On this episode, Jodie talks with one of the original committee members responsible for much of the work done to build the foundation and name recognition for the Smile House. Cool & Unusual Punishment is a member of the Nerd & Tie Network! Find more shows from N&T at their website in the show notes. As always, thanks for listening!
Episode 6 Materials
Nerd & Tie Network
“Foster kids aging out of the system will soon have a new place to call home, help them get on their feet as they enter adulthood.”
Tyler: You're listening to Episode six of Luginbilled. This is our special series on the music man of Eau Claire. My name is Tyler Haas. And sitting across the coffee table on this Fourth of July, Jodie Arnold, how are you?
Tyler: You've long said you're a strong independent podcaster who don't need no co host.
Jodie: Yeah, right. No, I'm good.
Tyler: So would you say we have an ocean worth of material to sift through?
Jodie: Yeah. Some of it is going to require a lot more legwork on my part, but it's going to pay off. So I'm glad that everybody listening out there has stuck around. I know that sometimes there's a bit of a gap between episodes. Just a quick reminder that these are actively being investigated as you hear him. So sometimes it takes me a bit longer than other times to get something put together.
Tyler: And also in that same vein is also the reason why we have not been telling a chronological start to finish story.
Jodie: Right as things come up. That kind of sets the timeline, you know, it jars that a little bit, somebody reaches out, which is what this story is about. About something we've covered in a different way. And then suddenly we're back in 2016. I think it's all right. Before we get started on what I'm going to talk about today, I teasted something in the last episode. Just wanted to catch everybody up. I'm not there with it yet. You'll hear more about the other thing-
Tyler: We had our blinker on for a school board focused episode. And then took the next exit. Well, I guess we went back. The analogy falls apart after that.
Jodie: Yeah. We got we got in the DeLorean and went back again to 2016. This episode is going to talk about the smile house in a much different way than we spoke about it last time. I believe that was episode four. What I want to talk about tonight is not the smile house on Vine Street. And what happened with all of that. But the actual start of the vision of the smile house, okay.. And that brings us back to 2016.
Somebody reached out to me, they asked that I change their name. I had an interview with this person. I saw the documents that they had from committee meetings and I’m comfortable telling this story for them. But I'm changing her name to Amy. Amy worked in the Eau Claire school district working as part of a homelessness initiative, okay. This position was created for her, and because of this position, she was connected with Joe. And at that point in time, in 2016, the smile house was just like a whisper of an idea.
Tyler: It was just some marker on a bar napkin.
Jodie: Right? And they connected, and he started talking to her and thought she would be a great fit to head up a committee to forge ahead with a smile House idea on his behalf, okay?
Tyler: Maybe, I don't know if you can speak to this, but was it just a lucky coincidence that our job was created to hire her and put her in the position? And then she was able to connect with Joe? Like it wasn't a coincidence that this job was created at the same time that-
Jodie: I think so.
Jodie: Well, they talk about it and in 2017, there is a-- she called it a board--but it's not like the board of directors. It's more of a committee, I believe. And she gets a board put together of like, 10 people, give or take a few. There were times when people left the board when people came on board. Some of them had experience working with kids aging out of the foster care system, as was the goal of the Smile House, to be a place for kids who are aging out of the foster care system to go, so they wouldn't be homeless.
Tyler: Okay, you have to slow down, cause I'm confused already. This board, was this a smile house board?
Tyler: And the other people on this board, who-- are these people consisting of, are these just community philanthropist type, or-
Jodie: Yeah, nobody from the school board other than Joe was involved with this. The only connection with the district is that she had a job there, and he was a school board member, so that's how they met. Outside of that, the people that were on the board were people who had some sort of active interest in addressing this issue. So, yes, philanthropists. There were people that had experience working with kids aging out of the foster care system, that maybe worked at, like, a different local institution of education. People that had real experience actively working with kids for whom the Smile house would benefit. He had this idea, and he decided he wanted to put together this group of people. Well, at some point in this process, Joe moves into his office space that he had for a period of time at Banbury Place. And admittedly, Amy said that she was confused. All they had talked about was the idea of the smile house being a thing. And when Joe got this space, it wasn't… The sign on the door didn't say “smile house,” it said the Luginbill Children's Foundation. And then she realized, Oh, he is already going well beyond the Smile House idea, there is a larger umbrella for which the Smile house will fall under.
