Outside of the Berkshire Hathaway Advantage Realtors office in Crestwood, Mo., Ken Bone, stands for pictures with firefighters and other attendees at a BackStoppers fundraiser.
In front of a fire engine he tells a baby after taking a picture with him, “Buddy, you’ll grow up and see that image and wonder, ‘Who was that?’” referring to his expectation that his 15 minutes of fame will end.
Since becoming an internet sensation after participating in the town hall-style presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Bone, of Shiloh, has tried to use his notoriety to encourage people to vote in the Nov. 8 election, and to donate his free time to help charities.
“Anytime someone is doing a charity event, and I don’t have a prior commitment, I’m, ‘Sure, I’ll come down,’” Bone said. “This is my way of being able to give back to the community for all the nice stuff they’ve done for me. I’m happy to do it.”
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During the Bone appearance, Annie Rodenmeyer, of Oakville, Mo., said she was a bit starstruck.
The retired banker wanted to support BackStoppers, “and I heard Ken was going to be here, so I decided to come here, too,” Rodenmeyer said. “I wanted to see the red sweater.”
“Due to social media he became such a star instantly and became a phenomenon,” Rodenmeyer said later. “(He’s) just an ordinary person who wanted to express his opinion and ask a good question, made a good point. I think he’s representative of middle America.”
Melinda Shannon, the office manager of Berkshire Hathaway Advantage Realtors, was able to have Bone appear at the BackStoppers fundraiser because she had a friend of a friend who knows him. Bone’s appearance helped lead to a few more donations for the charity that assists spouses and family of police officers, firefighters, paramedics and EMTs who have died in the line of duty.
“He was so gracious about coming over and lending his support for this to the BackStoppers,” Shannon said. “People are excited about meeting him.”
Media appearances, interviews
For Bone, the last three weeks have been filled with media appearances, charity events and other trappings of celebrity, while balancing his job.
The fame and going from appearance to appearance has forced him to eat fast food in the car.
“I was already in bad shape, and I’ve probably gained 5 or 10 pounds,” Bone said.
Kimmel sent Bone a new olive suit to replace the one he tore, and a digital camera to go along with the disposable camera he used after the debate.
His stint into celebrity has taken him to Washington, D.C. to film a commercial with IZOD encouraging people to vote. He had the red carpet experience when he went to Los Angeles for the premiere of Dr. Strange.
Due to social media he became such a star instantly and became a phenomenon later. (He’s) just an ordinary person who wanted to express his opinion and ask a good question, made a good point. I think he’s representative of middle America.
Annie Rodenmeyer, Oakville, Missouri resident
He’s done radio interviews for stations in New Zealand, Ireland, Russia, China, Sweden, Canada, Poland, Honduras and the BBC.
“I thought the height of all of this would be talking to the News-Democrat and my high school paper,” the class of 2000 Granite City High School graduate said. “I thought after that it would be all over, but people keep coming. I haven’t reached out to any media. I keep answering when they call.”
While filming a commercial with IZOD, encouraging people to vote in Washington, D.C., just going up the Lincoln Memorial took an hour, because people approached the regular guy to meet him and take a picture with him. Production assistants had to help him move through the crowd. He even was invited to take pictures with a couple who got married.
People kept wanting to take pictures with him and he can’t say ‘no’ to anyone, so the crew decided to recreate a scene from the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night,” of fans chasing after him.
He’s enjoying the media attention, for now. He said he thought about going into broadcasting, but opted for different work to support his family.
“But now I’ve gotten to do a bunch of it, and it’s neat,” Bone said. “I guess I could see if it went on forever for some reason, but it would kind of get old, not being able to go to the grocery store and being recognized for pictures.”
Ken Bone became a star after the second presidential debate, where he asked a question about energy production and climate change. The debate had been overshadowed by the bickering between Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump.
He did a Reddit Ask Me Anything session, but that led to people discovering his previous online comments.
Bone spoke openly about the backlash that stemmed from his previous comments from about a year ago on Reddit, where he spoke about the Trayvon Martin case, and about nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence.
“Some of them were off-colored jokes that I made. Should I have said that? Maybe not, but it’s the internet,” Bone said.
Bone said he used the word ‘justified’ when discussing Martin’s death, because that is was what a jury decided.
“I wish Trayvon Martin was still alive. It’s terrible he got shot,” Bone said. “For people to think that it was OK with me that he got killed, it hurt my feelings a little bit.”
The criticism led to jokes on late night shows, including Saturday Night Live, where Bobby Moynihan portrayed Bone dancing at the debate, and actress Cecily Strong, playing Martha Raddatz, asked ‘Bone’ if he would “turn out to be a little creep.”
“I thought it was funny,” Bone said. “I thought it encapsulated the rise to fame, for no particular reason, and then the drag through the mud from some of the seedier media outlets, and they kind of poked fun at it. I didn’t see any problems with it.”
During his second appearance on Kimmel’s show, Bone, while speaking at the University of Nevada Las Vegas student union after the third presidential debate, made a joke that, according to the internet, he’s not trustworthy.
“I’ve always been poking fun at myself with the sweater, the mustache, being out of shape,” Bone said. “That’s just one more thing I could deflect the negativity by having fun with it. You own your mistakes. I’ve apologized for the things I’ve said because I feel bad about it, but I said it, and I can’t change that. Just own it and move on.”
I want the discussion to be about debating the issues and getting out the vote. As soon as people know who I voted for, then I’m afraid that goes away…. I can’t do any good that way.
Bone has still been at work as a control room operator at a power plant. He worked Monday through Thursday of this week and had to tell media that he would call them back because he can’t do interviews at the office.
He’s used up all his vacation days for the year to accommodate all the travel associated with the celebrity status.
When he’s at the plant, his coworkers have fun with him. Some of Bone’s coworkers bought T-shirts with his face on it. And they’ve posted pictures of him all over his control room that say ‘Vote for Ken.’
He tore some down, but they put back up twice as many. So he let them have their fun.
Along with his message of encouraging people to vote, he’s helping raise money for the homeless.
Official Ken Bone T-shirts have been sold, but he plans to donate 10 percent of the profits to the St. Patrick Center in St. Louis that helps homeless people. He’s waiting for money from the shirt sales and IZOD sponsorship to come through, but he thinks he’ll be able to give the charity $15,000.
The original sweater has been retired and is faded. IZOD provided Bone with replica sweaters for him to wear.
He plans to auction off the sweater he wore to the second debate, with all proceeds going to the St. Patrick Center. The auction details are still being finalized.
“I’ve always had a passion for the homeless. We have a big homeless problem in the St. Louis area, and really across the country,” Bone said. “I’ve always tried to encourage them and give them a couple of dollars when I can. Now that I have a real platform to help a charity that gets them homes and job training, that’s what I’m focusing my effort on.”
Bone said he has decided who he will vote for in the presidential election, but he won’t say who it is. Only his wife, Heather, knows — and she won’t share the secret of the world’s most famous previously-undecided voter.
“I want the discussion to be about debating the issues and getting out the vote,” Bone said. “As soon as people know who I voted for, then I’m afraid that goes away…. I can’t do any good that way.”