Robb’s Life Chapter 36 – Robb’s Final Public Appearance

During the final year of his life, Robb Dussliere had two top priorities:

  1. Reach out to the public to educate people, particularly young people, how to avoid HIV and AIDS.
  2. To open the shelter for homeless HIV and AIDS clients in the Quad Cities — a shelter that is still operated by the DeLaCerda House.
Robb Feb 14 1996-1

Robb flashes a goofy smile at the end of his final public appearance near Valentine’s Day, 1996.

Near Valentine’s Day, Robb and Beth Wehrman, executive director of the AIDS Project Quad Cities (now called The Project), met a group of high school students at WHBF-TV, where we broadcast the “Robb’s Life” series.

I didn’t realize it would be his final public appearance. He looked good. A little skinny, but good. And he flashes me a goofy smile as the students are leaving the studio, so I guess I hoped that meant he was doing okay.

Looking at this old, primitive news set (by today’s standards), a lot of memories come back. This is where I first met Beth Wehrman. We did the public affairs program, called “4 Front” at the time, about the AIDS Project a few months before I met Robb. Because of that interview, she decided to approach me with the idea of doing “Robb’s Life” after the number one TV news station in town — KWQC — turned down the idea in 1995.

Robb Feb 14 1996-8

Robb and Beth Wehrman talking to students on the old News 4 set.

Beth was a kind, caring human being, and she carried the weight of the world on her shoulders as she saw one client buried after another. She had to have known Robb was not long for this earth.

I was news director of WHBF-TV at the time, and added Robb’s Life to my daily frantic duties. I was also a single dad (divorced) with two teenage daughters living at home. Looking back, I’m not sure how I managed it all.

Usually, I came into the station by 8:30 a.m., held a news meeting where we decided what we would do that day, then helped to keep all the pieces running and the balls in the air, putting out fires and regrouping constantly to make sure the news was filled by 6:00. I often served as assignment editor if he was out sick or if he had moved on to a bigger station in another market.

I got into news because I wanted to write. My love for video attracted me to TV, but somewhere along the way, I went from being a reporter and anchor to being a producer and then a news director.

Robb Feb 14 1996-5

Beth and Robb on the old “4 Front” set.

It was a fate worse than death.

WHBF was my third station as news director. I always seemed to be hired at the last-place station, where morale in the newsroom was poor, the reporting staff was inexperienced, the budget was small, and the equipment was more primitive than the competition.

Instead of being consumed by reporting and creativity each day, the news director has to worry about competing with the other stations in town, but mostly he is consumed with which anchor is throwing a tantrum, which videographer has put a dent in a news car, how you are going to hire kids with talent for their first jobs in TV, pay them starvation wages and endure their mistakes while coaching them to improve their skills so they can move to a bigger market and earn more money, leaving you behind to hire another kid at starvation wages to endure his or her mistakes as you worry about why the anchors won’t come to work on time and why half the staff dislikes you simply because management brought you in as news director.

It is a strange life choice to be in TV news, especially in management.

In Cincinnati, where I was a news producer working with Jerry Springer for a while at WLWT, I was told I should be in management because of my “people skills.” I didn’t realize that going into management was exactly what I didn’t need. I should have been doing stories like “Robb’s Life.”

Robb Dussliere - Ken Gullette Live 3 WHBF 1995

With Robb broadcasting live on WHBF-TV in 1995.

You’ll have to forgive me for the digression. Looking back at the year I spent with Robb, I am sometimes disappointed that this marked the end of my TV career instead of a new beginning.

“Robb’s Life” usually meant an additional 10 hours per week, but it was my chance to flex my reporting and creative muscles and to be a role model for my young reporters, showing them now to shoot, report, and edit a series by pushing the creative envelope. Some of the young folks got it and some of the anchors got it, but occasionally, a reporter or videographer or anchor became jealous that my work was receiving notice and awards. In some ways, it was a no-win situation. In other ways, I was doing the best work of my career, and I didn’t give a damn what some of the more insecure people in the newsroom (there are always a few) thought.

Each week, Robb and I would decide what was happening in his life and I would take the camera gear (it had to weigh nearly 50 pounds back then) and I would follow him around, then look at everything I shot and edit it into something coherent that told the story of the week, keeping his life story moving forward.

