Wednesday, July 17, 2024

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Joe's Neighborhood

The reincarnation of Mary Brubaker


joes1“This is Midday with Mary Brubaker and Dolph Pulliam…”

 “The Mary Brubaker Show weekdays at 9 a.m. on KCCI TV 8.”

“The Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, hosted by Mary Brubaker.”

“ ‘Time Capsule’ with John Pascuzzi, Connie McBurney, Rick Swalwell and Mary Brubaker.”

“Mary Brubaker interviews Jimmy Carter… Ted Kennedy… Jane Fonda… Ann Landers… Margaret Mead… Sean Connery… Anthony Hopkins… Arnold Schwarzenegger. And on and on and on. Thirty years worth.

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Brubaker’s show ended years ago, gracefully, quietly and gently, as celebrity shows rarely do. Come on, don’t be upset. We all go out to pasture. But what a run Brubaker had. From her early beginnings on TV as an “exercise girl” (think a local Jane Fonda), to becoming enough of a celebrity in her own right to get a reference by Jay Leno. Not bad for a Roosevelt High School girl.

So time passed.

Sweltering heat pushes hard against the downtown cement sidewalks. Dashing into the cool at the north end of the Polk County Administration Building is like a dunk into a cold metal water bucket. Relief. Just inside the door of the Heritage Gallery, a woman sits behind the counter. Almost hidden. She’s dressed in purple with a colorful scarf tied loosely around her neck. Her grey-white hair is cut tight and close with stylish flips and upswings. Then you notice her dark, wide eyes and deep smile lines from her mouth up to her cheekbones. This gal is a character, so much so that now she seems to be appraising you just like you were appraising her, and you just might not be up to her standards.

“Hello, welcome. If you have any questions, please ask.” The older woman says with an inviting lilt to all who enter.

A young woman walks into the gallery.

“Is that a Fringe Festival T-shirt?” the older woman asks. And then she is off and running as if her life depended on her relationship with this stranger.

“Were you involved with the Fringe Festival? You’re a playwright? Your name? Are you still writing? Are you involved in theater also?”

joes2The older woman hears discouragement in the young woman’s answers. There’s no work. There’s no audience.

“Listen, you keep writing, lady,” she says. “You have to do it. They need playwrights. Nobody is doing plays; they’re doing revivals, and that’s not good. I have a website that could help you.”

Names are mentioned. Contacts written down. Then the young woman speaks of another friend out of work.

“Your friend does graphic design?” the old woman replies. “What’s her name? It’s a shame that good graphic designers can’t find a job. She needs to come down here to visit me.”

It’s amazing. In a few short sentences, the older woman has wheedled out the visitor’s name, occupation and the struggles the visitor is having with her career. With all the facts gathered, the older woman provides contacts. And if that wasn’t enough, she then provides a dollop of encouragement. OK, fine, but how about when she begins to connect-up the friend of the visitor, who is also out of work? My Lord, give me a break.

An older man enters. In the course of conversation, it is discovered that he has a collection of pictures from a local artist moldering in his basement. Not any more. He now has a contact who will auction those pictures for charity. Unbelievable.

“I’m a Gemini,” is Brubaker’s explanation for all this caretaking. Really? That’s the reason?

“I really believe in being friendly and helpful. If everybody just made some effort to be more giving, more generous… I like people. I like talking to people. I like making connections for people. I’ve met so many interesting people.”

Heritage Art Gallery, Gay Men’s Chorus, 1,000 Friends of Iowa are her recent volunteer efforts. What about a rest? What about just retiring? What about not helping folks for a bit?

“I just can’t not be doing something,” she says. “My contacts I’ve made over the years can help people. I believe in volunteering. Without volunteers, you really wouldn’t have a vibrant culture. I’m not a couch sitter.” No kidding.

At 78 years old, Brubaker is in her prime. Those 30 years of broadcasting appear to have been her first life. All of her training, knowledge and life experiences are coming together right now in her second life. One on one. A person at a time. She is at the top of this game.

joes3“Some people don’t have a loud enough voice. How could I live with myself if I didn’t help them make connections to whomever they needed to make connections with?” she says. “If I can improve anybody’s life because of something I know that I can share with them, or information I can give them, or an encouragement. It is a mission. My art? It is the art of encouragement.”

Don’t be fooled. None of this volunteerism and good deeds erases the pain that accompanies living 78 years. Death of a mother. Death of a father. Serious family illnesses that need daily attention. Personal struggles. All of these problems are still there. They sit like unwelcomed guests in her living room. And she knows those guests will get more cantankerous as time goes on. Brubaker once did an interview with Dolly Parton: “I asked if she feared old age, and she said that she didn’t want to get old because she wouldn’t have all her friends there… said they would all be gone.”

Brubaker pauses quietly.

There’s a tape of an interview that Brubaker did with Tony Bennett sometime in the early ’80s. Toward the end of the interview, Brubaker asks Bennett a question that caught him off guard. “What do your kids think of your fame and fortune?” Bennett gave a nonresponse to her question — a question that really asked him to measure his worth beyond wealth and celebrity. Clever.

A grandmother enters the gallery with her small granddaughter. The grandmother has clearly been run ragged by her charge. The grandmother is quickly seated. The granddaughter is given something to drink. And Brubaker gives the grandmother suggestions as to where to go to let her granddaughter run for the afternoon. The grandmother sighs with relief and gratitude.

Enough of this. Brubaker smiles at me with her smile that travels to the cheekbones: “So, Joe, do you know who you should interview next…”

And she gives me a contact. CV

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog:

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