By Steve Robinson | February 2, 2018 - 10:45 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite

After 48 years, one of Normal’s oldest businesses known for helping people of all ages either develop or nurture their love of guitar music closed its door for the last time on Wednesday, Jan. 31. Guitar World, 129 E. Beaufort St., a fixture since the days when Carlos Santana, Ritchie Blackmore, Eric Clapton, Joan Baez, and the late Harry Chapin were hot on the music scene, closed its doors for the last time after 48 years in business on Wednesday, Jan. 31.

Jim Bland was part of a partnership when the shop opened in 1970 and has owned the store outright since 1978 after buying out that partner. He changed the store’s name from Ax-In-Hand. The original store sat in a little building behind the Normal Post Office with the store front facing Broadway across from the original offices of The Normalite. That location is now where a garage exit from Uptown Commons leading onto Broadway can be found.

The store’s original name came from a slang term musicians use to describe their instrument. “’I’ve got to take my axe to a job’ is how musicians would explain” an upcoming gig, Bland said. The store’s name was changed to Guitar World in 1978. The store moved to its current location in 2008.

Bland said one of the drawbacks to closing the store will be its affect will have on local guitar instructors and those who want to learn from them. In the age of the internet, where do-it-yourself learning is possible, he said closing his doors puts those instructors at a disadvantage for finding students. Bland said those teachers aren’t being sought out as much by students as they used to by those wanting to learn.

“When we started here, we had 105 people teaching lessons,” Bland said. He said that number has shrunk to roughly 40.

Bland said among the notables who either walked through his store’s door was Steve Howe from the 70’s group Yes. Bland said Howe walked in when he was touring and performing at what is now Grossinger Motors Arena in Downtown Bloomington. “He bought some strings, some picks, and a tuner, and a strap because he had a day off from touring and was going to St. Louis to jam with some friends,” Bland explained.

Bland said Howe explained to him he “just likes to shop at little local shops when he’s on tour.”

That wasn’t the only brush with famous musicians the store had. Bland said a backup musician for 70s artist Freddie Fender came into the shop when Fender was performing at Illinois State University’s Braden Auditorium. The backup man came into the shop with a guitar in need of repair: One of its chords was duct taped to its base. The musician had been playing it in that condition and found the shop to get it fixed. At the time of that visit, Fender had a Top 40 hit playing called, “Wasted Days And Wasted Nights.”

The store hasn’t just seen the famous or members of an entourage stop by, Bland said. It has, mostly by word of mouth, earned some notoriety itself away from home. Former students who once took lessons at the store who now earn a living in the music industry, have mentioned the little shop where they first learned chords.

Bland said his son, Jim Jr., came in contact with an unidentified man who told the son he knew of his father’s store because of his friend, Mike Patterson. Patterson, as it turned out, continued on in the music business working his way to becoming historian for Shure Microphones, and as a college student in the 1990s, used to shop at Guitar World.

Bland said it has gotten too expensive to maintain his store, a fact that was the chief reason for his decision to close. But although the store will be gone, Bland will continue to operate a second business, GW Audio, which will set up and operate sound systems at area events, as well as do installation of sound equipment.

Bland said he’ll miss regularly meeting with folks coming through his shop, “seeing all the people.” He added, “I just want to say thank you for all the support that they’ve given me for years,” Bland said. “I know things change, and we were always available to help people who came to us, and we were able to help them with any problems and that’s what we’re here for.”

In an industry that has everything from loud and flashy to quiet and soothing, Jim Bland will tell you that it was the lessons musicians took and/or studied early on that probably got them where they are today.

Those lessons came by receiving instruction from others at places like his business, Guitar World, 129 E. Beaufort St. which closed Jan. 31 after 48 years of selling and repairing equipment and offering a place for teachers to tutor students.

Now 72, Bland offered a few thoughts regarding a trend he saw related to musicians and teaching them. And from what he says, you get the idea he’s not wild about it.

He said the opportunities for people who teach instruments like guitar “are becoming more and more limited in town here. There’s only 2 or 3 places that will teach guitar now.” The reason Bland said, is people are finding other means for getting those lessons, primarily via the internet.

“Without students, you don’t get growth,” Bland said. “They’re the future to the store. Once they get interested in music, they would use the store to get strings fixed” and help students take care of other related needs.

“By playing and having a store that I went to when I was young to take lessons taught me to do stuff with the guitar,” Bland said. It also taught him how to be able to repair guitars.