She thought he was just interested in the Smile house. Not that he had a vision for some big nonprofit, because that was just forming. And they never talked about the Luginbill Children's Foundation, they talked about the smile house.
Jodie: So they start having these meetings, and I was looking at, she pulled up an old laptop, and she has the meeting minutes from these meetings, Okay? And the first committee meeting was on 3/13 of 2017. She took the notes for some of the meetings, and that's what I looked at. There was somebody else who took the notes at different times, and she doesn't have those. But on 3/13/2017, they have these extensive, very organized notes that she's taking. And like any first meeting for something like this, it's who can we reach out to the community for? Who can we ask? You know, how can we get money for this? Who could we partner with all this kind of stuff? And so it's super optimistic, you know, typical first committee stuff. Well, then she has the notes for the second meeting, and that was on 4/20 of 2017.
That is when the committee is told in 2017 that a house has been donated and that house is meant to be the Smile house. On top of that, the donor is going to pay to staff the smile house for one year.
Tyler: I assume it's Joe that comes with this news that I got the house. They're gonna staff it for a year. One month later.
Jodie: Yeah. How amazing. How quickly this-
Tyler: Yeah, that is incredibly good news.
Tyler: Just for my personal... When does the story of Episode four take place? When does that house come into the picture?
Tyler: I just wanna confirm that this is not the same house.
Tyler: Okay. I'm just a committee member, and this sounds fantastic. Does he say who is donating this house? And who is going to staff it for a year?
Jodie: No, he doesn't say. He says that the donor wants to remain anonymous, although he does tell Amy, at least where the house is located. She doesn't remember because at the time, you know, this is going back to 2017, we're now in 2020, and you will understand once this story progresses why this information would have fallen out of her memory. But as a whole, the committee is not told who the donor is. It's anonymous, but there is documentation that they've got a house. The donor is gonna pay for staff for one year.
Tyler: Documentation in regards of the minutes of this meeting? Not-
Tyler: Okay. Gotcha.
Jodie: Was there ever a house in 2017? The fact that nobody is told who the donor is. And there's also this interesting promise of pain for staff from one year. This could be true. And I don't know if the person who had that house is listening to this and wants to say, Yeah, I was the person that was going to donate that house. But then something happened. What happened? I don't know. All I know is that that house doesn't end up becoming the smile house.
Tyler: Right. I don't want to get ahead of this story by being skeptical, but the promise of a paid staff for a year sounds so specific that it makes me think someone at least told him this, like it feels too specific to make up. But maybe I'm giving too much benefit of the doubt. Which I guess the theme of this series. Sorry, I realized it halfway into my sentence.
Jodie: Well, darling, this is where the planning for a fundraiser starts. Same meeting where they find out about the house, it's like, “Hey, you know, we should plan a fundraiser to get more money for the smile house project.”
They start talking about visibility events. Where can we go and table for the smile house to get awareness out there. Right? Because all right, well, they've got this house and all this stuff, but they still need people to know about it. It would be great to have a bunch of community support for this idea, right?
And so they were starting to do that. Amy pays for the T-shirts. She pays for all of the things you need to table. When you table events, you have a nice banner, you know, that you're gonna put on your big foldout table. And the banner was, of course, for Luginbill Children's Foundation because, you know, there was smile house things there, but the banner was for Luginbill Children's Foundation, as that was the umbrella that the small house fell under. She shared with me all kinds of photos from events where she and her children would be sitting at a table with the volunteer or, uh, “tell me more, put me on your newsletter” type sign up sheet and here's a sticker, or whatever. And “here's a brochure about what we want to do.” And so you know, she put the money in because at that time, this endeavor didn't have any money.