It added a lot of pressure to my week, but it was a labor of love by this point. I didn’t know how long the story would go. I wish it had gone on for a lot longer. When Robb appeared at WHBF-TV on this day, he had two months to live.

As I coped with the newsroom, the series, single parenthood, and trying to salvage a social life (I became engaged a few days after this story was shot), I would go home and think that what I was going through was nothing compared with what Robb was going through. He always had the hardest part of this deal, and I never lost sight of that for a second.

You can still support the DeLaCerda House and keep Robb’s legacy alive. Just follow this link to the DeLaCerda House website and click on the “Donate” button on the right side of the screen.

Robb’s Life Chapter 22 – A Warning for Women about HIV

Robb, Kelli Hughes and Beth Wehrman arrive to speak to a church group in Davenport - September, 1995.

Robb, Kelli Hughes and Beth Wehrman arrive to speak to a church group in Davenport – September, 1995.

Kelli Hughes was a college student when she had sex during a one-night stand with a young man who infected her with HIV.

One mistake changed her life.

She became Robb Dussliere’s friend. Twenty years ago this week, Robb and Kelli spoke to a group of teens at a Davenport church about how they could avoid HIV. The appearance was organized by Beth Wehrman, who was Executive Director of the AIDS Project Quad Cities at the time.

When we shot this story in September, 1995, Kelli thought it would be a miracle to reach her 30th birthday, and she did not think a 50th birthday was even possible.

You want some good news? Kelli is still with us and she is only 4 or 5 years from hitting that 50-year mark. That’s how good the medication has become for those who contract HIV.

Take a look at the story and see how bleak her future looked 20 years ago. The new medications were just preparing to hit the market. We did not realize it at the time, but the new drugs came along in time to save Kelli, but not in time to save Robb.

Kelli and her husband and children (which they had using artificial insemination) are living in St. Charles, Missouri. I am attempting to contact her to catch up, but here is a story about Kelli that appeared in a Dewitt, Iowa newspaper five years ago.

There are still many people who are shunned and lose their jobs when they acquire HIV. Please help the DeLaCerda House by donating a few dollars to help support these people. It was Robb’s great passion in the last few months of his life. Follow this link and click on the Donate button on the right side of the page.

Robb’s Life Chapter 17 – Scoping Out a Throat Problem

Robb plays with his dog, Buddy, while talking with me about his recent throat issues.

Robb plays with his dog, Buddy, while talking with me about his recent throat issues.

When Robb returned home from his trip to California to visit two of his brothers, the fever he felt when he was on vacation turned into a throat problem, making it hard to swallow and difficult to eat. By August 16, 1995, he was ready to have it checked by his doctor.

I didn’t go with him to the hospital but I talked with him before he left and was at his house when he returned. Looking back, it was the first time since I had known him that he had been sick.

I didn’t realize he had started the downhill slide.

This was one of the stories that featured Robb’s dog, Buddy, a little more. I always loved the way Robb “fools” Buddy at the end of the story. Even as his parents sat on the couch, their concern over Robb’s health evident on their faces, Robb had the sense of humor to get on the floor and play with Buddy. It was classic Robb.


Please donate a few dollars to the DeLaCerda House to keep Robb’s legacy alive and help provide support to homeless people living with HIV and AIDS in the Quad Cities. To donate, go to www.delacerdahouseinc.org and click on the “Donate” button on the right side of the page.

Robb’s Life Chapter 13 — Getting Creative During a Slow Week in July 1995

Robb Dussliere and Ken Gullette broadcasting live on WHBF-TV in July, 1995.

Robb Dussliere and Ken Gullette broadcasting live on WHBF-TV in July, 1995.

Sometimes things slow down in summer, but in 1995, Robb and I were trying to come up with weekly feature stories about his life with AIDS.

Nothing much was happening in the early part of July, so we had a brainstorm. Instead of the usual feature, Robb would take phone calls from viewers and we would go live during the 10 O’Clock newscast. We would broadcast from the office of the AIDS Project Quad Cities (now called The Project). I forgot that I still had this live report on tape until a few days ago. Don Sharp, the veteran WHBF-TV broadcaster, was the co-anchor who introduced us on the air that night.

Being the news director, I went on the air rarely, so it was strange to do a live remote, but it was fun. Here is the video, with the new number of The Project superimposed over the old AIDS Project number.


