You’re cruisin’ down the highway, and as you brake to stop for a red light, you notice something unusual about the car ahead. Focusing on its rear license plate, you realize that instead of having a random combination of letters and numbers it forms a word or a phrase. You smile at the cryptic, clever communication, but you wonder for a moment what it means and what prompted the driver to advertise it on his or her license plate. Then the light turns green and you and the other car eventually go in different directions, your questions unanswered. Sightings of personalized plates aren’t uncommon on central Minnesota roads, so Senior Perspective set out to discover some of the stories behind the one-of-a-kind messages. Personalized plates have been around Minnesota for 35 years, and this year they adorn no less than 79,814 of the four million-plus passenger vehicles registered in the state, according to the Driver and Vehicle Services division. Drivers who want to use their license as a medium of self-expression have to plunk down $110 to buy the special plates in addition to their annual license tab fee. They can use only seven characters, including spaces and hyphens, to say what they want to say, and the plates can’t duplicate any others. The division’s website also warns: “Any personalized plate that could offend public morals or decency will not be issued.” The plates on Charlene Schaefer’s sporty red 2004 Mazda read GOT ART, a reference to her longtime career as an art teacher and a plug for all things artistic. But the plate has prompted some unintended reactions. She taught art for 28 years, 25 of them in the Annandale schools, and continues to paint with watercolors. She and her husband, Zane, a former Annandale High School band director, retired in 2006. They’ve been strong promoters of the arts, he said, and he bought the plate for her eight years ago as a takeoff on the “Got Milk?” promotion but without the question mark because it isn’t available on personalized plates. “Most people don’t think about (the arts), they just take it for granted,” he said. The idea was to get them to “think about the world of art and its impact on our culture.” But instead of the arts, to some observers GOT ART suggested a local businessman named Art. Art himself joked to Charlene, “Don’t tell my wife,” she laughed. Others, some shouting from across the street, asked, “Where have you got him?” Some people still remark about the “cute plates,” she said, but “it doesn’t get as many comments as it used to.” Meanwhile, she’s become a plate watcher herself. “There are some very clever ones,” she said. “I should write them down, but I don’t.” Charlene remains devoted to the arts. “I really enjoy all areas of art,” she said, and she plans to concentrate on her watercolors after taking care of some chores this summer. The plates on Royce Nies’ shiny black 2011 Nissan Titan 4×4 pickup urge readers to GOFISHN, his favorite pastime. “I started fishing when I was just a little boy,” the 66-year-old Sartell financial adviser explained. “I’ve been fishing all my life. It’s the one sport that I love to do when I’m not working. I just love everything about fishing.” Nies repeated one of his favorite sayings, which he attributed to a priest: “It is better to be fishing and thinking of God than to be in church thinking of fishing.” It should be no surprise that in the Land of 10,000 Lakes personalized plates with a fishing theme are popular. The old tune “Gone Fishin’” was the inspiration for the plates 15 years ago, Nies said, but he had to try five different versions before he hit on one that wasn’t taken. It’s prompted many comments from other drivers, like the guy in the left turn lane on Highway 15 who shouted, “Why aren’t you out fishing today?” And those who don’t say anything often smile, he said. One of his other pastimes is playing saxophone in the St. Cloud Municipal Band, the Sartell Community Band and the Rock City Jazz Band. Nies, who was inducted into the national Brokers Hall of Fame in 1998, has worked in the financial industry for 36 years and has no retirement plans. “It’s not even on my radar sight yet.” The custom plates on Betty French’s gray 2005 Buick spell COOKIES, but that’s not because she eats, bakes or sells them. Cookie is the nickname her father gave her when she was a small child, she said, and it’s the only name the 64-year-old Pearl Lake woman has ever answered to. When she applied for the plates about 25 years ago, “I asked for Cookie and that was already taken, so I just put the S on it for Cookie’s Car.” Personalized plates don’t have apostrophes. She doesn’t know why her father called her that, French said, but her brother and sister didn’t get nicknames. She