Friday, July 31, 2009

The Blueberry Story

A few weeks ago, my wife Jennifer and I were out to dinner in the Madison Park neighborhood of Seattle. We were sitting at a table on the sidewalk when a pleasant older gentleman in a crested navy blue blazer asked if he could tie his dog to the stanchion nearest our table, “While I have a cocktail at the bar.”

It was a small, quiet dog, which had evidently been tied to stanchions before, so we said fine.

The man wasn’t in a hurry and we fell into conversation, when he suddenly pointed at me and said, “You should be in movies!”

I took it for an embarrassing attempt at a compliment, until he went on to tell us that he was, among other things, a film producer. One of the credits he claimed was Sleepless In Seattle. Over the next 10 minutes he mentioned having been involved with the old USFL, his educational foundation, his status as a retired billionaire, and his extensive real estate holdings. He was entertaining, charming, and quaintly proud of his gold pen with a built-in stamper that imprinted his business card information on any available piece of paper. He left us with an example, urging me to call him to talk about connecting me with his “casting people” and his plans for changing America’s educational system.

As soon as he walked away, Jennifer opined, “He’s a con man.” I waited until I got home to look him up.

J. William Oldenburg has had quite a history. I’m not saying he’s guilty of anything, but he seems to have made a career of being very closely associated with spectacular, multi-million dollar disasters.

He’s been labeled a savings and loan looter, a self-described billionaire and “Mr. Dynamite”, a vacuum cleaner salesman, a defendant in a case brought by the FDIC , and meteoric, among other things. In other words, Jennifer's instincts about him seem to have been spot on.

But this is just a long introduction to the main point of this post. At one point he went to his car to retrieve a copy of the “Blueberry Story”, saying that as a teacher I had to read it. And I have to say, it’s a pretty good story that sticks a thumb in the eye of those that think public schools should be run more like a business. It’s a first-hand account by Jamie Robert Vollmer, who has absolutely never associated with J. William Oldenburg.

The Blueberry Story: The teacher gives the businessman a lesson

“If I ran my business the way you people operate your schools, I wouldn’t be in business very long!”

I stood before an auditorium filled with outraged teachers who were becoming angrier by the minute. My speech had entirely consumed their precious 90 minutes of inservice. Their initial icy glares had turned to restless agitation. You could cut the hostility with a knife.

I represented a group of business people dedicated to improving public schools. I was an executive at an ice cream company that became famous in the middle1980s when People Magazine chose our blueberry as the “Best Ice Cream in America.”

I was convinced of two things. First, public schools needed to change; they were archaic selecting and sorting mechanisms designed for the industrial age and out of step with the needs of our emerging “knowledge society”. Second, educators were a major part of the problem: they resisted change, hunkered down in their feathered nests, protected by tenure and shielded by a bureaucratic monopoly. They needed to look to business. We knew how to produce quality. Zero defects! TQM! Continuous improvement!

In retrospect, the speech was perfectly balanced - equal parts ignorance and arrogance.

As soon as I finished, a woman’s hand shot up. She appeared polite, pleasant – she was, in fact, a razor-edged, veteran, high school English teacher who had been waiting to unload.

She began quietly, “We are told, sir, that you manage a company that makes good ice cream.”

I smugly replied, “Best ice cream in America, Ma’am.”

“How nice,” she said. “Is it rich and smooth?”

“Sixteen percent butterfat,” I crowed.

“Premium ingredients?” she inquired.

“Super-premium! Nothing but triple A.” I was on a roll. I never saw the next line coming.

“Mr. Vollmer,” she said, leaning forward with a wicked eyebrow raised to the sky, “when you are standing on your receiving dock and you see an inferior shipment of blueberries arrive, what do you do?”

In the silence of that room, I could hear the trap snap…. I was dead meat, but I wasn’t going to lie.

“I send them back.”

