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Friday, June 9, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM


Vern Fonk's insurance ads became an icon in Seattle

Seattle Times staff reporter

Vern Fonk loved jokes.

"Most of his were off-color and you couldn't print them," said his son-in-law Kevin Mulvaney. "But he always had a joke, and he would tell it until everybody in the world had heard it."

Kind of like the crude-but-shrewd late-night TV commercials that made Vern Fonk Insurance a quirky Seattle icon.

There was the 30-second "Star Wars" spoof ("May the Fonk be with you!"), the two-part "Sopranos" parody ("Don't get caught dead without protection") and the ad that focused on a customer's prominent pimple (You don't want to know).

Mr. Fonk, who died at Stevens Hospital in Edmonds on May 22, liked them all, family members said. He was 75. The cause of his death was a bacterial blood infection.

The ads will continue to run, said his daughter Rene Mulvaney, who owns Vern Fonk Insurance. "We've got more dumb ones coming your way, believe me," she said.

Despite what viewers were led to believe, the balding, hyperactive star of the ads was not Mr. Fonk, but Rob Thielke, a part-time actor and full-time manager for the insurance company, which has offices in Seattle, Bellevue, Tacoma and Everett.

There is a method to the cheesy madness of the ads, said Kevin Mulvaney, the company's chief financial officer. They are aimed at high-risk drivers, single men in their early 20s, who tend to get the most driving infractions and have difficulty getting policies from large insurers, he said.

"Humor appeals most to them," he explained.

Mr. Fonk came up with the idea of running funny ads about 15 years ago, shortly before he retired and sold the business to his daughter.

Many of the ads featured employees and volunteers. Customers suggested some of the ads' themes.

Most were conceived by Thielke, who had the letters "VF" shaved out of the hair on his back for one ad. Mr. Fonk appeared in one ad, a takeoff of Subway commercials.

His favorite ads were the ones that made the phones ring the most, Thielke said, adding that Mr. Fonk was like a second father to him and taught him, above all, to be ethical in his work.

"He was very businesslike, but he was also open to new ideas. He was a marketing genius who was very interested in the Internet and new technologies," Thielke said.

Mr. Fonk was born in Plentywood, Mont. He landed his first job in 1952 as an insurance agent and moved to the Seattle area in 1964.

Outside of work, he led a very private life, said his wife, Jerroldine.

His favorite hobbies were fishing and playing cards. His favorite vacations involved camping on the Washington coast, she said.

Rene Mulvaney recalled that her father used to take her to church every Sunday and then to the Edmonds waterfront for ice cream. He talked to fishermen, she said, while she collected seashells on the beach.

Mr. Fonk is survived by his wife, daughter, sons James and Dale, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

He was preceded in death by his mother, Selma Fonk; his father, Adolf Fonk; and his daughter Tereza Lynn Harvey.

A visitation will start at 9 a.m. today, followed by a funeral service at 11 a.m., both at Beck's Funeral Home, 405 Fifth Ave. S., Edmonds. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Trinity Lutheran Church in Lynnwood.

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company




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