Jim Dey: Controversial Suburban Express owner: 'I want every passenger I can get'

Jim Dey: Controversial Suburban Express owner: 'I want every passenger I can get'

Local business owner Dennis Toeppen discovered again this week that, when he leads with his chin, more than a few people will take a swing at him.

They include University of Illinois bureaucrats, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and even a UI student senator who suggested that the passenger buses Toeppen operates should be banned from the public streets around campus.

His sin? He sent an email message to potential customers that listed reasons to use his Suburban Express bus service. One of them stated, "You won't feel like you're in China when you're on our buses."

The comment was taken, not unreasonably, as an unflattering reference to the 6,000 Chinese students enrolled at the UI.

Thus was born another racial imbroglio that has drawn attention not just locally, but also from the Chicago Tribune, CNN and other national and international news outlets.

Toeppen issued a series of apologies suggesting his remark was an attempt at humor gone wrong. But his supplicating words have been flatly rejected by some.

That attitude is reflected in a wide-ranging subpoena issued by Madigan that suggests he discriminates against Chinese students. That's a charge he rejects, saying it is technologically impossible.

"We serve every demographic out there, and I want every passenger I can get," Toeppen said.

Further, Toeppen said, "99.99 percent" of ticket sales are online, and "our website does not have the ability to determine race."

But that's the price Toeppen is paying for his case of foot-in-mouth disease, not his first and, despite his pledge to change, maybe not even his last.

His problem is that he's a fish out of water, a bird who flies into the wind, socially awkward and sometimes inclined to make big problems out of small ones.

"I've been told that I'm too rigid. I think there is empirical evidence that there is some validity to that," he said.

Even sitting down to explain himself Wednesday revved up his concerns about appearances.

"Sometimes, when I'm a little nervous, I tend not to speak in grammatically correct sentences," he said of the inevitable imprecision that goes hand-in-hand with speaking off the cuff.

But one thing is crystal clear — Toeppen said he regrets his "hastily written, ill-conceived, flippant" comment and wants Asian students "to be my customers."

"I can say there was no malicious intent. Maybe there was a point of poorly executed humor that wasn't humor," he said.

Even with that acknowledgment, Toeppen can't help but reflect in a neutral way on the controversy.

"A good story meets the melodramatic imperative — good versus evil," he said. "Although I'm not evil, I've created a melodrama that makes it easy for people to cast me as a villain."

The insightful analysis comes naturally.

A 53-year-old native of Mount Prospect, he has bachelor's degrees in economics and finance from the UI, a master's in transportation from Northwestern and a master's in business administration from the University of Chicago.

He said he intended to study law at the UI, but that his plans were derailed by intense business competition that consumed too much of his time.

"Now I'm too old," he said.

Toeppen started his business as a 19-year-old UI undergraduate, a precocious move that grew from interest in old buses into a study of the transportation needs of Chicago-area UI students.

Toeppen said he started his service by offering $28 round-trip tickets compared with Greyhound's price of $43.70 round trip. They competed over customers; eventually, Greyhound decided to devote its energies elsewhere.

At one point, he designed and built his own ticket-taking machine that sped up customer service because he couldn't find one to buy.

"If there's no solution to my problem, I design and build it myself," he said, noting his approach "applies in both a hardware sense and a software sense."

These days, Toeppen operates three "big coaches" that can carry 56 passengers and up to six "operating sprinters" holding 11 passengers. He said he has 12 employees and is "happy with the trajectory that the business has taken over the years."

In 2014, the last year for which he counted, Toeppen said his buses carried more than 120,000 passengers to the Chicago area and back.

"My life is my business, and I'm all in," he said. "I spend too much time on it."

But he acknowledged that he's sometimes too detail-oriented and inflexible and that his rigid approach to what he regards as ethical issues have caused problems.

For instance, he posted an internet "wall of shame" identifying customers who wanted to ride his buses but not pay for a ticket. He said the page, now taken down, was comparable with businesses that post bounced checks on a public board for all to see.