“That’s right!” she barked, “and we can never send back our blueberries. We take them big, small, rich, poor, gifted, exceptional, abused, frightened, confident, homeless, rude, and brilliant. We take them with ADHD, junior rheumatoid arthritis, and English as their second language. We take them all! Every one! And that, Mr. Vollmer, is why it’s not a business. It’s school!”

In an explosion, all 290 teachers, principals, bus drivers, aides, custodians and secretaries jumped to their feet and yelled, “Yeah! Blueberries! Blueberries!”

And so began my long transformation.

Since then, I have visited hundreds of schools. I have learned that a school is not a business. Schools are unable to control the quality of their raw material, they are dependent upon the vagaries of politics for a reliable revenue stream, and they are constantly mauled by a howling horde of disparate, competing customer groups that would send the best CEO screaming into the night.

None of this negates the need for change. We must change what, when, and how we teach to give all children maximum opportunity to thrive in a post-industrial society. But educators cannot do this alone; these changes can occur only with the understanding, trust, permission and active support of the surrounding community. For the most important thing I have learned is that schools reflect the attitudes, beliefs and health of the communities they serve, and therefore, to improve public education means more than changing our schools, it means changing America.

Copyright 2002, by Jamie Robert Vollmer
Jamie Robert Vollmer, a former business executive and attorney, now works as a motivational speaker and consultant to increase community support for public schools. He can be reached at jamie@jamievollmer.com

I like this story. I think I came out ahead in my dealings with a world-class con man.


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18 comments:

ThatSeattleGuy said...

Nonetheless, you still *should* be in movies. Not just on bags of cookies. :)

Teacher Tom said...

What ThatSeattleGuy is referring to is my brief career as a professional model:

http://www.glutenfreedafoods.com/peanut-paul-mary.asp

Eternal Lizdom said...

Oh those cookies are a HOOT!

Love the blueberry story.

Anonymous said...

I too have met dear Bill, but he was a little too drunk to offer me book suggestions, instead I only got the movie line. Curiosity lead me to your post... As a teacher however, I'm fascinated with this suggestion and look forward to reading it. Guess it wasn't so bad that I met him either.

Anonymous said...

Yes, you dodged a bullet. Here's what he was up to around the time you met him:

http://www.dfi.wa.gov/sd/orders/S-08-037-10-SC01.pdf

Anonymous said...

I knew J.W.Oldenberg..He is a Con..and I have witnessed his con!! Buyer beware!!!

Anonymous said...

Ah, yes. Ran into J. William Oldenburg at El Gaucho in Seattle on May 27, 2012. He was drunk and full of name-dropping, self-inflating talk, including Sleepless in Seattle production ties, private jets, personal friendships with Frank Sinatra, Joe Montana, etc. Said he was scouting filming locations in Seattle for an upcoming Tom Hanks movie and El Gaucho would be one of them. Clearly a con. His stamp, which he poked down on a napkin listed 245 Park Avenue, New York, New York. Uh, huh... Sure Bill. All I can find searching the internet are USFL ownership failures and legal claims of fraud.

Tim Peightal said...

The guy is a bit off his rocker. His auto-bio looks homemade, however cross referrence point to it being mostly accurate. Think he took a fall from a high place and now drinks and braggs. Will say he is a bit of a dick.

Franklin said...

My Wife and I ran into J. William Oldenburg on First Avenue while he was making hi way to El Gaucho. He saw our Cavalier King Charles Spaniel puppy and stopped us, pulling a photo copy picture of his late beloved dog Lazarus from his pocket, he showed us the picture and we talked dogs for awhile. He told us about his role in producing Sleepless in Seattle , and while he had obviously been drinking and his close were tattered and stained. He was fun to talk with. He stamped his address on a piece of paper with his cool little pen and asked me to keep in touch. He was such a character that I thought I would conduct a search on him to see if he was legit. It appears his stories are true and though he did not mention it that he really is a world class con man. All in all a pleasant encounter.

Ed said...