decided to put it on personalized plates “because that name was very endearing to me. It’s something my father gave me out of lots of love, I’m sure. I’m real proud of that name.” Her father, Marty Dehler, lived in the town of Marty and died at age 86 about a decade ago. The plates have been on several vehicles, including a Chevy Blazer that overturned as she drove around a corner several years ago. “I rolled it three times and got thrown out of the car for 40 feet.” She spent five months in the hospital and couldn’t return to work as a convenience store manager. French is still able to walk and drive, she said, but she can’t walk or stand for long and she’s in constant pain. “I want to do something to pay life back or the universe back or God back for saving me because I’m very lucky to be alive.” She’s acquired a golden retriever named Abby, who gives her a reason to get out of the house. “I rescued her, or she rescued me.” French said she found Abby in Marty after praying to her father for a dog. “My dad sent me that dog,” she said. “You bet he did.” Nancy Young of rural Annandale has displayed SHABOOM on her bumpers for the past two decades as a reminder of a vacation during which she discovered a fabulous band and a taste for garlic. Young, an elementary teacher, explained that she and her husband, Tim, an Annandale lawyer, drove to the Gilroy Garlic Festival in California back in 1991 after reading that it was one of the top 50 sights to see in the United States. The highlight was a band named Shaboom, a group of high school teachers and coaches who were trying to raise money for their schools’ athletic programs. “Sh-boom,” the 1954 pop hit, was the group’s signature song. “It was old-time rock ’n’ roll and they were having a great time,” she recalled. “They were just good people, good times.” When they got back to Minnesota, Tim surprised her with the plates. “I’ve kept them ever since,” and they’re now attached to her red 2009 Chevrolet Malibu. The Youngs liked the band’s music and its members so much that they followed them to other events. The group played in Las Vegas and around the country before retiring about five years ago, she said. “If they played somewhere, we’d go now, [but] that won’t happen.” Band leader John Dotson and No. 2 man Dee Quinet have SHABOOM plates mounted on their walls after Young bought new ones, as required every seven years, and sent them her old ones. Not long ago a boy started singing the song when he noticed the plates in a parking lot, she said. “That happens.” “As it turns out, I love garlic,” Young said, and she still receives supplies of the strong-smelling herb and books about it from people she met in California. “It’s all because of that trip.” The plates on Tom Riel’s gray 2009 Mercury Grand Marquis play on his name, declaring IM4RIEL. “I didn’t have much to do with it,” the Richmond 80-year-old said. It was the brainchild of his wife, Pat, and his son Bill about five years ago. “Being an obedient husband, I just followed along.” His plates were inspired by California personalized plates given to his late sister by her children and grandkids: IM4MAMA. “We’ve had so much enjoyment with it you can’t believe it,” said Riel, a retired car salesman. People in other cars on the highway often point at the plates and wave, while others approach them to talk about it. “We’re always getting stopped.” Another couple approached them at a rest area on the Kansas Turnpike as they returned from Arizona in the spring, Riel said. “They were fascinated by it.” It turned out they live at a resort next to the Riels’ home on the Horseshoe Chain of Lakes. “It’s a small world.” If you spotted the SHANTI plates on Lori Brostrom’s gray 2005 Jaguar and didn’t get it, you wouldn’t be the only one. Shanti is a sanskrit word she learned from a yoga instructor who ended each session with it, the St. Paul marketing director said. “It’s a blessing, and it means peace.” Madonna also used it in the chorus of one of her songs, and Brostrom found it soothing. When she’s tempted to shout at other drivers “it reminds me to calm down. I get notes every once in a while from people who return the blessing.” But for all the blessings bestowed by her plates, Brostrom has encountered more than her share of driving misfortune. Her car was significantly damaged three times in five years — once when a pizza delivery driver went through a stop sign and broadsided her, a second time when a cab hit a deer near the Minneapolis airport, flipping it over his car and into her path, and finally when a huge SUV backed into her in a parking lot. “But I never was hurt,” she said, suggesting SHANTI may have protected her from harm.
Minnesota: Land of 80,000 personalized plates