Meet Bob, just your average Joe

He is white, 53 years old, goes to church fairly regularly, has a high-school diploma, supports the right to legal abortion, prefers smooth peanut butter to chunky and occasionally pees in the shower. Andrew Buncombe meets Bob Burns, the most unexeptional man in America
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The Independent US

Who would dare to call Bob Burns average? Surely not his wife, Sue, to whom he has been married for more than 30 years. Surely not his three children - two lawyers and a US Air Force Academy graduate - of whom he is very proud. And what of his neighbours in the quiet cul-de-sac where he lives on the edge of a small Connecticut community? Do they think Bob is average?

How about the pupils at the local high school where he has spent much of his working life. And, finally, what about Martha Stewart, the domestic goddess and recent ex-con who invited Bob to appear on her television show? Did she think he deserves the name Average Bob?

The truth is that Bob Burns - 5ft 8in tall, 53 years old, with size 101/2 feet and with a preference for smooth rather than chunky peanut-butter - is very average indeed. So darn average that he is special, even exceptional. In fact, Bob may be the most average American in all America.

He is superlative in his averageness. "I always thought I was an average person," he says. "I was an average student, an average athlete. I was just an average person all my life."

This assessment is not lightly made. Rather it the conclusion of Kevin O'Keefe, a media consultant turned author, who has spent the past three years travelling the length and breadth of the United States trying to find the most statistically average American among the 281,421,906 people officially counted by the 2000 census.

His journey, which he details in a new book in the US, The Average American: The Extraordinary Search for the Nation's Most Ordinary Citizen (PublicAffairs Books), took him from the highlands of Hawaii to the prairies of the Midwest, in his hunt for the person who deserved the title of Mr or Mrs or Ms Average USA.

He travelled through the cornfields of Kansas, which to many people represent the quintessential average American landscape, to the 119-acre property owned by John Henry Kemp, an Amish farmer, in rural Daviess County, Indiana, which the census showed was America's median population centre. From that point in the American heartland there is exactly the same population to the north, west, south and east.

All of that would have been a good enough story by itself, but what gives O'Keefe's tale a twist of the sharpest citrus peel, is that after all his travelling - a journey that was undoubtedly, and probably deliberately, something of a voyage of personal discovery - his search delivered him smack back home where he grew up in small-town Connecticut.

Average Bob, it transpires, used to be the janitor at O'Keefe's high school. If it sounds like too much of a unlikely coincidence, O'Keefe says that he, too, still cannot get over what he discovered. Yet he insists this outcome was not planned and that his search was driven by the statistics, by the numbers that would determine the most typical American. By choice, he would have discovered that the Average American lived somewhere other than five miles from where he grew up. "It's not what I had hoped," he says. "I did not want to be somewhere I knew about. I did not believe it. I said no one else would believe it. I hoped I would have ended up somewhere like St Louis, Missouri, or North Carolina."

I met the two men on a bright and sunny afternoon at Bob's house on the outskirts of Windham, Connecticut. To a visitor, it all looked too neat and nice, too leafy and comfortable to be average America. But apparently this small, suburban community is among the most statistically typical in the US.

In household size, the percentage of residents with the minimum of a high-school diploma, the percentage of people born within the state, the percentage size of its ethnic communities, the income of its residents and the percentage of people living in poverty, Windham is almost perfectly typical.

And when O'Keefe finally settled on Windham then narrowed his list of possible "most average" citizens until only Bob was left, he waited until this past 4 July - Independence Day - to break the news to him. Bob says he was almost overcome with emotion. "I'm just truly honoured to represent the average person," he says. "I'm in awe."

For O'Keefe, the search for Bob started four years ago, when the author turned 40 and when he started to question his values and his motivation. All his teenage and adult life he had striven to be anything but average. As a long-distance runner he had been a state champion; he chose to go to a university in Alabama because no one from his school had ever been there; he turned his back on his quiet Connecticut upbringing and made a beeline for New York city, working for one of the world's largest and most powerful public relations companies. His clients included Marlon Brando.

Such a set of circumstances, such drive and ambition to be special, may not be that unusual but O'Keefe was clearly not happy with the sort of person he had become. A key moment appears to have been a four-mile family fun-run in 2002. O'Keefe ran flat-out and won but failed to talk to the other participants. He realised then that being superlative might not be everything.

With a new-found perspective - discovered, it appears, partly because of meeting the woman who is now his wife - O'Keefe set off to investigate just what it meant to be average, to be ordinary.

He says he was to explore a country that apparently celebrates being superlative more than almost anything else, a country whose towns and cities broadcast their claim to fame, be it for having the nation's longest bridge, its narrowest street or its oldest house.

Four years ago, the town of Battle Mountain, Nevada, reacted to a newspaper article that derided it for its ultimate awfulness with a new marketing slogan, Battle Mountain: Armpit of America. Anything, it seems, is better than being ordinary.