He also said he pursued — in small-claims court — customers who defrauded him to deter future fraud against himself and other business owners, a move that rubbed some people the wrong way.

If some are irritated, Toeppen said, others appreciate what he does.

That's why he was pleased that some have called him to express sympathy for his current predicament while others have been "screaming profanities at us."

But change is hard, and Toeppen's personality quirks will make it doubly so, as he admits.

Asked to describe himself, Toeppen pointed out that his two favorite television characters are titular character from the PBS show "Doc Martin," an emotionless, grouchy physician who lacks social skills, and Dr. Sheldon Cooper, the genius physicist who also lacks social skills and a sense of humor, on the CBS show "The Big Bang Theory."

"So draw your own conclusions," he said.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or by phone at 217-359-4521.

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Glock21 wrote on December 07, 2017 at 7:12 am

Leave it to the News-Gazette's resident white nationalism apologist to normalize a local notorious racist as some bumbling anti-hero in an awkward coming of age teen flick:

"But that's the price Toeppen is paying for his case of foot-in-mouth disease, not his first and, despite his pledge to change, maybe not even his last.

"His problem is that he's a fish out of water, a bird who flies into the wind, socially awkward and sometimes inclined to make big problems out of small ones."

Seriously? Front page and all of that attention for a fluff piece that doesn't even take him to task on his non-apology. Did y'all hug it out and go to group therapy for victims of snowflake abuse after?

juandez wrote on December 07, 2017 at 7:12 am

Welcome to Trump's America. Poor poor misunderstood racist guy is soooo misunderstood. /S

fuddrules wrote on December 07, 2017 at 5:12 pm

Any nitwit knows he's been around a lot longer than Trump has been President.  It hasn't changed him.

It's just now people have the inability to deal with words and couldn't care less if that inability infringes on the rights of others to express themselves.

 

Just ask Ms. Madigan.

CallSaul wrote on December 07, 2017 at 6:12 pm

How exactly are you claiming his rights to express himself have been infringed on...?

Be specific...

fuddrules wrote on December 08, 2017 at 10:12 am

Lisa Madigan is working on it.  Threats, even empty, have the ability to do this.  She knows it as do you.

CallSaul wrote on December 08, 2017 at 10:12 am

Rightwingers, as I noted below, have an incredibly delusional notion of the first amendment and freedom of expression...

Again, his right to express his ignorant racism has in no way been curtailed or infringed on in the least bit by anyone.

His right to express his racism doesn't mean there can't be consequences for him when he expresses his ignorant racist idiocy...

The AG is checking to see if he broke laws regarding discrimination.

That in no way infringes on his right to spew his ignorant racism...

He's free to go on sharing his ignorant racism with the world to his heart's content.

As has been noted by many before, rightwingers seem to think the first amendment gives them the right to say whatever ignorant racist bigoted things they want and then also guarantees that there somehow can't be any repurcussions for spouting their ignorant racism...

...they see to further think that their own right to free expression somehow takes away others' rights to free expression so that no one can criticize their ignorant racsim and bigotry...

...that's, y'know, not how it actually works...

You can spout all the racist and bigoted ignorance you want...

...but you can't demand that no one criticize you or that there won't be various consequences for doing so...

If someone is potentially breaking laws and then voluntarily shares information about their potential law breaking publicly and law enforcement agencies take notice, that in no way means that person's right to free expression have been infringed on in any way...

...frankly, it just means that person, in addition to potentially breaking laws, is a dope...

 

fuddrules wrote on December 09, 2017 at 7:12 am

He's being investigated because he said something she didn't like.  What he said is completely legal.  UI is doing the same.  Legal free speech and they are doing nothing other than trying to intimidate him and others from free speech.  

They don't like his "words", they can't handle his words, so they intimidate.  They use their position to bully.  It's very simple.  

CallSaul wrote on December 09, 2017 at 11:12 am

He's not being investigated for expressing his ignorant racism and bigotry.