Well, there's another meeting on 5/16 of 17, and that's where the fundraising for the Caring for Kids Ball is well underway. That's their huge fundraiser now, that they're setting all their sights on, you know, they're putting a lot of time into this event, which is going to happen on July 15th at Florian Gardens and Eau Claire, which is a fancy wedding venue. I mean, it's a fancy place. It's expensive. She couldn't remember the cost of what per plate was going to be. But it's one of those events for like, a group can buy a table.
Jodie: There's this big event. Now Lambchop is going to be like the MC. Like. do you remember the puppet-
Tyler: The puppet? Not the food.
Jodie: The puppet, not the food.
Lamb chop and lamb chop’s handler, you know, I don't want to get into the details of this, but I will tell you this much, alright. Lamb chop’s handler was having a really good time drinking at the event. This is not relevant to this story other than that it's funny.
Tyler: If it's not relevant, can we use the phrase “Lambchop was having a good time?” Let's not kill the illusion. Lambchop was enjoying the open bar.
This is a semi formal event. The pictures that Amy shared with me, everybody was dressed to the nines. That same day, earlier in the day, she tabled at the 360 drop in event, which is, if you look it up. a free community youth event. Best trick skateboard competition with prizes awarded.
Tyler: Here's some tricks you can learn at the skate park instead of smoking cigarettes.
Jodie: Yeah, yeah. So earlier in the day she went, she tabled that event. Then she went to the benefit. The big fundraiser. There's a big silent auction. She and her husband actually purchased something from the silent auction. That on top of the number of people there, Joe's dad played music at the fundraiser, the price per plate, price per table, have me going, Hey, this was a super successful event. Amy did tell me that the financial part of it was something that Joe handled, like, even when she would go and table these events and get a list of people that might be interested in donating, that wasn't anything she did anything with. That was something she gave to Joe. And then he was to, like, solicit people to get donations. In that same way, the committee helped put together this event. But she's not privy to the dollar amount of what was raised.
Tyler: Right. Because, presumably, it’s going into the coffers of the Luginbill Children's Foundation.
Jodie: Right. But at the very least, she senses that it's profitable.
Tyler: Sure. Uou don't get Lambchop that drunk on a bad night.
Jodie: Yeah, right. But the fundraiser, by all accounts, looks to be a success, and it's like, wow, we've got this great idea. Somebody donated a house. Now we've raised all this money. What next? So she reaches out to Joe and wants to know what the next steps are for this committee that's been actively involved in this right, and she gets no response.
She starts to message several times. When she's telling me this part of the story, because up until now, this is not necessarily a bad story.
Tyler: Yeah, I have to keep reminding myself not to look with hindsight at this, like, so far, this sounds like things are going well. And also not that we haven't seen this turn before. But this isn't somebody who's, like, disconnected from his social circle. They're in the committee together. Presumably, like it's all hands on deck right now after this fundraiser.
Jodie: I mean, she is important enough to Joe and his work that she had a Luginbill Children's Foundation email, okay?
Tyler: And she is unable-
Jodie: She's been totally ghosted. They raise this money. She puts all of this time and energy into this project along with everybody else on this committee. They see it through to this great fundraiser, which everybody is assuming is just one thing that's gonna happen, right, of okay, we did that. Now what's next? What else can we do and how much money do we need? And it is radio silence right around this time. Amy has health issues that keep her from being as aggressive with trying to figure out what's going on as she would want. So she just gets consumed with her own stuff, and it's like a relationship where you suddenly never hear from the person again. And she didn't have the energy to put into it because she was going through some personal stuff. But her husband's coworker was super pissed because he had given money to this. He had come to the fundraiser, and he repeatedly is messaging Joe on Facebook Messenger, to the Luginbill Children's Foundation Facebook Page.
Tyler: Does Amy--is she able to get in touch with other members of the committee?
Jodie: I don't know how close she is with them. What I understood to be what happened is that Joe just disappeared and the whole thing just stopped. I don't think there was a whole lot off like, Hey, what's going on? It reminds me of so many of the other things that happened, that sometimes I think with the scholarship students, it feels like it's your own personal battle or something like that. Instead of thinking who else is going through this? As far as she was concerned, she probably was going to have to not participate in that committee anymore for a while anyway because of the stuff she was dealing with.