Please donate to the DeLaCerda House and keep Robb’s mission alive, helping HIV and AIDS patients who find themselves homeless. Follow this link and click on the Donate button on the right side of the page.

Robb’s Life Chapter 9 – Helping HIV/AIDS Patients in Need

Robb Dussliere - win this boatIn 1995, Robb Dussliere was volunteering for the AIDS Project Quad Cities, now known as The Project of the Quad Cities. In late May of that year, a boat was being raffled in a fund-raiser to support the AIDS Project and the HIV/AIDS patients who were coming for help in larger numbers than ever.

This episode of Robb’s Life shows Robb driving the boat to a display site in Bettendorf, Iowa. He talks about the growing need for services.

Even today, The Project of the Quad Cities has 250 to 300 client families at any given time of the year. These are clients that are living 200% or more below poverty level. They range in age from 14 to 70 years old.

The Project also offers prevention services including counseling, testing, public speaking, and more.

When we began shooting this series, a month before this episode, we wondered if there would be something interesting to do every week for a year. There was not a lot going on this particular week, but the importance of raising funds was on Robb’s mind, and he had volunteered to take the boat to its display site, so we decided to combine the two.

As the videographer and reporter, it is a very simple shoot but a challenge to get enough video to cover the story. As you can see, I got Robb coming out of his house, walking to the car and the boat, checking that it was secure and then driving away as he spoke over the video. Next, I got to the location before he did and shot him as he drove up.

There is a shot that we call a “cutaway.” It is used in editing to avoid a jarring jump from one piece of video to another. For example, you shouldn’t show someone walking and then cut to a shot of him doing something different. So as Robb was working, since I like to record things in real time as they happen, I frantically was getting close-up shots of his face, different shots of the boat, so that I could edit those in to smooth out transitions between video shots.

Robb Dussliere - Raising Funds 1Is this too much inside baseball talk? It might be fun for readers to know before watching the video. On some stories, such as the last couple when we went to the doctor, there are plenty of shots to choose from in editing. On a simple story like this one, it is actually more of a challenge to tell a cohesive story with the video.

In the editing of the stories, I always liked to weave in bursts of natural sound. In this case there was not a lot of opportunity for that, but you will notice a burst when he is working with the chain on the trailer hitch. In most stories, I look at the natural sound as a way to move the story forward between sound bites and music, and it also makes for a more interesting feature. There is nothing more boring than just a voice over silent video.

Finally, before Robb drove away, leaving the boat on display near 18th Street and Spruce Hills Drive, he sat in the sun and I asked questions about what he was doing with the boat, the situation with the AIDS Project, and the rising number of patients they were seeing. This was not the most memorable of the year’s features, but it is nice to see Robb still relatively healthy and volunteering at a busy pace even though he  has virtually no immune system left.

Robb’s Life Chapter 5 — Robb Volunteers to Help People with HIV/AIDS

One of the first stories we did in the Robb’s Life series showed how he spent a lot of his time in the spring of 1995, volunteering with the AIDS Project Quad Cities (now known as The Project of the Quad Cities).

This is the office where I first met Robb and Beth Wehrman, who was executive director of the AIDS Project at the time. I returned the following week for a story.

Robb began showing his personality here. When Joe, a young man with AIDS, walks in with Robb’s lunch, Joe had no idea we were videotaping a story. Robb simply said, “You’re on TV,” and grinned. I’m sure Joe was startled, but he stayed around for a few minutes.

Robb was devoted to the idea of providing housing for homeless HIV/AIDS patients. Twenty years later, it is still a need in the Quad Cities. Please donate a few dollars to the DeLaCerda House by following this link and clicking on the Donate button on the right side of the page.

Robb’s Life Chapter 3 – The Day I Met the Bravest Man I’ve Ever Known

by Ken Gullette

On the day I met Robb Dussliere, on a chilly, drizzly morning in the first week of April, 1995, I was a 42-year-old recovering Southern boy who had grown up with all the prejudices taught to me in the Fifties and Sixties, and the “morals” that I heard shouted from the pulpit every Sunday morning.

I did not like gay people very much.