Well, you can add my wife and I to the list of people who've run into Mr. Oldenburg. We were on our way to a pre-party for the Jimmy Buffett concert at Key Arena Tuesday evening and decided to stop in at the Ohana bar in Belltown for a pre-pre party beer. Seated at the bar was Mr. Oldenburg and he removed his jacket from an empty chair next to him and said, "Come on in, the water's fine!" I said thanks and sat next to him. We engaged in some small talk and he basically repeated everything you all have said so far. He gave us a copy of his "preview" book and gave my wife a hug and kiss on the lips. He also stamped his info on a scrap of paper from a bundle in his breast pocket which he called his "laptop." Overall, a nice guy and not necessarily a liar from what I have read. He was at the top, made some poor choices and decisions, bottomed out and is still around to talk about it. We went away from the bar thinking we met an important guy. I guess we were right. Hope to run into him again sometime.

Anonymous said...

All of it is legit. He really owned the LA Express. Signed Steve Young, had very successful businesses at the time. I know him personally.

Anonymous said...

i ran into him while in Seattle in a Starbucks

David Richardson said...

HOLY CRAP!! I just ran into him also! Sent me the same story (I'm also a teacher).

Anonymous said...

I also just ran into Bill Oldenburg at a downtown Seattle Starbucks. I see that this article is originally from 2009. It's a bit sad that he is still doing the same thing so many years late. I hope he finds peace with himself and where he is at in life. Despite the bad judgement, or worse, that he may have had in the past, he has proven he has the intellect to build a multi-billion dollar business.

Anonymous said...


Bill Oldenburg is a master con artist. Everything he touches, turns into a nightmare. Stay far, far away from this mad man.

He has very bad karma.

Jeff said...

My wife and I ran into Bill at a small bar in Capitol Hill (Seattle) a few months ago (June, 2014). He was a delightful fellow to spend some time with and my wife, always open to making new friends, gave him MY cell phone number. We got the book preview, the stories about owning the LA football club, friends with The Donald, Sinatra, etc. It was a fun hour or so and then I forgot about him until he called the next day. We though it could be fun again so we invited him for dinner at our Belltown apartment. He arrived well dressed, with flowers and wine, and drunk. Shortly after starting dinner he politely disappeared into the streets, supposedly with an engagement to give a speech in Las Vegas that weekend for a "Oh, it's nothing special - just a $100,000 fee deal". Haven't heard a thing from him since. But, it's all true - we did a lot of research on hime and he was indeed friends with Trump, Sinatra (wears a hat Frank gave him), and he was a billionaire head of a major finance company as well as a LA football team. He has some money apparently, but just how much or where is anyone's guess. If you bump into him, be nice, respectful and have fun. But remember that he's apparently conned many out of a lot of money over the past few years so don't trust him as far as you can spit in the wind.

Anonymous said...

I'm a bus driver on the route 10 and I met dear old Bill, when he told me that "I was the most beautiful bus driver" in Seattle -- or something like that. I thanked him for his compliment. He went on to tell me about his role as Executive Producer for Sleepless in Seattle, his association with Frank Sinatra and Orson Welles. It sounded too big to be true. I hear lots of stories driving bus. He talked about his early days in the circus, his love for his children and family. An overall real character and charmer. He got off my bus, urged me to call him, and offered VIP tickets to the upcoming movie about his life.
I loved his story and the title of his movie -- something like "Not ready to Land." That is how he struck me, especially after reading some of his story, of someone who is sucking the marrow from the bone of life and who is not ready, not by a long shot, to quit making the most of each and every day.
Obviously he knows how to entertain, and he is haunting the hills of Seattle, making life a little more interesting for us all.

Oao Lana said...

Wow, this thread is really amazing. I just met Mr. Bill O. today on the bus 10 route. He got off on Broadway and Pike.
He complimented me on my hat, then asked me if I was interested to appear in a movie about his life. He said that Robin Williams was going to play him in the movie, but backed out, so Tom Hanks would play him instead. He sounded a bit fishy, and having googled his information -- arrived here on this site.

I guess he is here to amuse us all...

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