By Jim Davis
Everett Herald Business Journal editor
The instantly recognizable television pitchman for Vern Fonk Insurance — who also served as the company’s president — died Sunday after a long battle with cancer.
Rob Thielke, who lived in Snohomish, was 50. He is survived by his wife Cathy and five children as well as his mother, a sister and a brother.
Thielke was best known for his many, often zany roles in commercials for the insurance company, the first of which was a spoof of “Forrest Gump.”
He would go on to film more than 200 commercials that aired throughout the Northwest doing spoofs of movies like “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Star Wars” or dressing up as Sasquatch or Tarzan or even in one memorable spot shaving the initials VF for Vern Fonk in his back hair in the shape of the Van Halen logo.
“We always said if it’s not fun let’s not do it anymore,” said Joel Thielke, Rob Thielke’s younger brother who often appeared in the commercials. “I think Rob did that with everything that he did.”
Thielke’s face became so much a part of the company that many people thought he was actually company founder, Vern Fonk.
At a ball game or at dinner, people often would come up and address him as Vern Fonk and ask for his autograph, which he would sign as Vern Fonk, said Kevin Mulvaney, whose father-in-law was the company founder and who later owned the company with his wife Rene.
“It was his comedy that made him a Puget Sound icon,” he said. “He loved being in front of the camera and playing Vern Fonk and we just let him go.”
Thielke was instrumental in Vern Fonk Insurance’s growth, which now has 23 locations throughout Washington and Oregon. The company was sold to California-based insurance company Confie in 2010.
At that time, Thielke joined the company’s senior management and then became president in 2013.
“The company will carry on but not without the impact of Robert A. Thielke III and the unforgettable brand that was built,” said Craig Rexroat, Vern Fonk Insurance’s chief operating officer, in a statement.
Thielke joined Vern Fonk Insurance as an agent in 1989 when it was a small firm started by Vern Fonk.
Thielke ran the Everett office from 1998 to 2010 and would walk around the office doing impressions that would leave everyone in stitches, Rene Mulvaney said. One of the impressions he did was of her dad, who was big, boisterous and would often mispronounce words in funny ways. Thielke would do the impressions in front of Vern Fonk, who loved them.
“We’ve known Rob for 27 years,” Rene Mulvaney said. “He was really a part of our family, just a really wonderful person, very generous and giving. We were really lucky that we got him in our company.”
Thielke collaborated with Stevenson Advertising Agency in Lynnwood on most of the commercials and he would bravely do whatever they dreamed up, said Brett Stevenson, the firm’s owner.
“Everybody in the world thought he was Vern Fonk,” Stevenson said. “He was a really creative guy who had an unusual look and charisma and that had a special effect on television.”
Thielke was a brilliant marketer and a friendly competitor, said Claudia McClain, who owns McClain Insurance Agency in Everett. He would stop by the McClain offices sometimes with a box of See’s chocolates, McClain said. He would talk about his employees and his family and show a depth not seen in his commercials, she said.
“For an industry that can be dry and sometimes confusing to consumers, Rob brought just a bit of laughter and fun,” McClain said. “And for that he’ll be remembered.”
Thielke’s celebrity really struck his brother when they were walking in the Hollywood Hills. They were on a trail and two young women came running up to him to get his autograph. Laurence Fishburne came walking from the other way and the girls didn’t even notice the movie star, Joel Thielke said.
“You go to a Mariners game or a Seahawks game and everybody would just yell his name,” Joel Thielke said. “I think he’d get embarrassed sometimes when they recognized him in public.”
Thielke was very active with his church and was a member of the board of directors for Hand in Hand, a nonprofit that supports children entering foster care. He was also devoted to his family.
“I talked with my brother before he died,” Joel Thielke said. “He recorded some messages for his kids and he said, ‘While I loved being Vern Fonk, I want to be known for being a good father and a good husband and a good person.’”
In tribute to Thielke’s memory — and in support of his family’s wishes — Vern Fonk Insurance will air TV commercials featuring a montage of Thielke’s commercials. The TV spots will run over the next few weeks.
Vern Fonk Insurance also invites the public to honk when they drive by one of the Vern Fonk offices.