Heritage eventually became one of the nation’s 10 largest cable companies, with operations across 22 states.
By the time the company was sold in 1991, Rich was its vice president of marketing.
But it wasn’t TV bingo that elevated him from a local-level cablevision general manager to a corporate marketing whiz.
That he owes to Cooper.
The story is legendary — Cooper-area farmer Gerald Lawton recruited Rich to help promote the town’s 1981 centennial, deeming him Cooper’s most famous resident (after all, Rich had been in some TV commercials).
“If I’m the most famous,” Rich remembers telling Lawton, “we better adopt somebody.”
“That’s how the whole thing started,” he said.
Rich set out to adopt an honest-to-God celebrity to be Cooper’s honorary 51st resident, sending out 44 press releases.
One national wire service, United Press International, took the bait.
“When they asked the names of the 50 residents, all we could come up with was 48,” Rich said. “We couldn’t even come up with 50.”
Against all odds, the applications came in — from actors Henry Winkler (yes, the Fonz) and Danny Thomas, from former NFL quarterback Fran Tarkenton and from even a former first lady, Lady Bird Johnson, among others.
And then “The Tonight Show” called.
Initial plans called for Johnny (himself a native of small-town Corning, Iowa), Ed and the whole gang to come to Cooper and do the entire “Tonight Show” there, Rich said.
Instead, Rich, Lawton and a 77-year-old retired school bus driver, Myrtle Whitcher, went to L.A. to appear on Carson’s show.
The local trio went on before Tom Jones sang, taping a 20-minute segment.
“Twenty million households, they said, watched that night,” he recalled.
Rich was 29.
It was a publicity stunt like no other.
“No doubt it put my career into high gear,” Rich said.
Lesser remembered is the song “Cooper Two-Block Parade and Centennial Celebration.” Rich had enlisted Bob Cook, a Des Moines musician, to cut the song. It was rushed out on cassette tape and received airplay all over the country.
Rich also worked “really hard” to convince McDonald’s to set up shop in Cooper for just the one day.
That one didn’t work.
Carson, however, “did what we wanted him to do,” Rich said, “and that was shine a spotlight on that town for once in its lifetime.”