He's being investigated for potentially acting on his ignorant racism and bigotry by discriminating in his provision of services to the public.

But you of course know that.

You deliberately misrepresent the concept of free speech.

Imagine someone publicly admitting to illegal behavior.

If cops then investigate to see if they really did behave illegally, that person's right to free expression has in no way been violated.

Freedom of speech is not, literally or figuratively, a get out of jail free card.

You deliberately misrepresent freedom of speech and argue that it is in fact a get out of jail free card…

…a get out of jail free card that only applies to rightwingers of course.

In your skewed version of freedom of expression, it guarantees that rightwingers can say ––– and do ––– racist and bigoted things but that there can be no consequences for saying and doing the racist and bigoted things and further still, that there can't even be any criticism of them for saying and doing racist things…

Again…that's not how this works…that's not how any of this works

While freedom of speech gives you the right to express all the racist and bigoted ignorance you'd like, it doesn't give you the right to engage in illegal behavior.

Freedom of speech doesn't shield you from social disapproval for spouting racist and bigoted ignorance and it doesn't shield you from the consequences of illegal behavior motivated by racist and bigoted ignorance.

Discrimination in the provision of services to the public is illegal.

His racist and bigoted speech ––– that he voluntarily shares with the public ––– brought the attention of quite a few people to his potentially illegal behavior motivated by his ignorant racism and bigotry.

That is not in any way an infringement of his right to free expression…

fuddrules wrote on December 10, 2017 at 8:12 am

You can continue to write your manifestos, but the reality is, he did nothing illegal.  Those in power simply didn't like what he said and went into intimidation mode.  They are using their authority to intimidate him and others who may not know better.  Their investigations will turn up nothing.  This is simply a power play to shut down words.

CallSaul wrote on December 10, 2017 at 9:12 am

And you can continue to knowlingly misrepresent free speech.

Rightwingers have been doing it for years --- why would anyone expect you to stop now...?

If we applied your logic to everyone and not just to rightwingers, Bill Clinton's impeachment would be nothing but illegal intimidation...

The investigation is to determine whether or not he behaved illegally because his own words and actions strongly point to the possibility that he did in fact behave illegally...

But that's of course why we have investigations instead of listening to partisans who demand we don't investigate certain potential crimes...

...as long as those crimes are in line with those partisans' own belief system...

As you know, they're not investigating his speech.

They're investigating whether he acted illegally as his own words and actions seem to indicate.

Free speech doesn't give anyone the right to violate laws...

fuddrules wrote on December 10, 2017 at 6:12 pm

>>Free speech doesn't give anyone the right to violate laws...<<

What law did he violate?  The current answer, and future answer, is....no law.  This is the public sector using their power to intimidate.  They couldn't handle his words so they want to stifle his words.  It's very simple.

CallSaul wrote on December 10, 2017 at 6:12 pm

As has been explained over and over and over and over, he potentially violated laws against discrimination in the provision of public services...

That's why there's an investigation: to determine if he in fact did break laws against discrimination.

You are --- very simply --- being clumsily disingenuous. It's simply not possible you could actually be unaware that this is the potential illegal behavior that's being investigated.

You also have no way of knowing if he in fact has violated laws against discrimination or not.

Your blanket assertion that he has not is obviously based on nothing but your partisan affiliation...

But again, that's why we have investigations instead of bowing to the demands of partisan hacks who insist that certain potential crimes not be investigated because those potential crimes happen to be in line with the partisan hacks' worldview...

 

 

juandez wrote on December 07, 2017 at 7:12 am

This opinion piece by the news-gazette to try to rehabilitate a racist businessman is not surprising, but it is still shameful.

Suburban Express deserves to go out of business after what Dennis has done over the years. 

 

 

Yea Right wrote on December 07, 2017 at 8:12 am

Oh now he wants to backpeddle??  Little too late for that.  Hope he goes out of business.  I know i wont be using his services. #boycott #toolatetobackpeddle

CallSaul wrote on December 07, 2017 at 9:12 am

So yet again, the white nationalist contingent of the NG editorial board shills for an unrepentant racist.

