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Longtime Caterpillar employee recalls Power Parades

Ken Gerber, right, has clown makeup applied ahead of a Caterpillar Power Parade in this undated photo.
Caterpillar Inc. Archives
Ken Gerber, right, has clown makeup applied ahead of a Caterpillar Power Parade in this undated photo.

Ken Gerber retired from Caterpillar Inc. in 1990 after working for the company for 36 years but that didn’t end his time with the firm.

“They called me back on several occasions,” he said happily. “I tell people that I’ve been affiliated with Caterpillar for 63 years,” said Gerber, 90. Along with a stint at the Caterpillar Visitors Center, Gerber has come back to provide assistance to dealers as well as taking part in the company’s Power Parades.

Gerber recalled joining Caterpillar in 1955 at the age of 23. Told that he’d be starting at the bottom, Gerber wasn’t deterred. “I just wanted to work at Caterpillar,” he said.

Shortly after he began work, Gerber said he was sweeping the floor in one of the office hallways when he was engaged in conversation with someone he described as “a distinguished-looking gentleman” who was passing by. “He asked me when I started and what I wanted to do. He encouraged me,” recalled Gerber.

After the man left, an astonished supervisor hurried to Gerber’s side, asking, “Did you know him?” Shaking his head, Gerber said he had no idea of who he’d been talking to. “That was Louis Neumiller, chairman of the board,” the supervisor informed him.

Gerber’s long association with Caterpillar may have benefitted from Neumiller’s encouragement but it’s probably a positive attitude that’s proved most useful. “I consider myself the luckiest guy in the world,” said Gerber, who spent much of his time with the company in visitor services, leading tours and escorting dealers who came to Caterpillar headquarters.

A lifelong Peorian, Gerber recalled working as a bellhop at the old Jefferson Hotel that once stood in Downtown Peoria. “Before I went to work at the Jefferson, as a kid I tried to compete with George Manias in the shoeshine business,” he said. Since George’s Shoeshine has been a Peoria institution for more than 70 years, it was probably a wise decision on Gerber’s part to move on.

A World War II veteran who served in France, Gerber was a Golden Gloves boxer as a youth. He kept his hat in the ring while working at Caterpillar, serving as a part-time ring announcer for pro wrestling matches in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Gerber also served as a volunteer at Springdale Cemetery for 18 years. “There were 15 acres that I helped take care of,” he said proudly.

Caterpillar Power Parade
Caterpillar Inc. archival photo
Caterpillar Power Parade

Gerber recalled another sometime tradition in central Illinois: the Power Parades the company held here in 1964, 1973, 1978, 1988 and 2000. These were a series of one-hour demonstrations of Caterpillar equipment put on in an entertaining fashion before an audience of Caterpillar employees and their families as well as the general public, he said.

Ron Little played the role of Toby the clown in the first Power Parade in 1964 before Gerber took on the clown role in the next two parades. In 1988 and 2000, Gerber played the role of Alexander Botts, the ace tractor salesman for the mythical Earthworm Tractor Co. made famous in a series of stories from the Saturday Evening Post.

“I told the narrator at the Power Parade that, as Botts, I would give him a lot of help. I was constantly overstepping in an effort to be funny,” recalled Gerber, noting that each Power Parade involved weeks of rehearsal for the 26 distinct one-hour shows put on each time.

“A lot of people did a lot of work to put those shows on,” he said.

Steve Tarter retired from the Peoria Journal Star in 2019 after spending 20 years at the paper as both reporter and business editor.