Prof Positive

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Tillie, who's been hanging out in an unoccupied office at Video Professor's headquarters since her purchase, will soon get to spend some personal time with Patrick. Scherer has just created a nonprofit around Tillie, with 100 percent of the funds earmarked for safe-driving organizations, and as part of the PR blitz hyping it, the dummy will join Patrick at a future race. If the Indy 500 puts in an HOV lane, that first victory is practically guaranteed.

Still, Video Professor's most valuable sales device remains Scherer's mug, and he knows it. "People over the years have learned to believe what I say," he asserts. "And I'm glad they do." But just because he looks like a kindly academic doesn't mean that he's personally capable of installing a zip drive or ridding the virtual universe of spam. In truth, he's not really a computer expert at all. He just plays one on TV.

Scherer grew up in Naperville, in the Chicagoland area, and keeps a close association with the community. In 2002 he donated $500,000 to establish scholarships at Naperville Central High School in the names of his parents, who were students there. (His father, Billy, passed away, but his mother, Jane, is alive and vital at 87. She lives in Colorado -- and no, Scherer concedes, she doesn't know how to run a computer.) He went on to attend the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where his major had nothing to do with technology. "My degree was in management," says Scherer, who also funds a scholarship for that school. "I wanted to be an office manager. I never wanted to be in sales."

His job record, much of it dating from his post-collegiate move to Colorado, tells another story. With the exception of a short-lived gig as an interviewer at an employment agency, he mainly worked in sales -- peddling water conditioner door-to-door, building and marketing log homes, and so on. Then, in the mid-'80s, he began selling IBM clones under the auspices of his own Data Link Research Services. "We were marketing our hardware by wholesaling it to small Ma-and-Pa operations," notes Bettye Harrison, who's gone from acting as Data Link's regional sales manager to Video Professor's president and chief operating officer.

Seemed like a good idea, but the market rapidly became glutted with competitors -- and to make matters worse, the public's confusion about computing led to high returns and excessive customer-service demands. "This was in the very beginning of personal computers," Harrison explains, "and consumers would go, 'This looks kind of interesting. Maybe I'd like to try this.' So they'd purchase a computer, take it home, unbox it and then realize they didn't know what all the components were, or even how to hook it up -- and when they did, they were faced with that blinking cursor. So they'd call the dealer saying, 'What do I do?' and the dealer would have to spend a lot of time on the phone to keep the sale."

A potential solution, Scherer thought, would be instructional VHS tapes packaged with computers, so that perplexed buyers could do their own troubleshooting. When he discovered that no one was manufacturing videos that filled the bill, he committed to making his own, using the most rudimentary production procedures imaginable. "For the first one, we set up a tripod and had the camera pointing down, right on the hands on the keyboard," he says. "There wasn't a talking head at all. And then we used a girl, a student, and showed her learning DOS and WordPerfect."

The videos turned out to be more of a hit than the clones, and by 1988, Scherer decided to get out of the hardware biz entirely and focus on tutorials -- a move formalized when the Data Link handle was swapped for Video Professor, the moniker Scherer had slapped on the tapes. But even as sales started to ratchet skyward, he resisted the urge to, well, try his product. "I was more concerned with not going bankrupt and figuring out, 'How do I make this thing fly?' than I was with learning how to operate a computer," he allows. "It wouldn't have helped make more money if I did."

The initial generation of Video Professor tapes, which were sold mainly in retail outlets, accomplished their goals despite a rather elevated cheese factor. For instance, Rick "Coach" Marshall (sacked earlier this month as morning host for oldies radio station KOOL 105) provided the voice of the Video Professor, which was originally envisioned as a wacky character, not a pseudonym for Scherer. "Rick does all these different voices," Bettye Harrison says, "and he was using this sort of old-German-professor voice. He did that for several years, until someone asked, 'Why do you do that?' And we went, 'Why do we do that?' That's when we asked, 'Coach, can you just narrate in your regular voice?'"

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts