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Marx: 'You want to hug him with one hand and check your wallet with the other;' Unique doesn't begin to describe the late Rich Wolfe
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Marx: 'You want to hug him with one hand and check your wallet with the other;' Unique doesn't begin to describe the late Rich Wolfe

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If there is one dude you know is pitching a get-rich-quick plan to Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates, it's Rich Wolfe.

It's OK, Wolfe, if he were standing next to me, would agree. I mean who authors 52 books without a computer?

"Look, Pete, here's the mission,'' I can imagine Wolfe, a Lost Nation, Iowa, native and an all-state athlete at Davenport Assumption, saying to Saint Peter.

"Pete, I have this idea for a book about the Big Guy. If that doesn't fly, look around. Musicians, athletes, movie stars, authors, war heroes. We could market this place big time. Look who we have up here. Talk about a big sell. Pete, we gotta get movin' on this.''

A kind soul with a great heart, who was blessed with a TV preacher's gift to grab an audience, Wolfe left us Monday. He battled — and I mean he fought — throat cancer since 2017.

In the 35 years I knew Rich Wolfe, I called him a hustler, a genius and the best idea man in sports. Every time he invited me to lunch, I paid. That's how smooth he was.

He knew something about everything. He was on Jeopardy and ESPN's 2-minute Drill, went to Notre Dame and had a contact-list book thicker than a Whitey's malt.

Wolfe was the first — and the best — marketing guy/door knocker/idea man when the CBA's Quad City Thunder landed locally in the late 1980s. One step from the NBA, as the CBA hailed itself, Wolfe was in charge of making sure 6,000 (his number) butts were in the seats every home game at historic Wharton Field House.

More often than not, a Wolfe promotion filled the old barn. He could sell ketchup at a white shirt convention.

"When it was halftime at a Thunder game, you didn't want to leave for a hot dog or popcorn before the halftime entertainment. You might miss Moore's Mess of Mutts, the Chainsaw juggler, the Blues Brothers, Jesse White Tumblers, Metropolitan Youth, the Jackson Five puppets or many other obscure acts I've forgotten,'' said Craig Cooper, senior communications specialist for Genesis Health. For the first eight years of the Thunder, Cooper was the team's beat writer for the Quad-City Times.

"Halftime of a Thunder game was a creation of Rich Wolfe,'' Cooper added. "You might not remember how many points (Thunder star) Barry Mitchell scored the next morning, but you would remember 20 shelter dogs running around through hoops, dancing on the hind legs or other impressive stunts. Rich Wolfe's halftime acts were part of the total Thunder experience. He had a creative nature and truly loved off-beat acts as long as fans liked them. The fact that I vividly remember halftimes many years later tells you about the creative, promotional mind of Rich Wolfe.''

Craig DeVrieze, communications director for St. Ambrose University, was the Thunder beat writer for The Dispatch and the Rock Island Argus during Wolfe's Thunder tenure. The two remained close after Wolfe left the Quad-Cities.

"Cedar Rapids Gazette columnist Mike Hlas captured Rich perfectly when Rich left the Thunder to helm the Cedar Rapids Silver Bullets,'' DeVrieze said. "You want to hug him with one hand and check your wallet with the other."

So many original characters defined the Thunder. Casey "Three Let It Be" Kahler. Mauro "We're Going to Have to Make Some Changes" Panaggio. Don Mason and his big-as-his-mustache laugh. Anne Potter DeLong. All the players. But Rich with the omnipresent pipe was right there at the top. Big ideas. Big talk. Big results.

"Every time you thought you finally caught him stretching the truth beyond thin, he'd show up with proof," DeVrieze said.

Forever looking to stay relevant and make a buck, Wolfe became a best-selling author, penning 50 books about some of sports biggest names. He brought to life Jack Buck, Harry Caray, Mike Ditka, Tom Brady, Curt Warner, Jon Gruden, newscaster Tim Russert and Iowan Stanley Reeg, a self-made millionaire. What was genius about Wolfe's publishing career was — until the Reeg book — he did not type or own a computer.

He would corner someone close to his subject, interview them via tape recording, and others would do the transcribing. He always noted in his books — of which I have many —  if there was an omission or mistake, to jot down the corrected version on a $20 bill and send it to him.

One day I received a call from Wolfe.

"Here's what I need,'' he said, dialing me from Arizona and using the company 800 line as to not get docked for the phone call. "I want you to call this guy and this guy and have them talk about Jeremy Linn, the NBA guy. He's lighting up the league. I need it in a week, and here's what I will send you (payment) when the book is published. This Linn kid's big and we are going to get in on it.''

I passed.

A month later, there was a Jeremy Linn book.

In May of 2020, Wolfe began emailing a group of friends, sharing the news he had been given anywhere from two-to-six months to live. Three weeks ago, the emails stopped. The end, we all knew, was near.

"My goal is to be the best looking corpse over at the funeral home,'' he wrote when he told the group he was dying. "I’ve always been goal oriented, don’t ya know?''

Yeah, we knew.

Columnist John Marx can be reached at 309 757 8388 or jmarx@qconline.com

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