Putting strings on a guitar, Bland said, is a learned skill. It’s something that, as he sees it, is an in-person lesson that needs to be taught in order to be handed down. Doing it through watching videos on the internet doesn’t get the job done, he said.

Videos, Bland said, may be teaching kids to play guitar, that is, play the instrument itself, but the students in watching those videos, aren’t learning technique used in playing it. That’s the distinction Bland said is missing from the process. That distinction, he suggests, is where in-person instruction, such as what Guitar World offered, is missing today.

Learning guitar through the internet also fails to help people learn how to play music with others, he added. “I was a taught player,” he explained. “I learned to read the music and understand how the music works.”

Bland said he’ll miss getting excited to see students becoming excited themselves about understanding their lessons and playing correctly as a result of those lessons. Bland has worked weekends since 1961 in the music field in one capacity or another and still maintains contact with people he taught guitar to when they were kids at that time.

In the early days of his career, Bland recalled, he used to give 12-15 lessons by weekend day and then spend weekend nights playing gigs. “The money in those days wasn’t what it is today, but doing that was how you learned to play.”

Bland said people appear more interested in getting involved in the music business without giving serious consideration to the effort needed. “They want to be stars after seeing TV talent shows,” Bland said.

When he encounters students or musicians with that mindset, Bland said he generally asks the person, “How many 18-hour days straight can you work?” He said that kind of life comes complete with “sleeping in a car or truck or hotel, eating fast food.” He said the end result of that existence is that both social and family life take a hit and suffer from it.

“That’s a hard life…it’s a hard life,” Bland states. Being an Army veteran taught Bland to prepare for the rigors of a musician’s life when it came to being on the road, he added. Today’s musicians, when they hear Bland’s words of caution, mostly have the same response: “’Well, I won’t have to do that,’” Bland reports, echoing a refrain he said he heard often.

Bland said he’s not shocked by younger musicians who give him that reaction because he understands it will take those musicians experiencing the road life firsthand for that shock to set in once they’ve experienced it for a while, especially the first time.

Bland and his wife of nearly 40 years, Karen, have three children, eight grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. There’s an irony with that many kids for Bland: None of those folks on the family tree play guitar. “They’re all basketball players,” he said smiling.

Jim Bland settled in to help others learn music 48 years ago, first at his store’s predecessor, Ax-In-Hand, which he owned with a business partner when it opened in 1970, and he has owned the current business solo for the last 40 years, if not all for others’ benefit but also, hopefully, for their enjoyment from having learned to play.

In turn, he and our community enjoyed the results of the service he provided. Here’s hoping he and his family enjoy his retirement.

By Steve Robinson | February 1, 2018 - 9:59 am
Posted in Category: Relay For Life

Bloomington, Illinois – FEBRUARY 1, 2018 – The organizing committee for Relay For Life of McLean County is pleased to announce this year’s 24-hour event will be held at The Corn Crib in north Normal from 2p.m. Friday, June 22 through 2p.m. Saturday, June 23, 2018.

The Corn Crib has been home to the Normal CornBelters of independent baseball’s Frontier League since the team debuted in May 2010.

“We are thrilled to be partnering with the CornBelters,” said Kimberly Wright, Community Development Manager for American Cancer Society’s Peoria-based office which oversees numerous Relay For Life events in central Illinois, including this one.

Per the agreement with the CornBelters, the use of The Corn Crib for the event is at no cost to Relay For Life of McLean County because CornBelters management is donating the stadium’s use free of charge.

“A large majority of our event will be in one big open location,” Wright explained pointing out the advantage of holding the event at The Corn Crib. “Holding the event here will be great for our Relay participants because we consider ourselves a big family and we want everyone to feel like family when they come to our event.”

“We are very thankful for the opportunity to partner with, and host, the Relay For Life of McLean County at The Corn Crib this June,” added Ryan Eucker, Vice President of Ticket Sales for the CornBelters. “Beyond providing a new and unique venue for the event, we’re looking forward to partnering with the many teams and participants of Relay For Life to offer support in their fundraising efforts.”

RELAY 2018 START TIME MOVES TO 2P. M. FRIDAY: In addition to a new location, the start time for this year’s Relay has been moved up to Friday afternoon at 2p.m. which will include a “soft” opening at that time where team members can begin circling the course at that time, Wright explained. She said a formal opening ceremony will take place sometime after working hours that day – something else that is a change from previous Relay For Life of McLean County events. The Survivor Walk, which honors current cancer survivors, will follow the formal opening ceremony.