O'Keefe does not pretend his survey was entirely scientific; Bob, for example, is left-handed, unlike most Americans. But the author used his journey around the US to help decide which issues were most important for defining "American-ness".

Then having worked out these criteria he then sought the average and typical. Whether someone was right- or left-handed, he concluded, was not a factor in being a typical, average American.

The issues he deemed important included factors such as race and religion, one's home and one's education. Whether someone drank coffee regularly would also be a criterion. Having drawn up this list, O'Keefe turned to surveys and statistics to determine what represented the average. He quickly assembled a basic template for his ultimate Average American, as opposed to simply an average American.

They would have to be white, Christian, go to church fairly regularly, would be married, aged between 18 and 53, would possess at least a high-school diploma and own their free-standing house.

They would live in a metropolitan area though not a huge conurbation. They would have two or three children.

Soon, he added other determining factors. The Average American would prefer smooth peanut butter to chunky, they would have a pet, they would eat at McDonald's, they would support legal abortion and - if a majority of 83 per cent of Americans were a guide - they would occasionally pee in the shower.

The Average American would also be able to name all three of the Stooges (59 per cent can) but would not be able to name the three branches of the government (83 per cent cannot). He or she would not properly wash their hands after using the lavatory. (83 to 84 per cent.)

O'Keefe's eventual discovery of Bob was also a reappraisal of what it meant to be average. "I used to think that average was boring," he says. "Now I think it means being more balanced. Balance is what really comes to matter. Of course, your job is important but I'm so comfortable with myself now. I was not before. I'm much more comfortable in my own skin; my wife will tell you."

And what of the Average American? What of Bob Burns of Windham, Connecticut, whose house bears a sign saying "Support the Troops"?

It is a terribly obvious thing to say but the first thing that strikes you about him is how ordinary he is. That is the very point, of course, but when you are preparing yourself to meet some who has been designated as in some way special or superlative - someone who gets to appear on television with Martha Stewart - then you anticipate someone extraordinary. That Bob is special for being ordinary takes a little getting used to.

Which is in no way to denigrate him. Bob is friendly, welcoming and enthused. He seems to have endless energy and he also appears content. He insists he is. "I am living the American dream. Yes, I am, I have everything I need; friends, family."

What is more, since he was told of his special ordinary status, he has taken to the cult of averageness like a zealot, so much so that he wonders whether this was in some way his destiny.

"I wonder if there is something of a mission, to get the word out that ordinary is OK," he says. "Family values, parenting. I think I'm blessed with a certain type of gift, maybe this is it, [to accept] that being average, to being yourself is OK. Don't try to be something you are not. Accept what you are and things will be OK. We've all had our ups and downs but we have the strength to pull through."

O'Keefe says Bob matched all 140 average criteria tests he put to him. "Mean-spiritedly, I try to catch them out," he says. "They're good sports and play along."

Under questioning, Bob reveals he is involved with a local charity (as most Americans are from time to time), that he lives within 20 minutes drive of a Wal-Mart, that he has a hobby or two, that he is not extreme when it comes to politics (he voted Democrat in the last presidential election but is a potential swing voter) and that he supports the troops who are in Iraq, though not necessarily the decisions that sent them there.

Like three-quarters of Americans he believes in stricter enforcement of environmental protections. (Although he does drive a white, second-hand GMC truck, Bob says if he were to buy a new vehicle, it would be a hybrid.) He also admits he occasionally pees in the shower. "Not all the time, y'know," he says with a laugh.

Bob firmly believes in the decency of ordinariness, and of ordinary Americans. His concept of average is that "person in the middle", someone who has a modest income, someone who pays their taxes to help support the country.

To him, family values mean things like raising your children to have respect for other people and their property, to be tolerant of the opinions of others, to be tolerant of other races. Like many others communities across America, Windham has recently seen its Hispanic population grow and Bob believes in tolerance.

His faith is central to his life. "You have to have a spiritual thing," he says. "This world was [not just] created. Look at the universe."

When it is time to go, I finish up by asking Bob about the future and what is in store for him; perhaps he will hit the lecture circuit, perhaps he will appear at O'Keefe's book-tour dates? He says, good-naturedly, that he does not think that is for him.

He is not interested in becoming a celebrity. He really is content with who he is and what he has. He is happy just being average.

The Average American ...

* Supports current abortion laws though personally believes the act of abortion is wrong

* Describes him/ herself as 'very' or 'fairly happy'

* Has fired a gun and believes in the right to bear arms

* Lives where there is at least 0.1 inches of annual snowfall

* Has an electric coffee-maker in the house

* Wears glasses or contact lenses

* Has a lawn

* Opposes legalisation of marijuana for recreational use but supports it for medicinal use

* Has cable TV

* Lives within two miles of a public park

* Has a BBQ grill at home

* Reads the local newspaper daily

* Showers daily

* Has a Christmas tree every year

* Owns a pair of jeans

* Has at least one living parent

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