As teens, my buddies and I swore that if a “queer” ever tried anything on us, we would beat the crap out of him, by God. We made fun of queers, prancing around with limp wrists, lisping in loud, exaggerated voices. We were not mean to any real people. We didn’t know any gay kids to bully or humiliate. It was just the kind of tough talk that was common among real Southern boys.

Robb Dussliere was the first gay man I ever really knew. Oh sure, I suspected some guys over the years, but they were so deep in the closet you couldn’t see them hiding.

Robb at his desk in the office of the AIDS Project.

Now, all these years later, Beth Wehrman, the executive director of what was then called the AIDS Project Quad Cities, asked me to come over and talk about a potential news story. I was news director at WHBF-TV in Rock Island, a stressful job leading a small news department against two stronger stations in a competitive market. Every moment I took out of my day for meetings caused a corresponding increase in stress, but for some reason, I agreed to the meeting.

The office was located in downtown Davenport, in a former motel just a couple of miles from the station, a short drive across the Mississippi River via the Centennial Bridge.

The door opened and Robb said hello, a handsome young man with a thick brown mustache. My first impressions were positive — he was friendly and cordial but not flashing the smile I would quickly find so engaging. I’m sure he was a little nervous. Nothing in his mannerisms indicated he was gay, neither his speech, the way he walked, or the way he dressed. I liked him immediately. He was a regular guy.

For an hour, he and Beth explained their idea. They wanted to duplicate locally a series of reports broadcast in Canada a few years before by Dr. Peter Jepson-Young, a physician who had contracted AIDS and spoke directly to a camera over a period of two years. As his disease progressed over 111 episodes of the Dr. Peter Diaries, the audience watched Dr. Peter’s condition deteriorate, and by the time he died, in November, 1992, his reports drew tremendous attention and raised a lot of awareness about HIV and AIDS.

Robb Dussliere and Beth Wehrman, working side by side at the AIDS Project in April, 1995.

On a small TV, Beth and Robb played a VHS tape of The Broadcast Tapes of Dr. Peter, fast-forwarding to selected episodes. I watched as Dr. Peter grew weaker, ravaged by the disease. It was quite moving, and the real gravity of the idea they were offering began to sink in. I sat and thought for a minute when they turned off the TV. Robb was leaning forward in his chair. Beth watched me, her kind face drooping with a look of melancholy that always seemed to be so close by.

“I think we can do it better,” I said. “Instead of having the person just sit and talk to a camera, I would like to follow him through his life, showing him as he is so we can really get to know him.”

They nodded enthusiastically.

“Do you have a patient in mind?” I asked.

“Yes,” Robb said. “Me.”

My blood ran cold, literally sending a chill through my body. This healthy-looking young man is telling me he is dying? And more importantly, he has AIDS?

I looked down at my hand. I had shaken hands with him. I needed to wash it as soon as I got the hell out of there.

Wait a second. He’s gay? He doesn’t seem to be gay.

We talked about when we would begin and what we wanted to cover, such as educating viewers on avoiding HIV, raising awareness for the isolation and poverty faced by people living with the disease, and putting a real human face on the issues surrounding AIDS.

First up, I would need to shoot some stories that introduced Robb to the community. The story had a scope far beyond the normal two to five-part “sweeps” series that we normally did during ratings periods. But May sweeps were coming up, so we had to move quickly.

Robb leaves the AIDS Project office.

I promised to call back soon and set up initial interviews and video. I avoided shaking Robb’s hand when I left, but something else happened that was very unusual.

By the time I got to my car the rain was coming down a little harder. I sat for a moment, listening to it fall on the windshield and roof. For some reason, the journey I was embarking on was there, in front of my eyes. I had agreed to record this man’s death.

I started crying, grateful that nobody was walking by to see a grown man crying in his car in the rain.

It would not the the last time I would shed tears over Robb. Rain fell as I slowly drove back to the station, trying to get my act together, my mind shifted back into professional mode, wondering which reporter I would assign to this story.

When I got to the station, I broke a land speed record making my way to the men’s room, lathering the soap on my hands extra thick, hoping that I had not been hit by the virus.

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The DeLaCerda House provides support and housing to HIV/AIDS patients who have no place to turn. Robb helped launch the facility during the last year of his life. Please consider helping, even with just a few dollars, by clicking on the Donate button on the right side of the DeLaCerda House page. Your donation goes directly to DeLaCerda House.