YOUTH ACTIVITIES TO TAKE PLACE BOTH DAYS: This year, Relay For Life of McLean County will “have youth activities for kids to enjoy on both Friday and Saturday,” Wright added.

RELAY 2017 NUMBERS: Relay For Life of McLean County wrapped up it 23rd annual event raising $300,786.47 at the conclusion of the 2017 event and had 70 teams comprised of 657 participants, and 220 survivors and caregivers at their annual Relay event, held from 4p.m.June 23 to 4p.m. June 25, 2017, at Normal Community High School.

Since it began in McLean County in 1994, Relay For Life of McLean County has raised over $8.3 Million to fight cancer.

PLANNING FOR RELAY 2018: Planning for our 2018 campaign has begun. Getting involved with Relay For Life of McLean County would be the perfect way to volunteer your time in the fight against cancer. You can find a link to our Relay by visiting

More information may be obtained by contacting either Catina Struble 309-706-5367 or Steve Robinson at 309-242-7838.

By Steve Robinson | January 30, 2018 - 8:02 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite

Steve RobinsonIf you saw much of me last weekend, you must have been at a high school basketball game. Friday night, I was at Normal Community High School covering the Boys’ game between the Ironmen and rival Normal Community West.

The biggest surprise of that night was that the game started late because the junior varsity from Normal West needed overtime to claim a 51-47 victory. You got the feeling watching that game that both sides will still be intense against one another when these underclassmen become upperclassmen. That’s always the hope, anyway, felt whether expressed or not, by coaches and fans alike.

Saturday was spent at the annual North-South Shootout at NCHS featuring girls’ teams from the host school, Normal West, O’Fallon, and Belleville East. It was a lot of un for the fans but those covering it and working the scorer’s table were happy to either keep track of or take notes about the games for the papers but were very tired by the event’s conclusion. The event moves south next year before coming back this way again, where Normal West will take its turn to host.

NCHS Swimming And Diving Team Honored: At halftime of the game between the boys’ teams from Unit 5 on Friday, NCHS’ girls’ Swimming and Diving Team was honored for finishing 4th at the State Meet. During their season, the team won the Intercity title, set eight new school records, won the Big 12 Conference title, and captured a first-ever Sectional title. At State, the team earned medals in 7 of 12 events. Members of NCHS’ Swimming and Diving Team are: Grace Ariola, Ashley Bengtson, Julia Heimstead, Claire Koh, and Julia Oostman.

Can El Paso Gridley Special Olympics Pull Off A “Three-Peat”?: Two years ago, the Special Olympics basketball team from El Paso Gridley High School got into the Special Olympics State Basketball Tournament due to a forfeit. Last year, they got in by their own merits and won gold (in double overtime, no less).

The district playoffs took place recently and Titans head coach Cindy Martorana’s team is headed back to State for the third consecutive year as a result of their efforts and partly due to another forfeit. Teams are required to play two games at district and need to earn gold medals to qualify for State.

The Titans won their first contest beating Rockford Guilford, 34-22, Martorana told me and were all set to meet their next challenger. But when they got to the court, they were informed illness prevented the other team from making the second game. As a result, Martorana’s team won the second game by forfeit and are headed back to State. EPG team members are: Jordan Peacher, Andrew Hartman, Zoey Slightom, Caleb Turner, Brady Neill, Geneva Powell, and Courtney Adkins. Here’s wishing them luck!

Normal West Chess Team Headed To State: It isn’t just the athletically inclined headed to a State event of some kind. Congratulations are also given here to the Chess team from Normal Community West High School who have been giving opponents fits to the point that the Wildcats will go to the Illinois High School Association State Chess Tournament in Peoria on Feb. 9 and 10.

To get this far, first, they beat Bloomington High School on tie breaks to earn the League Championship for the season. Then, on Jan. 27, they traveled to Mahomet and took first at sectionals. Normal West was the only team out of a field of 19 schools in the sectional to earn a perfect 4-0 record at the tournament, defeating East Peoria High School, University High School, Metamora High School, and Dunlap High School.

The team that conquered the Sectional includes: Joseph Kessinger, Gabe Chambers, Clayton Davis, Bekah Nielsen, Sawyer Price, Naaman Rivera, Henry Lovelette, Tori Kafer, Austin Schillage, Zach Gilliam, and Jon Spaulding.

Individually, Davis earned a sectional medal on his board with 3.5 points and Kessinger also earned a medal, being the only player to earn 4 points.

