Bob Dambach set high standards for Prairie Public productions
The former director of TV who died Jan. 21 is being remembered for his commitment to excellence.
FARGO — To Prairie Public viewers, Bob Dambach was seen as the man with a kind, bearded face and a calm voice during pledge drives. To those that worked with him behind the scenes, he set the standard of excellence for the broadcaster’s TV documentaries.
“He set Prairie Public up for being known for high-quality productions. He set the benchmark we continue to try and live up to,” said John Harris, president and CEO of the station.
Dambach and his wife, Virginia, moved to Fargo in 1985 to both work at the station. As program director, his love of history drove him to explore the land and the people of the area through TV documentaries. He was promoted to director of television in 1996, a position he held until retiring in 2018.
“It was amazing watching him internalize research to no end. He became an expert on all of these topics,” said Barb Gravel, who Dambach hired in 1990 as a director and videographer.
“We’d go over everything with a fine-toothed comb,” said Matt Olien, another Prairie Public director who worked with Dambach for 20 years. “He made sure every sound was good. He was very quality control. He wanted everything on the air to be top-notch.”
Dambach served as executive producer on many documentaries, including Olien’s “One Shining Moment: The History of the North Dakota State 'B.'” When Olien showed him an early cut, Dambach suggested moving some parts around. Olien was hesitant at first, but after following his advice, realized Dambach was right.
“He had the right idea to move those parts around. That was often the case with Bob. He was that second set of eyes,” Olien said. “He trusted my artistic instincts. He was very good at letting you do your job.”
“He always made me feel like an equal and feel respect for myself and my talents,” Gravel said. “I was very lucky to have a mentor like Bob. He was very compassionate.”
Over the years, Dambach traveled with Gravel and Olien to Canada, Hawaii, England, Scotland, Argentina, Korea, Japan and India for stories. Dambach’s focus on quality extended to planning these trips, even to picking out the best restaurants, Gravel said.
While he traveled the world, his drives across North Dakota produced some of his favorite programs. Over the years, Dambach partnered with Michael Miller, director and bibliographer of the North Dakota State University Germans From Russia Collection , for nine documentaries, including “A Soulful Sound: Music of the Germans from Russia,” “Iron Crosses” and “All You See is Sky.”
“He really immersed himself in that culture, learning the food and speaking the language,” Gravel said.
The 2000 documentary “Schmeckfest,” a look at the food traditions of the Germans from Russia, was a particular favorite for Dambach as it combined his love of history and cooking.
“Getting inside someone’s house and watching them cook, understanding how they came to understand their culture. Food is such a common thread in cultures and he connected with that,” Gravel said.
On those trips across the state, she would hear about Dambach’s time working on the ”Phil Donahue Show” in Dayton, Ohio, or his experiences at Woodstock.
Despite his best-laid plans, trips didn’t always go as expected, but when an obstacle arose, Dambach quickly worked around it.
“One of the great things about Bob was his enthusiasm in overcoming any hiccups that may come along,” Gravel said.
There was the time in England when they accidentally fueled a car up with gas rather than diesel. In Japan, a photographer was detained after using an old passport. A quick call to then-Sen. Byron Dorgan from North Dakota fixed the issue.
Gravel recalled one trip to the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park when, halfway through the drive, the transmission went out, leaving them only able to go in reverse. Unflustered, Dambach put the car in reverse and drove 7 miles backward to the ranger station, where they got a tow to Watford City. There they were told the necessary part wouldn’t be in for days, but Dambach got a loaner to continue the trip. The car, a wood-paneled station wagon, had a license plate started with the letters BUB, so Gravel dubbed it the “Bobmobile” for the rest of the drive.
“He really loved being on the road. That’s where he was at home,” Olien said.
He also enjoyed his time in the office, whether it was being in the studio for pledge drives or organizing the annual offbeat office Christmas party. Dambach dressed up like Santa and handed out wrapped presents of swag from conventions and other odd trinkets accumulated in the office over the years.
“Once Bob retired, it didn’t seem the same. It felt like a void. We miss that,” Gravel said.
While the office party may have been odd, the Dambachs held an extravagant party to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany every year in their house, Gravel said.
After he hired her, Dambach invited Gravel over for holiday dinners knowing she didn’t have family in the area. He showed her that extending kindness and humor to people yielded positive results.
“I learned from him how to connect with people using humor, how to relax them in interviews to help get to the story,” she said. “He had a keen eye for a story, but he wanted high quality, an entertainment factor and giving people something to learn.”
A celebration of life will be held this spring in Fargo's Lindenwood Park, where Dambach regularly walked.