Robb’s Life Chapter 50 – Robb Dussliere’s Funeral and the Final Episode of Robb’s Life

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The last video shot during our year-long series was a slow zoom in to Robb’s name on the headstone.

Robb Dussliere’s funeral was held on April 23, 1996. A week or so before he died, I was at home, knowing I would have to shoot this story, and suddenly I envisioned a slow zoom in to Robb’s name on the Dussliere headstone. It would be the last piece of video I would shoot, and then I would dissolve to a backward look at his life until his baby pictures.

I sat at my kitchen table and cried my eyes out, knowing that this would be the final shot after our year together. It broke my heart.

The most memorable part of the funeral service was when Jacob, Robb’s nephew, says he has the movie “Batman Forever.” The other kids laugh because it is such an inappropriate comment considering the circumstances, but such an honest comment from a child who doesn’t really understand what is happening. When I said, “I’ll bet Uncle Robb liked that movie,” (past tense) Jacob replied, “He does.” It is so poignant, because he doesn’t realize Robb is gone. Robb would have seen the humor in it.

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Father Levitt at the graveside service.

After the graveside service, on a beautiful spring day, I waited until everyone left, reluctantly walking to their cars and slowly driving out of St. Mary’s Cemetery in East Moline. I don’t think anyone wanted to say goodbye to Robb.

I sat the camera in the grass, kneeled behind it, and as I zoomed slowly in on Robb’s name, the tears flowed. The pressure in my face was tremendous as I tried to keep from crying out loud. Later, when I got back to the editing room and was reviewing the video from the service, I got to this shot and I could hear myself crying on the video, picked up by the natural sound microphone.

One of the saddest days of my life. I used part of the final interview with Robb in this last piece, asking him how he wanted to be remembered. I am so happy he is still remembered, and I know he would be happy, too. Thank you all for watching and honoring this fine young man with me. He would be 54 now, probably still making us laugh instead of cry.

This was the last official story in the Robb’s Life series on WHBF-TV.

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.
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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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 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.

Robbs Life Chapter 4 – The First Public Interview April 1995

by Ken Gullette

Robb’s Life began as a weekly news series during the last week or two of April, 1995. The first two or three stories were shot over two or three days, intended to introduce Robb to the community.

At that time, I did a weekly public affairs program on WHBF-TV called “4 Front.” On the Sunday before Robb’s Life debuted on the news, I asked Beth Wehrman and Robb to appear on the program.

Looking at the interview now, it is obvious that I felt the magnitude of the project ahead, and I was still stunned by the knowledge that Robb’s death would be part of the series.

I also did not know Robb very well at all when we did this interview. If it had been later in the series, I would have lightened up at times and drawn out his sense of humor a bit more. As you can tell from this video, he was more prepared to laugh than I was. Beth, who was a very warm-hearted person, was already feeling the weight of the AIDS patients that had been lost in the Quad Cities. Tragically, Beth passed away from cancer in 2008.

Enjoy this interview from Sunday, April 23, 1995.

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.


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.