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Who knew Bob Swanson and George Stege, a pair of debate buddies five decades ago at Western Illinois University, would change how the world sees bubble gum?

Today — on National Bubble Gum Day — pouches featuring a female hitter on the cover of Big League Chew hit stores. It's a first in the 38 years that the gum has been available.

The change was inspired by the slow pitch girls softball team Swanson coaches, the Ben Farrar Insurance team in the Rock Island Girls Softball League. Stege is president of the Ford Gum Company that produces Big League Chew.

That's right; a change to an iconic logo of the most popular bubble gum is because of a softball team from good ol' Rock Island, Illinois.

"It's neat and it's a unique experience to have an impact on something as cool as Big League Chew," said Carlee Camlin on the Ben Farrar summer team. The standout Rock Island High School volleyball and basketball player also has signed to play Division I volleyball at Bradley University.

"To think we influenced George's decision to push for this is amazing," Camlin said. "We had a hand in change, big-time change. George is so cool; this proves he really listened to what we had to say."

The push for a girl on the gum's cover gained steam two years ago when Stege visited his longtime pal Swanson and his wife, Debbi, in Rock Island.  For decades, Debbi Swanson has been an unpaid but ultra-valuable taste-tester for Stege and his many gum products.

The Stege-Swanson friendship formed years ago when the two were at WIU. Swanson went on to teach at Augustana College, earn a law degree from Northern Illinois University and eventually do great work as athletic director at Rock Island High School.

Stege taught and coached debate at Glenbrook South High School before joining the Ford Gum & Machine Company in Akron, N.Y. The firm is the only U.S. company that makes and sells gumballs and gumball machines. It also makes the gum in all military MREs (meals ready to eat) and disaster relief meal packages.

It's best known, however, for the shredded Big League Chew bubble gum that comes in a pouch. 

"Bob graduated one year before I did from WIU," Stege said. "We both went into secondary education and coached debate teams at our high schools.

"Our teams would do some things together, including games of co-ed touch football," he said. "We were both successful coaches, each winning the IHSA state championship for our respective teams."

Despite busy careers and family responsibilities, Stege and Swanson have  remained close over the past five decades. In the spring of 2017, the couples vacationed together and Stege brought along some new grape flavored Big League Chew for Debbi Swanson to try.

Noticing the baseball player on the package, Bob Swanson asked Stege what it would take to have his summer girls softball team pictured on a pouch of Big League Chew. 

"I was half-joking when I brought it up,'' Bob Swanson said. "And George chuckled and said, 'We can do that; just send me a photo.' I mean, he is the boss and he can make sure things get done. But I was shocked at how easy it was."

Soon, several cases of Big League Chew — with the front featuring the Ben Farrar softball team — arrived at Swanson's Rock Island home. He distributed them to the 15 members of his squad, telling them to do with them what they wish but recommending they save a pouch or two as keepsakes.

"The girls and their families were thrilled that George (Stege) came through like that," Swanson.

"Think about it. Here was Big League Chew, the most famous bubble gum out there, and you have a softball team from Rock Island on its cover," he said. "Mind you, it was a limited quantity thing. But it's something the kids and their parents, uncles and aunts and grandparents will talk about forever.

"Plus, the gum's good," Swanson said. "If my wife says the gum is good, it's good."

While discussing the cover idea, Stege told Swanson the company had discussed adding a girl to the front of Big League Chew but the idea never gained a foothold with the company's board. From time to time, Ford received letters from girls requesting it.

"That summer (in 2017), George came to Rock Island and we had a game," Swanson said. "I asked if he wanted to meet the girls that he put on the cover of Big League Chew. George, being the great guy he is, went with us to meet the team."

When Stege was introduced to the Ben Farrar club, he was swarmed and warmly welcomed with thank yous, smiles and requests for photos with each player.

One member of the team told Stege how much she loved the gum but she always saw it as a "boy" thing. She had never paid attention to it until she was on the cover.

At that point, Stege locked himself into a discussion with the team. He was peppered with questions as to why no girl had ever graced the cover.

"My trip to Rock Island and watching Bob's team solidified my personal resolve to get it done," Stege said.
 
"I did bring along some current Big League Chew and Bob gave some to his players. After the game the players were asked if they liked the gum and it was a resounding yes," he said. "Then, asked if they ever purchased the gum before — silence. When asked why not, one girl stated she thought it was just for boys.
 
"I then became personally convinced that the softball pouch was a great idea, long overdue," Stege said. "After considerable discussion on exactly how we would execute the concept, it evolved to what you see today."
 
Stege says no other Ford product has received such interest.
 
"To me, Big League Chew has always meant fun," he said. "And having fun shouldn't be limited to only half the planet."
 
Camlin says Stege's willingness to listen to their concerns left a lasting impression with the team.

"He didn't have to pay attention to us," she said. "He already put us on the cover and didn't need to listen. But he did.

"You could tell we had an impact on him," Camlin said. "We know we are the reason there is finally a girl on the cover of Big League Chew, and that's cool."

Last year, Stege notified Swanson that Ford was coming out with a Big League Chew pack picturing a female softball player. He also said he would be making a trip to Rock Island to share the artwork created for Big League Chew.

"It is definitely a girl," Swanson said. "We showed the artwork to our girls and let them know that they were the catalyst in breaking the barrier. They are thrilled and excited.

"Big League Chew is no longer going to be enjoyed primarily just by boys," he said. "It's awesome to think that a bunch of teenage girls in Rock Island helped make it happen."

Awesome, indeed.

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