Both the paper and the racist try to excuse his serial public racism and repeated vile comments as nothing but a quirky tic of a 'sociall awkward' but still lovable and down home feller who just happens to accidentally make all these racist comments over and over and over.

It's like someone trying to excuse their serial bad behavior by claiming to have been drunk all those times...

Dey shames all the decent people working at the NG with this schlock. 

Now they are inevitably going to be painted with the racism and bigotry that underlies this editorial''s clumsy --- and make no mistake, completely ineffectual --- attempt at whitewashing...

Bystander wrote on December 07, 2017 at 9:12 am
Profile Picture

How many times does Toeppen have to apologize for expressing his first amendment right to tell the truth?

CallSaul wrote on December 07, 2017 at 9:12 am

The first amendment means he --- just like you --- can express whatever ignorant racist idiocy he holds in his heart...

...it doesn't protect him from the natural consequences of that ignorant racist idiocy...

Rightwingers seem to think the fisrt amendment only applies to racists and bigots and other idiots, ensuring them the right to say whatever they want while shielding them from the consequences of their ignorant racsim and bigotry...

...they seem to further think that it somehow obligates others to shut up and not use their own right to speak critically of their ignorant racism and bigotry...

...though they get object lessons on how it really works time and time again, they always seem shocked that others are allowed to criticize them...

...it sure is rough out there for an ignorant racist bigoted idiot...

Bystander wrote on December 07, 2017 at 10:12 am
Profile Picture

Still keep forgetting to take your meds I see. 

CallSaul wrote on December 07, 2017 at 10:12 am

Still engaging in personal attacks after demanding that I be banned for alleged personal attacks, huh...?

I've said it before and I'll say it again: the hypocrisy and lack of self awareness of reactionary rightwing extremists knows no bounds...

And absolutely no one is surprised that such a lazy moldy old tired attack is all you've got...

...your intellectual bankruptcy is painfully obvious...even to you I bet...

Tell us, is that why you so consumed with bigotry and resentment...?

 

Illiniwek222 wrote on December 07, 2017 at 3:12 pm

Palilalia, non verbal...once again, seek treatment.

CallSaul wrote on December 07, 2017 at 5:12 pm

Yup...this really is the absolute best the racists and bigots can do.

They literally have nothing else to offer and even they know it...which you'll be able to see by the inevitable response.

With each such response, he acknowledges that such idiocy is all the reactionary rightwing bigots and racists can come up with...

...which is why of course they're so consumed with hatred, jealousy and resentment of others...

Illiniwek222 wrote on December 08, 2017 at 12:12 pm

This is not quite up to par with your usual repetitive commentary. I'd give it a 49 on the Saul-o-Meter. I don't see "sad", "pathetic" or "nut job". I thought you forgot "spew", but found it earlier in this thread.

You missed using "snowflake" and "lickspittle", which cost you points. Extra credit would have been givien for two of your favorites, "chicken feathers" and "Aunt Jemimah".

Maybe you ARE on your meds, but too low a dose, y'know.

 

CallSaul wrote on December 08, 2017 at 12:12 pm

Confirmation...

Illiniwek222 wrote on December 08, 2017 at 5:12 pm

Glad you agree.

Illiniwek222 wrote on December 08, 2017 at 12:12 pm

This is not quite up to par with your usual repetitive commentary. I'd give it a 49 on the Saul-o-Meter. I don't see "sad", "pathetic" or "nut job". I thought you forgot "spew", but found it earlier in this thread.

You missed using "snowflake" and "lickspittle", which cost you points. Extra credit would have been givien for two of your favorites, "chicken feathers" and "Aunt Jemimah".

Maybe you ARE on your meds, but too low a dose, y'know.

 

zofaan wrote on December 07, 2017 at 9:12 am

Yeah, this comment was pretty bad. He deserves the backlash. This opinion piece gives this nimrod way too much credit by digging into his personal history and interests, trying to get into his mind as if that is some kind of consolation. 

