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“kentucky Joe” Rodger Bingham

When Rodger Bingham secured a
spot on Survivor II-the popular CBS television show about real
folks competing for a $1 million prize in the Australian
Outback-no one in Crittenden could have predicted that the
encounter would eventually spawn a media superstar, a press
frenzy, and a new mecca on the northern Kentucky cultural
landscape.

But it did.

If Crittenden was formerly
known for anything beyond Grant County, it was the B&E
Restaurant, inconspicuously perched beside I-75 midway between
Florence and Dry Ridge. The B&E is home to Edna Cummins’
coveted coconut cream pies. And it’s where Rodger has eaten
breakfast every morning at precisely 6:30 since the diner opened
18 years ago.

With the onslaught of Survivor
fever, Outback souvenirs have carved a niche on the B&E bill
of fare, right alongside country-cured ham. And they are gobbled
up just as fast.

"I had magnets that said
‘Where Rodger Eats Breakfast,’ " says Cummins, the
"E" of B&E. "We went through 500 of those
little suckers in a week.

"It’s ‘Rodgerism,’ that’s
how big it’s become. We had a lady from Rhode Island come in and
say ‘Is this where Rodger eats?’ People come in and sit in the
chair where Rodger sits and have their pictures taken. I could get
my camera and charge $5 a whack and Rodger doesn’t even have to be
here."

At times it’s been hectic,
even overwhelming, she says. "There’s been an awful lot of
interest in our little town. The producers told Rodger it would
turn Crittenden upside down. Nobody even knew we existed before.
Now they want to know all about us.

"This place has been like
Grand Central Station. The girls think it’ll all go back to normal…sorry,
I tell them, I don’t think so."

In spite of incremental
inconveniences, there’s been a whole lot of good, Cummins says.

"If you knew Rodger,
there was absolutely no difference after Survivor. But he has done
something he didn’t expect to do. He has pulled the county
together."

Rodger teaches industrial arts
at Grant County High in Dry Ridge, but he resides in Crittenden,
so both towns can legitimately claim him as their own.

After filming was complete,
Rodger returned home and to teaching but was restricted from
discussing the show due to an agreement with CBS since the
episodes were currently being aired.

"We ate lunch with Rodger
before he was known by his single name," says Cheryl Workman,
a special education teacher at Grant County High. "There’s
Madonna, Cher, Elvis…and now there’s Rodger.

"We sat at a big round
table in the lunchroom, and we would ask him questions about what
we thought might happen on the show, and he would say ‘Hmm…,’
and pretend not to know. But I would try to read him when he did
it. Everyone did."

People pull off the interstate
in hopes of a Rodger sighting, says Beth Glenn, a customer service
representative for Owen Electric cooperative in Crittenden.

"Rodger is on our
electric service and Rodger has consumed our county," says
Glenn. "My daughter lost her wallet at the Florence Cinema
and the guy who found it had one question to ask, ‘Do you know
Rodger?’ But it’s all just fun the way Rodger looks at it, and
he’ll just be the same old Rodger."

Fortunately he was the same
old Rodger even without the conveniences of modern-day Kentucky
living, like electricity and running water.

"That’s one of the
reasons I stuck around so long," Rodger says. Out of 16
contestants, Rodger was the 12th to be ousted. "It surprised
me when not one of them (the Kucha Tribe as Rodger’s team was
known on Survivor II) knew how to light a lantern. I thought
everybody knew how to live without a light bulb.

"I still get a little
chuckle when I think of them trying to grab ahold of the chickens.
The Kucha Tribe carried on the most serious conversation about how
to get them out of the coop. It’s pretty simple, you just open the
door."

But living in the Australian
Outback wasn’t a joke, says Rodger, who was nicknamed
"Kentucky Joe" by his teammates.

"The survivor element
became very real when we went 34 hours with nothing to eat. At
CBS, they kept stressing the circumstances of our game were more
challenging than the first Survivor show.

"The network people
thought I would be a quitter. But they wanted someone from a small
town, someone involved in religion, and they liked my accent. They
said, ‘You started in the banking business, then mobile homes,
then farming, and now you’re a school teacher. You’re taking the
easy way out.’

"I told them they didn’t
know me. I told them if I wanted to quit tomorrow, I could be
making twice as much money in banking as in teaching school. Then
Mark Burnett, the executive producer, who liked me from the
beginning, told the board, ‘There’s the answer you were looking
for.’ "

Everyone in Crittenden is
supremely proud of Rodger, says long-time friend and neighbor
Carolyn Lowry.

"He has been
flabbergasted by how everyone has responded," she says.
"But the true joy for him is that he is in the teaching
profession, and the show has mesmerized the kids. They knew he was
a great teacher, but they didn’t know how really strong Rodger
is."

Fifty finalists (narrowed from
49,000 to 800 to the final 50) took a 1,500-question psychological
test, Rodger says. "They try to read your mind. They try to
figure how you will play the game as a team member, and still try
to win the $1 million prize for yourself. It’s tough, but I’ve
always felt that being able to get along with different
personalities and being able to read people are my biggest assets.

"I did the worst on the
memory challenge, the one I thought I’d do the best on. We hadn’t
eaten in 34 hours, and I was weak and tired. But I still feel like
if Mike (a Survivor member who burned his hands and had to be
air-lifted off the island) had stayed, I could have won."

Rodger has put Kentucky on the
map in a positive way, says Workman. "One afternoon, we were
eating at the Country Grill across from the school, and some
people were staring at him. He just got up, and went over to them,
and said ‘How are you folks today?’ He didn’t have to do
that."

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