Wilmer T. “Bill” Rabe was born September 12, 1921 and grew up in Detroit, Michigan. A veteran of World War II, serving in the Pacific, Lieutenant Rabe was called up from the reserves in 1951 and served as “psychological warrior” with the Army in Germany. He married Maryann Rady (also from Detroit) in Berlin on November 1, 1952.
During the early 1950s, while serving as publicist at the University of Detroit, Rabe launched what has been described as a “quirky quiz show” called “Ask the Professor” on radio station WJR. SOBS (another Rabe invention that stood for “Stamp Out the Beatles Society”) was a gimmick organization launched in 1963 at the University. He wanted to link the university’s name with raging Beatlemania. Rabe signed up a naive student, Peter Murphy, to be SOBS president. One of the first questions asked when the Beatles arrived in New York on Feb. 7, 1964, concerned SOBS’ supposed campaign. “We’re going to start a campaign to stamp out Detroit,” a Beatle responded, and suddenly Murphy was public enemy No. 1. Beatles fans across America demonized SOBS and Murphy, but the Fab Four played Detroit without incident.
While heading up publicity efforts at tiny Lake Superior State University in Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan, Rabe created what is now an annual “List of Words Banished from the Queen’s English for Mis-Use, Over-Use and General Uselessness,” based on submissions from the public. Rabe retired in 1987, but the concept had by then caught on so strongly, that the University copyrighted it and continued with the tradition. Rabe, according to the university’s web site, “was a favorite of columnists and editors around Michigan, because he could always be counted on for a wacky and humorous quote about some issue of the day. Most of these had nothing to do with Lake Superior State, but when they were printed, they always said ‘Bill Rabe from Lake Superior State at the Soo says…’ He probably did more for LSS’s name recognition than every other person associated with it, including the hockey program, did put together. So while the Banished Words List and the Unicorn Hunters [another of Rabe’s creations] are legendary in the annals of PR, they shouldn’t be confused with anything worth serious ‘pondering.'”
While at LSSU Rabe created other events such as the world stone-skipping tournament and the annual snowman burning (something he discovered in Germany, and adapted to an American crowd, complete with roasted hotdogs served to students and guests, all of whom had gathered to say goodbye to winter and hello to spring).
Rabe was a member of the Baker Street Irregulars (BSI), invested as “Colonel Warburton’s Madness” in 1955. His published works include “Once More, Watson, Into the Breach!!!” (1949), the annual “Sherlockian Who’s Who and What’s What” (1961-), “The Remarkable Case of the Fudge Trust” (1968), and “We Always Mention Aunt Clara” (1990). Among Sherlockians, Bill Rabe was also known as the publisher of the original “Commonplace Book” and producer of “Voices from Baker Street.” According to a fellow BSI member, Bill “was the very quintessential model of the modern Sherlockian gentleman: peripatetic, whimsical, inventive and creative–truly one-of-a-kind and a larger-than-life throwback to the ’30s and the ’40s when the BSI membership was less conventional and perhaps more individualistic.” In 1990 he received the Two-Shilling Award from the BSI in recognition of his many accomplishments and contributions.
Bill Rabe was honored by the BSI in January 1992 for his years of service in organizing the Martha Hudson Breakfast (a part of the BSI annual weekend in New York City) and died a few months later, on April 4, 1992 in Texas after a short illness. Peter Blau noted that “Bill’s genius was perhaps best expressed by his talent in making madness respectable, and he did that in many fields: as chief telephone-book critic for the Detroit newspapers, as Detroit Hatchetman of the Friends of Lizzie Borden, as chief executive officer of Hush Records (providing the records with which Silent Record Week was celebrated each year), as public-relations officer for the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island (the Miami Beach of the North), and in so many ways in the world of Sherlock Holmes.”
Also see Ami Iceman, “Bill Rabe and the Unicorn Hunters”, MP3 Group, March 10, 2010.
Continuing the tradition, see
Scott Kleinberg, “Selfie, twerk, hashtag and more: The banished words of 2014 : University continues New Year’s Eve tradition that dates back to 1976”, Chicago Tribune, December 31, 2013 for the 39th list.
Jeff Karoub, “List: Ban ‘bae,’ ‘foodie,’ ‘takeaway’ from lexicon”, Detroit News, December 31, 2014 for the 40th list.
Kim Kozlowski, “List of overused words: From ‘Conversation’ to ‘So’”, Detroit News, December 31, 2015 for the 41st list.
For more background, see “The History of Word Banishment”, Lake Superior State University website.