Tyler: Was this committee informal enough that you could still assume that, like “we had this fundraiser got the money, now the cnhildren's foundation is off doing their thing, and so he doesn't have time for us?”
Jodie: I think he didn't want to be accountable. So what happened to the money? Because, generally speaking, if you've ever been on a committee for, you know, any sort of endeavor that involves needing to fundraise, the treasurer's report or however you do it is like a piece of the pie. If you haven't noticed a pattern in these episodes, well, there's always a question of “where did the money go?” A lot of times when we've talked about things, Joe kind of does them on his own, right?
Tyler: Yeah. The question of “where is the money” and “where did Joe go” seem to come up at the same time.
Jodie: Yeah, right. And a lot of these stories, in a lot of the things that we've talked about, Joe is working, you know, I'm part of the foundation. My family is part of the foundation, but you can see when his dad responds to Evan in the scholarship episode, “I don't know anything about that, I just played music at the events.” A lot of this feels like Joe's doing a lot of this management of this on his own. And so when people, like Amy, start asking, where's the money? What are we going to do next? I'm not sure that Joe has... I don't know where that money went. All I know is that he stopped. He never responded to her.
To just be like “I don't know. We don't know where the money went and we can't get a hold of him” what is he like, a bank robber? But maybe I'm thinking too grand in its scale that these people helped him set it up-
Jodie: Yeah. It is no crime for him to not tell them.
Jodie: It's, most people would not have behaved that way. Amy's husband’s co worker had given money, had come to the fundraiser, and then he also, as somebody who considered himself a stakeholder of sorts, you know, wanted to know what was next. Okay, there's a house. You got all this money. What are you doing now? He kept messaging, and Joe at some point messages back and says, I'm working on it and that's all he hears. So that was that.
All of the time and energy this group has put into this, and Joe just stops. Now, what's really hard, I think, about this particular story, is to look at this set of events, just the timeline of events. All the stuff that went into this. And it would be hard for me if I had worked on this committee, to not feel completely used.
Tyler: Yeah, I guess maybe that's what I'm trying to get to, is that like, maybe not a crime necessarily, but the people in this committee, certainly the people of this fundraiser who were interested enough to be donating money... I don't know how this wasn't public until five episodes into the series, and someone spoke to you on the phone about it. In a city this small and in a committee this small and in a a story this small and focus...and then he got to do it again, like two years later, like how the fuck?
Jodie: Yeah, I would speak to that just in that so many of these stories, I mean, I've been ripped off in my life, and it's like, screw those people. But then also a part of me has just been, like, just let it go. Lesson learned.
Of course, as all of this is happening, you've got this one guy who at very young age is establishing-- in quotes --himself in a community. And you are somebody who feels slighted being on a committee. I don't know what kind of recourse you even take. It feels like, Oh, they should have done something. But what? Like what? You're going to go to the paper and say, Oh, we had a committee and then he stopped talking to us.
Tyler: Yeah. And it's not like you skipped town and ran, like, he's still here doing things publicly. So I guess you would think like, some of this work was for nothing, because it's maybe the smile House isn't a thing, but-
Jodie: Yeah. And at this point, like, they don't know the smile houses isn’t a thing. They just know that they raised this money, and now they have no idea what's going on. And then the whole committee is just no longer. So that, as far as Amy was concerned, was the end of the story. This whole thing goes dead until November 6th of 2019. Which is a date that I believe we cite in episode four as a date where there's like, a media blast that happens. “The smile houses opening,” right? It's an email to supporters of the Smile house from Joe, and Amy gets this email.
Tyler: So this would include, I'm guessing, those committee members signed up for the newsletters, and anybody who went to those tables and signed up suddenly got this email two or three years later.
Jodie: All these people on the committee get an email after not hearing from Joe for over two years, that smile house is happening. It's a different house, but there's a big email talking about the journey and how, you know there's this house, which is not the same house. There's a part in the email where he lists like the original committee, and she's thanked. Never before have these people been acknowledged. You know, they set the groundwork for something that he took and ran, one his taking all the credit for.
