Rubin: With Ripley's, you can believe it

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

 Margaret Dunning, with her 1930 Packard, has a new accolade for her lengthy time behind the wheel. “Who ever expected me to be this old?” she asks.

Margaret Dunning of Plymouth learned to drive on the family farm when she was 8 years old.

Now she's closing on 104½ — and she just rolled into Ripley's Believe It or Not.

That gave me an excuse to dial her up, which is always a treat. It also put me back in touch with the world's leading expert on shrunken heads, two-headed calves and portraits of presidents painted on Spanish black beans — a different sort of delight, but a treat all its own.

Eight other Michigan-based vignettes are among the thousand or so entries in the latest annual coffee-table book from the Ripley empire, subtly titled "Reality Shock!"(Ripley Publishing, $28.95).

Mike Bowen of Flushing gets a shout-out for running 58,282 miles from 1982 to 2013, one for each American who never returned from the Vietnam War.

Ripley's Believe It Or Not! Reality Shock!

Detroiter Herbert Jenkins rates a mention because he was the only member of his union, the Assistant Supervisors of Street Maintenance and Construction Association.

Charles Zigler of Jackson would be the most surprised of all of them to learn he was included, because all he did was die. Eighteen months later, notes Ripley's, he was still sitting in his favorite chair watching television, because "his housemate, Linda Chase, kept his mummified body, washing it and dressing it every day, and talked to it while watching NASCAR races."

Dunning, blessedly, is far more lively.

She caught the attention of Ripley's editors after The Detroit News, saluting her many contributions to Plymouth, named her a 2013 Michiganian of the Year. Ripley's waved a checkered flag at her for nearly a century of driving, much of it in her beloved 1930 Packard 740 Custom Eight.

"I just love that car," she says, though it was a 2003 Cadillac she had just taken to Ann Arbor and back Tuesday.

Dunning more or less grew up with Ripley's, which began as a sports-themed newspaper cartoon called "Champs and Chumps" in 1918. She didn't know she had been commemorated in "Reality Shock!" until I told her, at which point she laughed.

"Well, I'm hanging in there if I can," she says. "Life has been wonderful."

'100 percent authenticated'

Robert Ripley, the curious cartoonist, died in 1949.

His Canadian-owned, Orlando-based legacy lives on with, among other things, 31 Believe It or Not museums in 10 countries, three aquariums, a daily comic, miniature golf courses, a library of TV shows, and a vice president of exhibits and archives who can expertly apply the law of supply and demand to a shrunken head.

"People always start at $1 million," says Edward Meyer, 58, who began at Ripley's the day after his college graduation. "When you tell 'em you have 30 or 40 in a drawer, the price goes down markedly."

Not quite 20 years ago, Meyer gave me a tour of the Ripley's warehouse in Orlando, where you can round a corner and see two long shelves full of stuffed two-headed calves.

"We display things that are odd, unusual, unbelievable and 100 percent authenticated as being true," he says. "That is the crucial criterion."

A thousand on the lookout

Six full-time researchers are in charge of tracking down items for the annual book, zeroing in on things like the 200 tons of dirt, 16,700 gallons of water and hundreds of squealing children who make up Mud Day in Westland.

The researchers, however, have help.

"Literally every single employee," Meyer says — meaning roughly 1,000 of them — "has it as at least a footnote in their job description: 'Thou shalt look for interesting stories.'"

In Plymouth, Dunning is tickled to have been found, and to still be in the driver's seat.

"Who ever expected me to be this old?" she asks.

But she is, believe it or not.