By Tricia Goecks
BOONE COUNTY – On Jan. 7, terrorists attacked the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and killed 12 people in Paris. Immediately the phrase “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) began to circulate by supporters of freedom of the press.
Who exactly is Charlie?
Residents of Boone County have been asking that question since 1969. Or more specifically, Boone County residents have been asking who is Pipeline Charlie?
The first Pipeline Charlie item in the Belvidere Daily Republican was so small it could have gone unnoticed. At the end of a Jan. 22, 1969 Pat Mattison editorial regarding the 11 paid holidays the county clerk’s office requested was an intercepted letter.
Dear Fat Cats:
It’s beautiful - - you mean you set your own holidays?
Signed, Pipeline Charlie.
And then a week letter in the middle of the letters to the editor was another intercepted letter to the County Board officials.
Dear Hard Workers
How many businesses, factories and other offices are getting off Feb. 23 – because Feb 22 (Saturday) is Washington’s birthday? Signed, Pipeline Charlie.
As so began one of the biggest mysteries in Boone County. Who exactly is Pipeline Charlie?
“Does he really work on a pipeline? Is he a spy within the ranks of local government? Maybe he’s a she? Or more than one person, perhaps?” Ron Freeberg asked in his Apr. 15, 1969 column.
“When I got there I asked who was Pipeline Charlie,” former reporter turned Boone County circuit court judge Dave England. “A lot of time they would try to pump you for info. Who was that really?”
“Sometimes people would think so-and-so wrote it, and it wasn’t them at all.”
“I could tell you for a fact that I do not know who all of the Pipeline Charlies are, but there is more than one,” Pat Mattison, past owner and publisher of the Belvidere Daily Republican confessed.
Pipeline Charlie got his start after Mattison hired a Canadian sports writer who subscribed to the Detroit Free Press. “In the Detroit paper there was a little daily blurb in the editorial page called Pipeline Pete. I happened to see that and I watched it on a daily basis,” Mattison said. “It would poke at different issues in the community in one or two liners and bring it to the fore and say something that was going on.”
Curious, Mattison called the Detroit Free Press and asked about Pipeline Pete. “They said at that particular time we never know where it is coming from but it comes on more than a daily basis,” Mattison said.
“They said ‘well, you know that there are known people that are in that area that know Pipeline Pete,’” Mattison recalled his Detroit Free Press counterpart as telling him after Mattison said that he was from Belvidere.
“The next week or so somebody called in and said did you know such-and-such, and I said ‘no I didn’t know who are you?’ And he said ‘Pipeline Charlie.’”
The Pipeline Charlies were one or two sentence tidbits that related to current events. “They made fun of someone or called them out,” England recalled. “Sometimes they were congratulatory in nature.”
“It was a way for the newspaper to poke fun at or make fun of question the morality or motives of local politicians without attributing it to a reporter or editor,” Freeberg’s son Del said. “It was anonymous. It was a line of text questioning the activities of a local official.”
“From the thing that I saw when the controversial issues were addressed in Pipeline Charlie, it provided the people with a question that should be addressed. It established credibility for the media, for the BDR at that particular time, because at least somebody was addressing the issue,” Mattison said.
The late Ron Freeberg was one of Pipeline Charlie’s alter egos. Freeberg cut out and carried copies of Pipeline Charlie in his wallet. “I could tell from the way my father was carrying this around, he felt some ownership of it,” Del Freeberg said. “Whether he was the one who created this idea or proponents of it, he felt some ownership of the Pipeline Charlies. He would carry them around and show them at gatherings of family and friends.”
The county developed a love-hate with Pipeline Charlie. A 1976 survey revealed that the best read section of the newspaper were the accident, court actions and police reports, obituaries, hospital news…and Pipeline Charlie.
“People got angry, especially if they thought he was sarcastic,” England recalled.
Arnie Tillema resigned on Apr. 12, 1977, as the head basketball coach at Belvidere High School. Two days later, Pipeline Charlie asked Tillema “Been reading wall handwriting lately?”
The question was too much for some of Tillema’s supporters. “A newspaper’s purpose is to objectively inform its readers of the latest news breaks of the day. Not to initiate gossip and rumors of one of the most sincere, honest and hard-working men in this town or any other town,” basketball standout Gary Deitelhoff wrote in an Apr. 18, 1977 letter to the editor. “He has taught me a great deal not only about basketball but also about being sensitive to the needs of the students with which we work. He is without a doubt one of the finest men I have ever known.”
Deitelhoff ended his letter with his own Pipeline Charlie parody that quoted Happy Days’ Fonzie. “About your pipeline of April 14, 1977: SIT ON IT!!!”
In another intercepted letter to Pipeline Charlie on Oct.15, 1971, Peppermint Patty chided him “An Art Buchwald you ain’t!”
As controversial as Pipeline Charlie could be in covering local issues, he displayed a sense of humor. After Earl Suhr was named to the water and sewer committee, Pipeline Charlie asked him “How does it feel to have a committee named after you?”
When a driver missed the turn and drove through the front entrance of the JC Penneys store in Belvidere Pipeline Charlie picked up on that. “We understand you have a new drive thru window now,” Mattison chuckled as he recalled Pipeline Charlie as saying. “The guy running Penneys was just furious. It was just a light hearted thing to say here’s what happened.”
“People would laugh about it and it they would wonder what the next thing was going to be,” England recalled of some of Pipeline Charlie’s humorous antics.
National events were not immune to Pipeline Charlie’s observations. Following Muhammad Ali’s unanimous defeat in the Mar. 8, 1971 “fight of the century” against Joe Frazier, Pipeline Charlie wrote “You might say Ali had feet of clay.”
Pipeline Charlie was a Bears fan. Following the Green Bay Packers 13-6 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, Charlie wrote, “Dear Pack, Sunday was probably one of the few days you guys ever had Bears fans cheering for you to win – you let them down!”
A few weeks later on Dec. 18, 1977 with the Bears’ first playoff chances on the line since their 1963 championship season, the Bears played the New York Giants. A thin sheet of ice covered the 1970s era artificial turf. Both teams played poorly, and the game went into overtime. The Bears won 12-9 on a Bob Thomas field goal.
Pipeline Charlie addressed the Chicago Bears. “Dear Heart Stoppers: You’re the only football team we know that waits until the final seconds to save the kicker – rather than the kicker saving the team!”
Even though Pipeline Charlie has long since been discontinued in the newspaper, Mattison still receives calls from Pipeline Charlie.
“They always accused me or the newspaper. The truth of the matter is that when it started it fed on itself. People who were in the community who had a thought that they wanted in the fore would call in and say do you know this,” Mattison revealed. “And that is how it started and it sustained itself. And it still sustains itself to this day. It is just not being reported.”
With social media, blogging, newsroom tips, letters to the editor, press releases, and the grapevine, everyone is part of the media. With the “Je suis Charlie” movement, it brings to the forefront that everyone is Charlie.
“Pipeline Charlie is the public. The public owns Pipeline Charlie,” Mattison revealed.
Je suis Charlie.