Tyler: So he does the fundraiser. goes AWOL.
Tyler: Comes back with his email. So presumably, like, they expected, they would be continuing to raise money, and then it went dead. But now he's back, and they're also, I'm presuming, in the community so they would know if he was doing fundraisers for this without them, they would probably hear about that?
Tyler: And that hasn't happened. But then two years later, like he's got the big announcement, the big openings here, but then thanks them. People who he hasn't like acknowledged prior to this.
Jodie: He thanks him in the email, and he wouldn't return an email to her when she wanted to know what they were supposed to do next.
Tyler: I know we try to cut out the speculative parts, but I couldn't even begin to speculate on this because I can't possibly wrap my brain around it.
Jodie: No, I can't wrap my brain around that either, because if I just look at all of this that's happened. These are very earnest people who wanted to participate in a project. On top of that, it is important to note that there was a person on the committee that worked with kids aged out of the foster care system. As I mentioned, this was somebody who had kids that thought, in 2017, they were going to have a place to go. There were people who were counting on this becoming a thing. There were kids that were going to have a place to go that did not end up having a place to go, in the same way that this smile house was supposed to fill this much needed gap and it never did. And once again, as we see, even though he had a house, we know what happened with that. If you don't know, just go back and listen, okay. Because what we forget about is that there is a legitimate need for this service. And so every time Joe Luginbill inserts himself into this conversation and says, I have a house, blah, blah, blah. Not only are the people who work on the committee disappointed when it doesn't happen, but there were actual people.
Tyler: Yeah, I don't know why I didn't realize there's people who literally have everything to lose, and that's why they're invested in it.
Jodie: Yeah, there was a kid who spoke at the fundraiser, that was somebody who spoke to his own experience as a person that aged out of the foster care system, speaking to the importance of this. There was a lot of people the first time around that legitimately had, like, emotional investment in this project. And then there were people who actually, like, thought, “I know kids who will be able to benefit from this, and I have kids that can go there, and this is really great.” And then it never happened.
And so then they get this thing in 2019, and Amy is surprised to see her name. Surprised to see it was still a thing.
Tyler: Probably not unhappy to see that it is happening.
Jodie: Right. She forwards this email to a friend of hers that works in another kind of homelessness initiative in Eau Claire, she was like, “Hey, I got this email. This might be something you want to get involved with because now it looks like it's really happening.” She emails Joe twice. One time, she wants him to know that she's just delighted that this is happening, because this far as she knew it, had completely fallen off the radar. Then she messages him again. “Hey, I forwarded this email to a friend who works in this other endeavor who I think should connect with you. You might be hearing from her.”
She gets no response.
Tyler: Goddamn it.
Jodie: The little addendum I want to add to this, although stopping with never hearing from him again is a good place to end. Until, of course, she watches all of this unfold like everybody else does, and then finds our podcast and listens to what happened with the smile house and realizes, you know, the enormity of the bad things that are happening. Amy had to grab an old laptop where all of these meeting minutes were, and she shuts it and she's like, “Oh, you see what's on there?” It's a sticker for Chip The cat goes to bat and she's like, “Oh, yeah, take a look at this.” “Chip The Cat Goes to Bat” was a Children's book that Joe is on record in an interview, talking about as something that he is going to publish. Chip The Cat stickers were something he had made and were pushed along with the smile house stuff, as Joe's personal project. “Oh, look, in addition to the small house, here, have a chip the cat sticker. This is for something that Joe Luginbill is writing, this Children's book. Here's some promotional materials for it.” The Children's book never happens, and she's got the sticker. The only thing that was on this laptop is the sticker that he had given to everybody for Chip the Cat.
Tyler: You know, who among us doesn't have--w all had chipped the cats we were going to make and that's, you know, I understand-- But three days after that meeting, he did the interview talking about the project where he's going to take homeless teens, like, leaving foster care. “By the way, let's not forget about Chip The cat goes to bat.”