Here’s wishing them good luck at State, as well.

By Steve Robinson | January 29, 2018 - 10:14 pm
Posted in Category: NCHS, Normal West HS, The Normalite

BasketballNORMAL – Once Normal Community West High School’s boys’ basketball team got the jump on rival Normal Community High School Friday night in their rivalry contest, there appeared to be no stopping them the rest of the evening. But NCHS did manage to put the breaks on the Wildcats late in the fourth quarter but it couldn’t keep Normal West from staying in front for a 42-37 road victory.

Sandwiching two missed free throws by Wildcats sophomore guard Drew Wollenschlager were two deuces by teammate junior center Francis Okoro which gave the Wildcats a quick 4-0 lead. NCHS junior Dishon Hall put the Ironmen on the scoreboard with a layup at the quarter’s 3:27 mark, cutting that lead to 4-2. Another deuce by Okoro gave Normal West a 6-2 lead. A trey by NCHS junior Daylen Boddie sliced that lead to one, 6-5. But a trey by West guard Shea Cupples gave the Wildcats a 9-5 lead with which to open the second quarter.

Boddie opened the second quarter by fouling senior forward Drew Yonker who sank two free throws and was followed by a trey from senior forward Terance Montgomery-Fisher, and after an Ironmen timeout, senior guard Brady Cupples hit a deuce which pushed Normal West ahead, 16-5. Boddie hit a jumper and senior Dalton Tevis followed, to come within seven, 16-9 with 2:20 left in the quarter. Okoro’s next basket doubled the Wildcats’ lead, 18-9 with 1:17 left in the quarter and he followed that up with a jumper to put Normal West up 20-7, with four seconds left.

But Boddie startled the full crowd of roughly 5,000 fans with a half court shot to beat the buzzer and cut Normal West’s lead, 20-12, going into halftime.

NCHSBrady Cupples’ opening shot for the third quarter put West up, 22-12, and was followed by a bucket from Boddie, changing the score to 22-14. From there, West went on a 7-0 run that was all Okoro except for the last two points. Up until that point, the 6 foot-9 junior scored three baskets and answered a foul with two free throws before Wollenschlager answered a foul with a free throw giving West a 29-14 lead. Coleman reduced that to 29-17 with a trey at 2:48 in the period but Coleman and junior Joe Lippert responded with unanswered baskets to cut the lead to 10, 29-19, with 2:30 left in the quarter. An Okoro bucket put West up, 31-19 and a free throw by Wollenschlager made the lead, 32-18. NCHS came within 11, 32-21, on a Boddie shot and Okoro closed out the quarter on a basket for a 34-21 Wildcats lead.

Boddie opened the fourth quarter for NCHS with a trey, closing West’s lead to 10 again, 34-24, and then Cupples was fouled where he answered with two free throws putting West up, 36-24 with 7:09 left in the game. After a Wildcats timeout, senior Jalen Coleman’s trey at 3:49 pulled NCHS within nine, 36-27. But Coleman fouling Cupples got West one free throw to put the Wildcats up 10, 37-27, with 2:46 left.

Normal WestA free throw by Boddie closed the Wildcats’ lead to nine, 37-28, and West called a timeout with 1:45 left. A C. J. Chastain basket cut the Wildcats’ lead, 37-30 and a free throw by Alec McGinnis gave West an eight-point advantage, 38-30 until a fouled Boddie cut that lead at the line, 38-32. That prompted Wildcats head coach Brian Cupples to call time with 59.5 seconds left. following the timeout, a fouled Okoro went 1-for2 on the line to stretch West’s lead, 39-32. Cupples then fouled Christian who sank one, closing in on West, 39-33. But Cupples then was called for a technical for something he said to an opponent. That cut West’s lead, 39-35 with 32.3 left. Two NCHS fouls against him sent West junior forward Nate Duckworth to the line where he sank 3-of-4 giving West a 40-35. The last basket of the night came from Boddie with 3.8 seconds left.

“I thought we were great defensively, and I thought we were great rebounding,” said West head coach Brian Cupples. “NCHS’ kids did a great job battling and that got it down to a one or two position game which got it tight on us. We had a great start defensively. NCHS made tough shots.”

“We dug ourselves in a whole and West did a great job of taking care of the ball and made just enough free throws and did enough to win,” explained NCHS head coach Dave Witzig. “Okoro was a ton tonight and they handled the ball well tonight, and they did a great job.”