Joe American wrote on December 07, 2017 at 10:12 am

"Chinese" is not a race.

Please, by all means, continue to show your ignorance by calling this a "racist" issue.

Hint:  You all won't look as stupid if you substitute the word "bigot" for "racist", and those who truly are victims of racism can thank those on the left for watering down the term and reducing its sting to nothing at all.

English Do You Speak It wrote on December 07, 2017 at 5:12 pm

This is by far one of the most profoundly stupid things I have ever read and I've seen a lot of ridiculous stuff. If Chinese is not a race what is? This isn't even a question of ethnicity vs. nationality and I highly doubt you're in the "race is just a social construct" camp. Furthermore, are racists not bigots to you? Trying to blame this on "the left" is ridiculous as well since this is hardly a partisian issue. I'm fairly right wing myself and it's clear as day to me that Dennis is the hateful man the UofI community has known him to be for years.

This is such an absurd post that it's almost like Dennis himself wrote it with one of his many alternate accounts.

Glock21 wrote on December 07, 2017 at 10:12 am

In related news: the paper's editorial took the side of white nationalists at Charlottesville over those horrible and awful "so-called" opponents of fascism. What next, Matt Hale tributes?

Alexander wrote on December 07, 2017 at 11:12 am

A piece defending a blatant racist. Besides the kid gloves used in the writing, notice what is *not* mentioned: Toeppen's fake apology where he blames the UI of selling out. Whether you agree with the sentiment or not, it's amazing that such a critical part of the story is ignored by the writer.

Toeppen's defense is that he cannot determine the race of a purchaser. Obviously this is true. However, I briefly looked at the Illinois Human Rights Act:

http://www.ilga.gov/legislation/ilcs/ilcs4.asp?DocName=077500050HArt%2E+...

Section 5 part (A)(7) seems to refer to a bus (or shuttle). Then part (B) of the same section reads

"(B) Written Communications. Directly or indirectly, as the operator of a place of public accommodation, publish, circulate, display or mail any written communication, except a private communication sent in response to a specific inquiry, which the operator knows is to the effect that any of the facilities of the place of public accommodation will be denied to any person or that any person is unwelcome, objectionable or unacceptable because of unlawful discrimination;"

 

(I've added the emphasis on "unwelcome, objectionable or unacceptable".) If my reading is correct (and maybe it is not) -- it is illegal to tell a class of people (nationality or race) they are unwelcome to use a service EVEN IF you later say "oh, it's unfortunate you're here -- ok I'll take your money because I'm not a racist".

 

bertstabler wrote on December 07, 2017 at 1:12 pm

It is poignant that there’s a blurb above this comments section asking commenters to avoid hate speech- under an article clearly making a martyr out of a bigot. “Fish out of water” AND “bird flying against the wind”- if the paper isnt embarrassed to publicly defend a pretty obviously inappropriate comment from an apparently clueless jerk, without even calling it an opinion piece, let alone an argument supporting casual racism, you’d think they might at least be embarrassed to have their reputation in the hands of a writer whose command of tired cliches verges on rambling incoherence. 

rsp wrote on December 07, 2017 at 11:12 pm

Surprise! Jim Dey is an opinion writer! You can find his column in the Opinion section of the paper!

 

justthefacts wrote on December 07, 2017 at 3:12 pm

It might be that this is really a tactic to generate exposure and some free advertising. There are no Suburban Express stops in downtown Chicago or at Ohare or Midway airports. Since all the stops are in the suburbs, hence the name Suburban Express, it is reasonable to assume that the vast majority of Suburban Express riders are not international students, but rather students whose homes and families are in the surburbs. Mr.Toeppen may or may not be a racist, but his statement, which is certainly offensive to Chinese students, probably does accurately describe the demographics of most of his passengers. If this is a deliberate act to increase public awareness of his business it is certainly cynical and distasteful. 

rsp wrote on December 07, 2017 at 11:12 pm

There are no Suburban Express stops in downtown Chicago or at Ohare or Midway airports.

