During the final year of his life, Robb Dussliere had two top priorities:
- Reach out to the public to educate people, particularly young people, how to avoid HIV and AIDS.
- To open the shelter for homeless HIV and AIDS clients in the Quad Cities — a shelter that is still operated by the DeLaCerda House.
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.
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.
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.”
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.