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First Citizen: Gary Dolphin is a voice for those in need

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Courtesy: Telegraph Herald Courtesy: Telegraph Herald

Story by Jim Leitner, Telegraph Herald

Gary Dolphin was presented the award at a ceremony on Tuesday, Jan. 10 at the Diamond Jo Casino.

In the midst of his adolescence, Gary P. Dolphin experienced the value of unwavering community support for those facing the darkest of times.

His father, John “Skip” Dolphin, unexpectedly passed away at age 36 on April 6, 1966, leaving his wife and Gary’s mother, Phyllis, to raise seven children. And Gary, the oldest of the clan of four boys and three girls, had no choice but to become the man of their home in Cascade, Iowa.

He was all of 14.

“The great thing about growing up in a small town like Cascade, which probably didn’t have more than 1,200 people at the time, was everyone kind of wrapped their arms around you,” he said. “There wasn’t a day that went by in the immediate aftermath where there wasn’t a knock on the door with someone leaving either a bag of groceries or a sack of nice hand-me-downs, and believe me, we learned early on what those were.

“That left a lasting impression on me about helping other people in need at all different levels and degrees. Even at age 14, I came to understand that you have to give back to your community and help people like yourself who are in need.”

Dolphin, who turned 65 in July, maintains a seemingly nonstop schedule as the radio “Voice of the Iowa Hawkeyes” football and men’s basketball teams while serving as the vice president for business development at U.S. Bank in Dubuque.

But his willingness to devote so much of his limited free time to support dozens of local nonprofit organizations was the basis of his selection for the 47th annual Telegraph Herald First Citizen Award.

Dolphin volunteers his master-of-ceremonies skills and business savvy at nearly three dozen events each year, not counting the 15 to 20 board meetings he attends to help plan fundraisers or develop budgets for nonprofit organizations.

On top of that, he uses his University of Iowa connections to secure hundreds of autographed items and memorabilia for various fundraisers.

“If you operate a nonprofit organization in Dubuque, or much of the surrounding area, then you likely owe a debt of gratitude to Gary Dolphin,” said Loras College professor Craig Schaefer. “It would be hard to think of anyone who has offered more of his or her time and talent to as many organizations as Dolph. He is simply everywhere, always aiding a well-deserving cause with his celebrity, stories and charisma.”

Dolphin has lent his support to organizations such as the Jamie Barwick Hills & Dales Foundation, United Way, Dubuque Racing Association, Camp Albrecht Acres, Colts Drum & Bugle Corps, Hospice of Dubuque, American Cancer Society, West Side Business Association, Clarke University Golf Classic, Boys & Girls Club of Greater Dubuque and Steeple Square.

Dolphin’s contributions led to the Greater Tri-State Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals naming him its 2012 Outstanding Volunteer Fundraiser.

“For Dolph, it doesn’t stop with acting as a traditional emcee or spokesperson for various events, as Dolph literally becomes a part of each organization’s team,” said longtime friend Dick Gregory, of FloorShow Companies. “By the time he hits the spotlight, he is well-versed regarding the vision, goals and mission of any group, a tremendous advocate inspiring those around him.”

Dolphin embraces his philanthropic endeavors the same way he has presented Hawkeyes football and basketball games over the radio airwaves for the past 20 seasons. He wants to get to know you as a person, and his folksy delivery makes you feel like you are engaging in conversation with an old friend, which makes it feel a little better to give.

Present him with a cause that can improve the quality of life in this area, and more than likely he will find a way to help.

“The schools are so important in our community, and the nonprofits are becoming more and more important just because so many government programs have ceased or gone away,” Dolphin said. “That’s why organizations like the United Way or Hills & Dales or Camp Courageous or the Boys & Girls Club or Hillcrest Family Services are so valuable to our community. That takes money.”


Gary Dolphin’s parents operated Dolphin’s Corner, a Cascade grocery store/bar that in the 1960s served as a convenience store long before convenience stores came into vogue.

But when Skip Dolphin passed away, everything changed. The three oldest children started working part-time jobs to help support their mother and younger siblings.

“When you have to grow up a little bit ahead of your time, you don’t get to enjoy everything that perhaps as a youngster or teenager you would have liked, and that was certainly my case,” Dolphin said. “And here was Mom, left to raise seven hoodlums on her own.”

But, through the strength of Phyllis and a solid community support system, the family persevered, even through the death of Gary’s brother Tim in a 1989 automobile accident.

Phyllis Dolphin passed away in August at age 88.

“Mom lived a great life, even though Alzheimer’s robbed her of the last five years,” Dolphin said. “She did a great job of raising all of us, so, as she got older, we made sure she reaped the benefits of all of her hard work when she was younger. As a way to pay her back, she got to do a lot of things she never, ever would have had the chance to do, like travel to Florida and visit the old Yankee Stadium.”