Jodie: Yeah, he also would compare himself, Amy said, to Fred Rogers. He spoke about a TV show endeavor that he was going to do with Wisconsin Public TV, in which he would be the new Mr Rogers. I reached out to WPT. They write back on July 24th. “Hello, Jodie. Thank you for reaching out to PBS Wisconsin, and I sincerely apologize for the delay. I have spoken with a number of people at the station and none are familiar with the possible project partnering with Mr Luginbill. I hope that helps. Please feel free to reach out if you have any other questions. Best, Caylee Steinbeck, Audience services manager at W P T.”
Jodie: Not that this is the point of the episode, of course, but I did also want to add that a few people had also said to me, since I brought up this Mr Rogers thing, like Oh, yeah, well, it was either with Wisconsin Public TV, which it wasn't, or it was with Valley Media Works, the local cable access station. Well, I worked at Valley Media Works for a couple of months, and they didn't even have an email address for Joe Luginbill. Like there was no show in the works at Value Media works for Joe Luginbill to be a new Mr Rogers. All of this is important just in that, it's one thing to like the idea of something. There's a lot of things about Joe Luginbill that would suggest if you looked on paper, that logically, he would become a sort of new day. Mr. Rogers.
Tyler: I mean, it is true that, like all the things you've looked into, if they were fruitful and legitimate, he basically would be the next Mr Rogers.
Jodie: On paper.
Tyler: Like, that’s what he was as far as anybody knew.
Jodie: That’s what he wanted.
Tyler: Well, I don't, like... what did he want? Mr Rogers probably wanted to help homeless kids. So I don’t know what Joe wants.
Jodie: Like on paper, as with a lot of things that we've talked about and will talk about, you know, there's a nugget of truth in there, and sometimes it's things that are ideas that never go anywhere. While all of us have our own chip the cats, I don't think all of us are thinking “I'll still put that on my resume as something I did, even though it never happened.” It's like, “I want to be the kind of person who would write a children's book. I like the way that sounds. I like the way that looks on my credentials, but I ain't ever going to really do it.”
Tyler: I think for most of these first couple episodes, I was inclined to make that argument, that I think he didn't understand what he's getting into or, like, thought he was Jesus and wasn't, especially this story. I don't know, it's feels increasingly intentional, I guess, is the--
Jodie: Yeah. And you know, to be tabling for the Smile House, and then you're also giving out stickers, to have stickers made for a Children's book that you don't even have in your hands, to be the kind of person who is pushing the agenda for something very good with the smile house, but then also has these stickers made for for this other thing, like really sums up a lot, you know what I mean? And so it was a funny way to end it.
Tyler: “I can't write my book until Chip the Cat is out there as a mascot. We gotta get the word out about Chip the Cat Cats coming.”
Jodie: And so, yeah, that's how that's how we ended.
Tyler: By the way, we have stickers you could buy and they are real, and we didn't put them out until 15 episodes into our podcast.
That's Amy's story. What a weird thing to be a part of.
Tyler: There's certainly a common emotional theme of people who were invested in the idea and sacrificing personally for it.
Jodie: Yeah, yeah, and like with almost every single thing we have done so far, when hard questions come up, even questions that don't seem hard If your intentions are good, Joe just disappears. Whether it's “where's our money” for charity fundraising, whether it's “what's happening with the Smile house, we have the house gutted.” You know, whether it's Hey, we raised all this money at some point, just goes radio silent and there is no accountability.
Tyler: Boy, what a white guy privilege thing, when he gets to keep doing this, huh.
Jodie: Yeah, he did, for a while.
Tyler: Luginbilled is presented by cool and unusual punishment. Research and interviews by Jodie Arnold. This episode was edited and mixed by me, Tyler Haas. music by Yuvjeny Sarabrykov, Xavly, Sungtjay Kim, John Wright, Goldie Shine, Jeff Harvey and AGMusic. Special Thanks this week to Amy for speaking with us. Our website, where you can listen to past episodes and find links to the materials and documents we reference is cool and unusual Punishment dot com.
Tyler: Do you think she carried Lambchop around while she was drunk and did like the voice?
Jodie: I bet. Who would care who she was if she didn't have lamb chop on her?