The Burlington Beacon
If retired Des Moines County Sheriff Sgt. Steve Parker wore a cowboy hat, it would be pure white. Instead, he wears a dog head and a trench coat.
And when he lowers his voice and adds a bit of gravel to it, he transforms into McGruff the Crime Dog. Parker has been playing the role of the law enforcement icon locally since 1980 — just before McGruff became popular nationwide.
“I’ve been McGruff for more than half my life,” Parker said.
Playing McGruff has been the joy of his life. Parker appeared as McGruff during the National Night Out law enforcement celebration Tuesday night (Aug. 2), shaking hands and giving children practical warnings.
He has logged well over 5,000 appearances as McGruff since taking on the character and was named the national voice of McGruff by the National Crime Prevention Council in 2005. Only a handful of officers who portray McGruff around the nation can duplicate the trademark raspy voice.
Parker competed against eight other law enforcement officers in front of a four-person panel to earn the honor. His take on the dog was so close to the original he unanimously earned the honor to succeed McGruff’s creator, Jack Keil, for television and radio ads.
“People said it was almost impossible to tell the difference between my McGruff voice and the original,” Parker said.
Parker first saw the McGruff character in 1980. The service announcement on television featured the character as part of a crime prevention campaign by the National Crime Prevention Council. The character’s catchphrase, “Take a bite out of crime,” stuck with Parker.
He wanted to bring the character to Des Moines County, so he bought some Hush Puppies and a trench coat. A woman he worked with made a paper mache dog’s head.
“I am told it was the first McGruff costume ever made,” Parker said. Parker’s costume made its debut in November 1980 at Sunnyside Elementary School.
In 1982, the National Crime Prevention Council took over the dog’s image and added Keil’s voice to television and radio ads. McGruff’s popularity took off, and Parker was in demand to speak at neighborhood watch groups, schools, and community groups. By then, he had a new costume — the one most people are familiar with.
“Before McGruff, people believed there was nothing they could do to fight crime. Thanks to McGruff, a generation has learned they can stop it,” Parker said.
According to the National Crime Prevention Council, McGruff was born in 1978 in an attempt to spread crime prevention information. But McGruff wasn’t the first choice of Keil, the New York City ad executive given the task of creating a character for the campaign.
He made drawings of a Keystone Cops-style mutt — a beagle that ducked into a phone booth to become “Wonder Dog.” He also drew a bulldog with a resemblance to former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. A Doberman character named “Sarg” almost became the crime dog but was rejected. Finally, inspired by the police drama “Columbo,” Keil settled on a trench coat-wearing bloodhound who would “take a bite out of crime.”
“The moment that head goes on, I am McGruff,” Parker said.
Parker has always been a man of a thousand jobs and interests. During the summer, you can see him creating balloon animals at festivals. He acts in local plays, is a long-time substitute teacher and pastor, runs the Mr. Frostee ice cream truck, and is a former train conductor. He helped orchestrate the Safety Town program for years, teaching children traffic rules as they entered kindergarten.
But he had never built a miniature grocery store before. Not until he and the late Marvin Coon took on the project seven years ago. Coon, who died in January of 2021, was known across southeast Iowa for building replica jeeps, Humvees, and squad cars.
Parker and Coon spent three months building a 1/18-scale supermarket – similar to the one Parker worked at as a teenager. When they were done, they entered it into several contests, including the Des Moines County Fair.
“My wife accused me of being infatuated,” Parker said. “I have about 1,200 hours in it.”
Measuring 44-inches long and 30-inches wide, the supermarket replica is a time warp to the late 1950s. Rows of shelves hold tiny boxes of detergent and soup cans, while a vegetable rack displays carrots, corn, and other small greens.
A meat counter with a glass display is next to the manager’s office, and two cash registers in the front of the store are operated by tiny cashiers. There’s even a magazine rack full of 1950s magazines and “TV Guide” editions featuring “The Honeymooners.” Coon added a sign above the rack that says, “You Read It, You Buy It.”
“One thing that took a lot of time was the candy section,” Parker said. “I have just about every major type of candy bar they had in the late 1950s, like “Milkshake”, “Zagnut” and “5th Avenue.”
His parents purchased him a basic miniature supermarket. At the time, scale model sets of popular TV shows like “The Flintstones” and “The Untouchables” were hot Christmas gifts. Parker worked as a produce manager for nearly eight years before becoming a deputy and has always had a fascination with grocery stores.
As the store took shape, Coon told Parker it resembled the former Hagerla’s Market, which closed in 2002. With the permission of former store owner Mark Hagerla, Coon constructed a sign for the front of the replica similar to the one that used to decorate the West Burlington store.
Parker is also a bit of a magician — and a Mister Rogers fan. He is also a puppeteer and ventriloquist and has combined those talents into a unique blend of entertainment.
His interest in voice-overs grew from a love of puppet shows like Howdy Dowdy. Emulating the titular character from the PBS program, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” Parker hosts puppet shows for area children.
Clad in a Mister Rogers-style cardigan sweater, he creates a familiar zone of comfort as he removes his shoes. He comforts the kids by telling stories about himself — including how he was born — one of Parker’s favorite tales.
“I was born in an elevator between the fifth and sixth floors of Mercy Hospital,” he said. “I was premature.”
Parker became interested in ventriloquism during a church crusade in the fourth grade. He practiced throughout elementary and high school but became less interested as he became older. Others teased him about “playing with dolls,” and he gave up his hobby.
But in 1977, a puppet group was getting started in Burlington as an outreach ministry. When Parker mentioned he was an experienced ventriloquist, a pastor chastised him for having such a gift and not putting it to use. He ordered a new ventriloquist dummy and again became proficient.
Parker has a lot of heroes that contributed to his life of kindness and fondness for children — Mister Rogers included. But that seed of generosity, and the relentless worth ethic that keeps Parker going forward, is firmly rooted at home.
“My parents are my heroes,” he said.