Dolphin never forgot his roots, and the notion that he is a celebrity somewhat baffles him. He still can’t quite understand why people ask him for his autograph.

But he also knows his name and familiar voice bring value to organizations to improve the community he loves.

“Gary shares his pride of Dubuque no matter what venue, event or auction he might be a part of. He boasts of this community’s accomplishments and the goodness of the people,” said Marilyn Althoff, CEO of Hills & Dales. “He believes it. He enjoys it. He brings all of what is Dubuque into one package. … That is Gary Dolphin. We as a community are lucky to have him as an ambassador.”


Dolphin arrived in Dubuque in 1971 and worked in local radio and television full-time until 1987, when he opted for the stability of the banking industry while staying involved in broadcasting on a part-time basis.

He served as the radio play-by-play announcer for Northwestern University basketball and worked as the network television coordinator for the Chicago Bears.

In 1996, Dolphin emerged from a talented field of 63 broadcasters to become the exclusive radio Voice of the Hawkeyes handling the University of Iowa’s two most-popular sports. He works alongside color commentators Ed Podolak in football and Bobby Hansen in basketball.

With his broadcasting promotion, he reduced his hours at the bank to part time.

But he still managed to find time for the civic initiatives that had come to depend on him.

“Being involved in the community is typically above and beyond your normal work hours, and that means you’re working a lot of nights or you’re doing breakfast fundraisers,” said Dolphin, a two-time Iowa Sportscaster of the Year. “None of this is possible without the support of my wife, Cindy, who’s had to endure a lot of nights at home alone over the years. And I can’t thank the bank enough for being so flexible and understanding of my schedule.”

Dolphin enjoys his broadcasting, banking and philanthropic endeavors and plans to keep going “at least for a few more years.” But the smiles and hugs of two young granddaughters — ages 6 and 4 — have brought him home more often in recent years and convinced him it is OK to say “no” once in a while.

“I have a labor of love for both broadcasting and banking because it’s something new every day,” Dolphin said. “It’s fun for me to go out to the local body shop or factory or convenience store and talk to people and find out what’s going on in their world. I’ve said it many times: Being in banking and understanding there’s a world outside of sports has really helped my broadcasting.

“Because Iowa is such a great agriculture state, it’s also a great radio state. Iowa broadcasts are a social event, and it’s about so much more than who the Hawkeyes are playing that particular night. You have to understand the news events of the day, and you have to understand the civic events of the day.”


Dolphin endured another life-changing moment in May 2011, when doctors diagnosed him with prostate cancer.

After the initial shock wore off and Dr. Thomas Lally at Wendt Regional Cancer Center in Dubuque guided him through 42 radiation treatments, Dolphin used his platform as a broadcaster to spread awareness of the disease and to encourage early screenings.

“He used the experience not to focus on his own situation but rather as a springboard to help others who might also suffer from similar struggles,” said Loras College President Jim Collins.

As a public figure battling a disease that many would prefer to keep private, Dolphin erased some of the stigma about prostate cancer. And his confident tone helped ease the nerves of others in his situation.

“Both of my places of employment agreed that we should get out in front of it because (the news) certainly would have gotten out,” Dolphin said. “But the process of going public took a couple of weeks because I wanted to research what was going on. I had no idea what prostate cancer was. I’ve had the good fortune to get to know a lot of great doctors in Iowa over the years, and I called them all.

“The technology is so good anymore, you don’t have to wait until age 50 to be screened. You can do it at 40. It can’t hide anymore. That was my crusade. When you have your annual physical and get your bloodwork, they can tell if your numbers are out of whack and they can monitor it. It’s the easiest cancer to prevent death if you detect it and stay on top of it.”

Five years later, Dolphin still answers a dozen or so phone calls or emails each year from men who just have been diagnosed.

“The first thing I tell them is to not rush to judgment on how to treat it because there are different ways to go at it,” Dolphin said. “Prostate cancer is a slow-moving cancer, and you want to address it and eradicate it. But you don’t have to think, ‘Oh my goodness, I have cancer. I’m going to run up to Mercy or Finley and have it cut out of me.’ That’s not how it is.

“It’s like anything. If you’re facing a crisis, people want a sounding board, and as hard as it might be to believe, I’m as good a listener as I am a talker. I’m a really good listener when you’re facing a potentially life-and-death situation. I’m always going to drop what I’m doing to talk.”

The lessons Dolphin learned as a teenager still serve him well 50 years later. And just as the citizens of Cascade wrapped their arms around the Dolphin family in 1966, the Telegraph Herald First Citizen doesn’t have to think twice about lending a hand to those who need it.

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