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Ralph Stayer

Most of the books I recommend in this column deal with important issues; they tend to be in-depth studies of problems or opportunities that face us currently or will in the future. The March books are not of that genre. These are books that should be read just for the joy they bring. Sometimes, we just need a break. 

The Greatest Beer Run Ever by John “Chick” Donohue and J. T. Molloy is a war story (kind of). It starts in a neighborhood bar in New York City in 1967 as the protests over the Vietnam War were heating up. The men in the bar knew each other, and they also knew young men who had been drafted and were fighting in Vietnam. They were lamenting the effect these protests must have been having on their brethren when the bartender suggested that someone ought to go over to look up their friends and tell them how much they were appreciated, and maybe take American beer over to give them a taste of home. It was just meaningless chatter that can be heard in any bar as alcohol loosens minds and tongues—until John “Chick” Donohue stood up and said, “I’ll do it.”

Donohue had served his country as a Marine and was currently a merchant seaman. He had the papers necessary to get on a ship and sneak into Vietnam. It seems like an impossible task, but somehow with the help of the CIA (yes, that CIA) he pulled it off during the Tet Offensive. He managed to save his own life and others while delivering beer and hope to his friends. Who is this fellow, you ask? Why would anyone sitting safely at home embark on such an inherently crazy journey? And how in the world could he possibly do it? Those are the right questions, and the book has the answers. I grew up and lived most of my life in Wisconsin, where the beer run has been developed into a fine art form. We even have songs recorded by the Happy Schnapps Combo about legendary beer runs—but Chick Donohue stands on the Olympus of beer runs, and we collectively bow our heads and face east to honor his achievement. You will love this book.

Charlie Berens says he has a face that is perfect for radio but his voice is best suited for print. His Midwest accent may have belayed his career as a journalist, but it launched his comedy career instead. He is famous for his “Manitowoc Minute” videos that gently poke fun at Midwest values. His book The Midwest Survival Guide: How We Talk, Love, Work, Drink And Eat …  Everything With Ranch opened at No. 4 on the New York Times bestseller list. This is one book that has no beginning or end. You can open it anywhere and start laughing. He dedicated the book to Grandpa Bob, who passed away in 2019, with the comment, “If all perch go to heaven it’s a little awkward for Grandpa Bob right now … ”

You will learn proper etiquette for leaving a party (takes at least 40 minutes), the name of one of the most important men in Midwest history (he invented ranch dressing) and the most important meat product ever created (bratwurst)—that is my story and I’m sticking to it. You will be able to voice your opinion on a very controversial subject: Is it a casserole or a hot dish? This is about as heated as life in the Midwest gets, except for an occasional spat over a game of euchre. You will finally learn the answer to the argument on which state has the most lakes (Hint: Size matters). Berens is a master at finding humor in every aspect of life. He could stumble into a sewer and find something funny to say about it. We Midwesterners read it and laugh at ourselves. All those of you who were not blessed to grow up in the Midwest are welcome to laugh at us, too. It’s the least we can do for the less fortunate. 

Ralph Stayer, an avid reader and former CEO of Johnsonville Sausage, leads a book club in Naples with about a dozen other high-power friends. The group only reads non-fiction as a way to keep learning and sharpening the mind. Every month, Stayer shares the latest page-turners earning a permanent spot on his ever-expanding bookshelves.

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