A baseball guy and so much more: Remembering Dispatch page designer Bob Wallenius
Let me tell you about Bob.
When you met him, you'd learn two things about him pretty quick: he grew up in Chicago, and he lived and breathed the Chicago Cubs. He knew his statistics in depth, the life stories of players, the dimensions of Wrigley Field. He reveled in the nuances of great plays and savored the beauty of the game.
It was baseball over which we first bonded, Bob Wallenius and I. Once he knew I could recognize a nasty pitch and understood the infield fly rule, we were buddies. It didn't matter my allegiances belonged to the Twins—he just loved talking baseball, and I could talk back.
We counted down to spring training together, showed one another Web Gems and speculated on who might be traded by deadline. He once bought me a Twins cap from the Salvation Army, just because it made him think of me, he said. When the Cubs won the World Series in 2016, we treated Bob like he'd hit the game-winner when he walked into the newsroom the next day. He didn't come down from that sweet high of victory for months—maybe ever.
One July night nearly four years ago, I left the newsroom when the Twins were losing to the Detroit Tigers 6-0 in the seventh inning. I made the grave error of telling Bob he wouldn't have to worry about extra innings that night. See, as a newspaper page designer, Bob shuddered at the idea of late games threatening a missed deadline. If you even uttered the words "overtime" or "extra innings," you were tempting fate in Bob's eyes, and setting yourself up for owing him dinner.
I got home and switched on the game. In an unbelievable series of events, the Twins ripped off four runs in the bottom of the ninth—and suddenly it looked like I could be on the hook for Prairie Bay. Brian Dozier came up to bat, a man on first and second. The first pitch—the only pitch—was a 79 mph meatball, and my favorite Twin blasted that sucker to deep left field, walk-off style.
My cellphone rang moments later. "I was already deciding between the lobster and the steak," Bob said. "But I could hear you yelling all the way from the newsroom on that one!"
So yes, Bob was a baseball guy. But he was so much more than that.
He loved to tell jokes. The way he laughed to himself, the twinkle in his eye when he told them—it was endearing. Sure, we heard many thrice over, but he never tired at reaching the punchline. He once had me truly believing he'd hit a pig on the road and was threatened with a lawsuit by the pig's owner, only to follow up with, "The pig must've squealed."
He had his greatest hits: "Finished with this guy!" he'd say, like Joe Pesci in "My Cousin Vinny," upon completing a page, or "Bring me back a rib," when we left for our dinner breaks.
He loved music. He relived his glory days as a bass player often, occasionally breaking out the 35-year-old video of one of his bands rehearsing. The sketchy VHS recording had been transferred to DVD, and I'm not sure that disc ever left Bob's drive. He played the same songs on repeat all night long, and because he was hard of hearing, I could hear them, too, pumping loudly through his headphones at his desk 6 feet from mine. One of his recent favorites was "Uptown Funk," set to a series of dancing clips from old movies on YouTube.
He loved to come to work. He beamed when people admired his designs. Over the last two years or so, he designed nearly every front page of the Brainerd Dispatch, taking the photos from our talented photographers and the words from our excellent reporters and bringing them to life on the page. He even called us on his nights off, just to make sure things were going OK, but he never remembered our phone numbers, so you'd often hear several phones in the newsroom ring before he got to yours.
When I stepped into my role as community editor, he and I became a team—two of the last folks in the newsroom most nights, seeing the paper through to the press. Hundreds of nights, hundreds of issues, thousands of hours spent together, some frustrating and chaotic, others smooth and serendipitous. We learned each other's quirks: I accepted I would have to repeat literally everything I said, and he accepted my maddeningly exhaustive proofing and tendency toward impatience.
We wrote clever headlines together, meeting each other's eyes with delirious glee when we knew we had the winner. Bob was particularly proud of his recent "Into Otter Space," topping a story on the new otter exhibit at the Pine Grove Zoo. We even got a call praising us for that one—it was all Bob. Only, his name was never in the paper like ours are.
But he was even more than those things. He had a soft spot for animals. He was a true friend and would fiercely defend those he loved. He let me know when my tires were low and offered to walk me to my car late at night when I felt unsafe. As much as he enjoyed praise, he gave it liberally, too. He took the time to show his appreciation for others, and he called me "Eagle Eye Perkins" when I found the tiniest of errors. In the moments between finishing his last page and awaiting approval, he and I often had our most intimate chats—sharing snippets of our lives or seeking and giving advice. It meant so much when he requested a rare night off recently, just to watch me perform in community theater.
He considered the Dispatch newsroom his family, and told us so. Like family, we sometimes got mad at each other or went nights without speaking much. But like family, we bounced back and remembered what we loved about one another, too.
Late last month, Bob got sick. In the blink of an eye, he was in intensive care. Managing Editor Renee Richardson and I brought him his small stuffed bear he named "Cubby," one of his gifts when the Cubs won the Series that sat perched atop his computer tower ever since. He was asleep when we visited that night, but Cubby was there to greet him when he woke. And he did awake, and it seemed he would recover.
That dissolved the morning of May 6, when I got this call: Bob wasn't going to make it through the day. Gobsmacked, I raced out of bed, put on a Twins shirt and grabbed my Bluetooth speaker. If Bob was going to die today, I thought, I wanted him to experience as many things he loved as I could make happen.
So that's what we did. Renee read him more Cubs news than she'd ever consumed before by a long stretch. They were on a seven-game winning streak that day, and Bob would've said, "Alright!" if he could. I filled him in on the No. 1 team in baseball, the Minnesota Twins. We played him a cover of "Pick up the Pieces" he loved, and "Uptown Funk" made an appearance along with another favorite, the Andrews Sisters. We sat with him for hours this way, switching between talking to him and sharing memories of him.
Others arrived, including his best friend and goddaughter, who left Indiana before dawn to see him. They draped him in a Cubs blanket and joined us in our vigil.
I learned things about Bob I never knew, like he was a painter and chalk artist, for one. I longed to talk to him in a way I never had—to hear his laugh, to see his smile. I thought of everything I wished I'd said to him. I thought of how I would never catch a glimpse of his signature hat and blazer across the newsroom again, or hear him greet me with, "Hey, pally!"
I'll never know for sure, but I believe he knew we were there with him in his final hours.
Bob Wallenius died May 6, 2019, almost 61 years to the day after he arrived, surrounded by his family. And we will miss our sweet, caring, funny Bobster, dearly. This weekend, we'll honor him in a way he would've loved—with tunes, stories, jokes and of course, some ribs.