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Denny Russ shares IU memories over nearly 35-year career -- and his collection of rare bottles and cans

Jan. 10, 2013

Over the course of his 34-year career at IU, Denny Russ has witnessed the filming of "Breaking Away" on campus, seen Bob Knight break a wooden chair at close range and spilled coffee all over Tom Crean's desk (incidentally, coach Crean apologized to him -- for leaving his coffee mug in the wrong place). 

His work as a carpenter at the Physical Plant has led Russ to interactions with IU employees of all sorts of backgrounds and job types.

He describes his job as maintenance on demand, or MOD -- the emergency repairs on ceilings, windows and doors -- plus the mounting of brackets for TVs and hanging pictures in offices and buildings throughout the Bloomington campus.

"Some of the other guys are carrying drywall up three flights of stairs, and we get to come in and hang pictures," he said. "So we have kind of an easy job, but with that comes the technical stuff. You have to have an eye for plumb level square."

Denny Russ

Denny Russ enjoys can collecting, hazarding knee-deep mud at Lake Griffy for a few of his finds.

About five years ago, Russ' job also led to a new hobby: collecting vintage glass bottles and aluminum cans.

His collection of about 150 bottles and cans has expanded from those found in the attics and basements of IU buildings to include unique new pieces, those he receives as gifts and the dozen or so he found at Lake Griffy after it was drained this fall for dam repairs (he almost got stuck in knee-deep mud -- one of the hazards or being a can collector).

Born in Unionville, Russ started his IU career working for the campus duplicating center in the late 1970s before transitioning to what is now known as the Physical Plant.

The can collection started as a fluke, when one of Russ' co-workers came back from a job on campus with some vintage cans he'd found in an attic. "These were the old 'church key' type of cans, where you had to have an opener to open it up, before they had tabs." Russ went to the same building later in the week and found several more old cans. He tossed the lot into the back seat of his truck, where they rolled around for about a week.

"Then another guy from one of the other shops comes in with some more old cans and says, 'Are you the guy that's collecting the cans?' I said, 'I guess!'" Russ added the new contributions to the pile, which he eventually moved to his garage (a.k.a. man cave).

Russ began routinely bringing a flashlight along on his jobs, setting aside a few minutes to look for bottles and cans in attics and basements. When his son presented him with two rare, Pete Rose-endorsed Choc-Ola cans for Christmas a couple of years ago, Russ said, he finally started thinking of himself as a real collector. One of his co-workers, Ron Cook, recently gave him seven RC Cola collector cans from the 1970s featuring Rose and baseball players Ken Griffey Sr. and Joe Morgan, among others.The starting eBay bids for each of the '70s baseball cans is about $20, Russ said.

So, what if "Antiques Roadshow" came around and wanted to buy one of the items in his collection? "Oh, I'd probably keep it," he said.

The collection is displayed on shelves and a beam that stretches across the ceiling of the garage. Among his favorite cans: Billy Beer, named for President Jimmy Carter's beer-loving brother, the Choc-Ola from his son, and a bottle from F.W. Cook Brewing Co. (a.k.a. City Brewery or Cook & Rice Brewery), bottled in Evansville and extracted from Lake Griffy this fall. The Cook Brewing Co. went out of business in 1957.

"The cool thing about these is when people see the cans, they relate them. Guys will say 'I remember that beer! I got so sick on that stuff I said I'd never drink it again,' and they tell you these cool stories about they 'remember when.'" (Russ' own story involves Colt 45. "It's not pretty," he said. "Drank too much, too young.")

"You work someplace for 34 years, you get to know people," he said. "You get talking with people about their music and their sports teams when you're hanging their pictures -- everyone has a horror story about their team. I like being able to meet different people all the time and then come back and work for those people."

One of those people was Bob Knight. One of Russ' co-workers from the paint shop had done a job for Knight and invited the then-IU basketball coach to stop by for lunch sometime. Knight accepted. "He just walked in and says, 'What do you want to know?'" Russ recalled. "One of the guys said 'What kind of team are we going to have?'" The conversation flowed into an easy Q-and-A that veered to mutual interests of hunting and fishing. All was well until one of the guys asked a touchy question.

"He said, 'Are you going to break any chairs this year?'"

Knight stood up and grabbed his wooden folding chair. "He said, 'What I like about these …' And he just picked it up and slammed it on the floor," Russ recalled. The chair splintered and scattered in pieces. "He said, 'See you later.' And walked out the door. That's a true story."

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