The message was serious, even if the hair was hard to take seriously.
“Retro Bill” Russ visited Central and Northside middle schools Monday to talk about bullying with hundreds of attentive seventh-graders.
His message? Be respectful. Don’t participate in tearing people down. And if you’re on the receiving end of bullying, stick up for yourself and don’t be afraid to talk to an adult.
Russ’ antics and words in the school gymnasiums had students roaring with laughter before the D.A.R.E. graduation that evening, where he spoke in front of about 1,000 course graduates. He plans to continue his tour of area schools today with presentations at 10:30 a.m. at Hauser Jr./Sr. High School and in the afternoon at Edinburgh.
Several awards and recognitions were to be presented at Monday night’s D.A.R.E. graduation:
The first-ever D.A.R.E. Community Hero Award to Josh Gray, a 16-year-old student at Columbus Signature Academy and a D.A.R.E. graduate. Josh helped save the life of a choking man at Ethnic Expo in October by performing the Heimlich maneuver.
The Grainger Foundation for a $10,000 donation to the local D.A.R.E. program.
D.A.R.E., which stands for Drug Abuse Resistance Education, is a national course that teaches children from kindergarten through 12th grade how to resist peer pressure and live productive drug- and violence-free lives. Locally, it is headed by Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Deputy Pat Bryant and Columbus Police Sgt. Matt Harris.
Russ’ emphasis on bullying was a twist on his usual presentation, in which he uses humor, an Elvis-inspired haircut and props that have an underlying, serious message about self-esteem and staying clean from drugs and alcohol.
He has spoken at Columbus schools repeatedly over the years and always has come back by popular demand, Harris said.
During Monday’s presentation at Northside, Russ repeatedly and playfully interrupted Assistant Principal Brett Findley as Findley, not knowing he was being set up, tried to read some biographical information about the speaker.
Russ, who is from Hollywood, Calif., and has done voice-overs for the “SpongeBob SquarePants” children’s cartoon, emphasized to students that all their dreams would come true if they worked hard and refused to listen to naysayers whose only motivation is to tear them down.
“Believe in yourselves,” he pleaded with the Northside students. “Treat each other like fellow citizens, like fellow human beings.”
He told the students that people who pick on others don’t like themselves. He acted out make-believe scenarios in which one person tries to bully another, only to have his insults deflected back at him because of his “victim’s” confidence.
At the end of the presentation, he gave each student a blue “Retro Bill” ticket, which he encouraged students to keep handy as a reminder that they will not let bullies hurt them.
Findley, whom Russ praised as being a great sport during the presentation, said afterward that the show was able to relay an important message in an entertaining and kid-friendly way that children can appreciate.
He said talking to seventh-graders catches them at a time in their lives when they need to make some important choices about the kinds of people they want to be as they mature.