Wednesday, April 23, 2003

Celebrity ending for 'Survivor' Bingham



Even by his own admission, Rodger Bingham's celebrity status should have ended long ago.

"They say '15 minutes of fame,' " says the Crittenden farmer and teacher known to America as "Kentucky Joe" on Survivor: The Australian Outback.

"I think mine has run about two hours."

No, more like 2 1/2 years.

The 55-year-old Grant County High School teacher first made headlines when he headed off to the second Survivor in October 2000. He was one of the most popular Outback contestants until being voted out of the game two years ago this month.

"I'm not kidding when I say this: It has been 100 times more (recognition) than I thought when I went into this," Bingham says.

Finally, after 249 speaking appearances in 14 states, and three trips to Canada, he's seeing things slow down.

Autograph hounds at bay

A young child still runs up to hug him at Wal-Mart, but people don't interrupt his meals in restaurants to talk Survivor strategy. Crittenden residents, including some old friends from Grant County High School's class of '65, have stopped asking him for autographs.

"It was a little bit tough early on. Everyone would recognize me, and want to say hello. Things were a little difficult. I won't say unpleasant, but it was difficult," says Bingham, who turns 56 on July 5.

"Now everybody is back to treating me normal again."

He takes another step back into his old routine in August, when he returns to teaching drafting at his alma mater after a two-year absence.

What: Survivor: The Amazon
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: Channels 12, 7
"Originally I asked for a one-year leave. I really thought all this Survivor stuff would be over," says Bingham, who wears a red flannel shirt and his trademark green baseball cap to our Frisch's breakfast.

It's been 'a ball'

"I think it's about run its course. But I honestly thought that a year ago, to tell you the truth."

Being the only Survivor participant in CBS' No. 1 Survivor market has been very rewarding. He's driving a new Ford Explorer SUV, his eighth new Ford in two years provided by T&W Ford in Williamstown in exchange for doing radio endorsements.

He has traveled to Hawaii, California, Florida, New York and many places between. He has spoken to churches, schools, business groups, farm organizations and service clubs. And he's had plenty of time to play with his 13-month-old grandson, Porter Winn Hedenberg.

"The last two years have been a ball. It's been just a whole lot of fun - and financially rewarding, too," he says. "I didn't win the $1 million (Survivor prize), but I did all right. You don't have to go far to beat teaching (pay)."

Bingham still has a Los Angeles agent, Sherrie Spillane, to book public appearances. She makes the arrangements for travel, lodging and compensation. But for many scout, school and social service groups, he speaks for free.

"I think you have to give back," says Bingham, an elder at Crittenden Church of Christ.

"Why did they pick me, from out here in the middle of nowhere? So I've got a lot of reasons to give back."

When he goes to churches, hospitals or nursing homes, he often takes boxes of the Good News for Modern Man Bible, the one he took to Australia as his Survivor luxury item. The publishing company, Zondervan of Grand Rapids, Mich., was so thrilled with the prime-time publicity that it has given Bingham 50,000 Bibles to distribute for free.

"I've given out almost 37,000 Bibles so far, literally all over the U.S. That's something that came off that show. Who would have thought of that?" he says.

When asked his favorite moment of Survivor celebrity, Bingham answers instantly: Carrying the Olympic torch through Milford.

"I felt like that was quite an honor," he says. "Someone sent my name in - I still don't know who to this day."

He and his wife, Pat, remain loyal Survivor viewers. He appreciates the twists added by creator Mark Burnett ("he's a sharp cookie"), such as separating the teams by sex on Survivor: The Amazon (8 p.m. Thursday, Channels 12, 7).

"I like this one," he says. "The way this started, with the men losing (a challenge) to the women, if he had to sit down and write a script, he couldn't have written a better way to begin."

From his 80-acre farm in Crittenden, Bingham keeps in touch with Survivor cast mates, particularly Tina Wesson (the $1 million winner), Elisabeth Filarski and Michael Skupin (who fell into the campfire on Survivor 2). He hopes to see Skupin during a Tristate visit next week.

He has told them all about the Enquirer's proposal to do the live Survivor finale here, possibly at Paramount's Kings Island, and they endorse it. "That would be neat. They would have a big crowd, if they did it here," he says.

Bingham also still hears from CBS, which invited him to the Survivor: The Amazon finale in New York on May 11. He hopes to hear from CBS again - if Burnett and the network ever go ahead with the long-discussed Survivor reunion competition.

He's ready to go at the drop of a green ball cap.

"If I was contacted by them, I'd tell them I'm interested," he says, choosing his words deliberately.

So has Survivor's most famous nonswimmer has been working on his stroke?

"No, I'll be truthful," he says, somewhat sheepishly. "Last year, I did practice my swimming. I thought about joining a Y, but I didn't. But if there's one, I'm ready to go."

If he's not invited back to Survivor, well, Bingham can live with that, too. He knows he's been blessed.

"There are millions of people who want to do the things I've done, and trade places with me," he says. "I've done things I wouldn't have done in 10 lifetimes. It's been an unbelievable experience for me, and my entire family."


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