Sunday, August 13, 2000

Everything's ducky with him

Labor Day weekend fund-raiser goes swimmingly, thanks to founder and chief volunteer

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        It's happening again, like it does every year: Bob Edwards is about to be set adrift on a sea of ducks — 60,000 bright yellow, smiling rubber ducks.

[photo] Bob Edwards
(Joseph Fuqua II photo)
| ZOOM |
        Mr. Edwards is chairman of the sixth annual Rubber Duck Regatta, a FreeStore/FoodBank fund-raiser he founded in '95. He has been guiding it since and says he'll probably continue doing so “until the drool factor sets in.”

        The Regatta is the race for which ducks are adopted at $5 a pop. Come Riverfest (Sept. 3), they're dumped into the river from the L&N Bridge for a wind- and current-driven race. First duck over the line this year (they are each numbered) wins its owner a 2000 Toyota Celica GT.

        “You know what's really neat? We dump them out of a 42-foot trailer, and as the first ducks are hitting the water, more are still pouring from the truck. It's like a giant yellow waterfall.”

        Hardly something you'd expect to get a 66-year-old conservatively dressed insurance exec from Kenwood so worked up he starts waving a forkful of seafood salad around.

        To be honest, it's the money he's worked up about. “With 60,000 ducks, we'll make $300,000 and every cent will go to the FreeStore.” The overhead is absorbed by sponsors.

        He says most people think the FreeStore, based in Over-the-Rhine, hands out food at Thanksgiving only. In reality, it serves 20 counties year-round with 550 soup kitchens and pantries.

        “Because of our volume, there's a multiple effect — a market value of 7 to 1,” he says of the agency. “That means because of the way we buy and from whom, one of our dollars goes as far as seven of the average consumer's. So $300,000 is really $2.1 million.”

        According to Phoenix-based Great American Duck Races, the firm that rents ducks to 130 regattas at 50 cents a duck, a 10,000-duck regatta is the norm. Cincinnati's first was 18,000, prompting GADR to name it Rookie of the Year.

        Three years later, it hit 36,000 ducks and GADR named it Duck Regatta of the Year. This year, it's so large it takes every duck GADR can scare up.

        “Now that's a sight. About a week before the race, they start trucking them in, 10,000 from here, 12,000 from there, a couple thousand from somewhere else. As they roll in, we go through and toss the damaged ones we know will sink,” says Mr. Edwards. Volunteers help number the ducks and load them on the trailer.

        “My wife keeps telling me if I spent as much time selling insurance as I do pushing ducks, we'd own a Caribbean island instead of paying to visit one.”

        His ducks are about to become omnipresent. Billboards will go up any minute. Signs are now in supermarkets and banks. And between now and Riverfest, local TV and radio will air 1,000 spots, all donated.

        Reason enough to quiz Mr. Edwards ...

        The biggest difference between the rubber duck industry and the insurance business ...

        I don't sell insurance for $5. Beyond that, they're not that far apart. Both are designed to help people, one with money at a difficult time, the other with food at a difficult time.

        The strangest thing I ever saw at the Regatta ...

        The year the wind blew them all the wrong way. We lost 5,900 ducks and that would have cost us a bundle, but we had insurance to cover just such a loss. It was funny, but I wasn't laughing.

        One change I'd like to see ...

        I want to do a nighttime event using the new glow-in-the-dark ducks. It wouldn't be the night of the fireworks and it wouldn't be a race, but it would be fun.

        The first thing I think when I see 60,000 ducks floating downriver ...

        This will sound strange, given the fact that we have the river clogged with ducks in sunglasses, but I always think how many more people we'll be able to serve because of them.

        The last thing I ever expected to see at the Regatta ...

        I can think of two right away that you can't print. Oh, how about this? This boat, a Zodiac I think, was helping us gather ducks at the race's end. Just loaded their boat to the brim. Then they sped off. Turns out we had a boatload of drunks hijack our ducks.

        Ducks are available for adoption while they last. Call 929-DUCK.


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