He's been banned in those places too?

-it is reasonable to assume that the vast majority of Suburban Express riders are not international students-

No Chinese American families are allowed to live up there in the suburbs, huh? Just white families?

Innocent_Primate wrote on December 07, 2017 at 3:12 pm

He wants every passenger he can get ? The admonition “you’re doing it wrong” comes to mind.

JennyGee wrote on December 07, 2017 at 5:12 pm

Shame on you, News-Gazette. Dennis Toeppen missed his opportunity to make things right when he continued insulting students and the University in his "apology". Written communication is never "off-the-cuff", and even if he intended humor, he never said so. This guy is out of chances to save face.

bookworm wrote on December 08, 2017 at 8:12 am

I bought a ticket to O’Hare two months before my flight.  One week before the flight, I received an email from the airline stating an earlier departure, leaving only 90 minutes to check in and go through security for an international flight.  I immediately bought a ticket for an earlier bus.  I filled out the form for reimbursement and a submitted a copy of the email, trying to get a refund.  Mr. Toeppen refused the refund saying his job was to fill buses.  On the website, at that time, was a list of reasons for refunds, which included a change in flight schedule.  He said my flight didn’t count because I had plenty of time.  This was when the TSA lines were long and people were missing flights.  He was inflexible and incredibly rude.  I sincerely hope he goes out of business.  I’ve used Amtrak/CTA or Peoria Charter ever since. 

justthefacts wrote on December 09, 2017 at 10:12 am

RSP, I did not say that all surburban residents were caucasian, just that most of his passengers were most likely not international students. 

CU Crazy Bird and Cat Lady wrote on December 09, 2017 at 11:12 am

I'm highly disgusted by this piece. My family subscribed to the News-Gazette for many years and I even delivered newspapers like many youngsters seeking a first job. Dennis Toeppen is not some kind of misunderstood, downtrodden underdog who makes social blunders. As an adult with autism, I find it offensive that he would compare himself to Sheldon from Big Bang Theory (Sheldon's character writing is offensive in and of itself, but that's another issue). Toeppen has personally attacked and doxed (publicly posted private information) about one of my friends. He's racist, transphobic, and frankly sleazy; a quick web search shows how he gleefully posted ad-hominem attacks on a competitor who has since gone out of business. We, as a community, need to stop giving this degenerate money and stop letting people try to cover for his actions. There are other options to visit Chicago for University students. Don't let Toeppen run a monopoly.

cjisalock wrote on December 09, 2017 at 8:12 pm

Gee...if only there was a way on the internet to go back and see all of the doxing Dennis has done on people who have registered complaints about how he runs his business.  Oh, wait!  There is!

 

https://web.archive.org/web/20150924131909/http://www.suburbanexpress.co...

happyhero wrote on December 10, 2017 at 11:12 am

What a piece of rubbish. I hope that the News-Gazette will apologize and retract this story from Jim Dey.

Dey writes: "The comment was taken, not unreasonably, as an unflattering reference to the 6,000 Chinese students enrolled at the UI.

"Unflattering"?  Try "offensive", "bigoted", "insulting", or other more appropriate word. Dey works for the newspaper - right?  I expect professional reporters to choose words carefully. Words and facts matter.

Dey leads the reader to believe the owner is simply misunderstood and is being unfairly targeted by students, U of I officials (whom he labels "bureaucrats"), and Illinois Attorney General Madigan.

It is clear that Suburban Express has a history of offending people and now they've gone one step further.  Call it like it is. This was a racially-charged advertisement, and not a "joke".  The bus company's multiple apologies were even worse than the original statement. This bus company is disgusting and any attempt by Dey to lessen the owner's bigoted remarks only seeks to excuse them as being misunderstood.

Clearly the Suburban Express owner has an axe to grind with a world-class institution (U of I) which attracts students from Illinois and around the globe.  Instead, we are supposed to believe from the article that the owner is just "socially awkward"?  No, I'm not buying that one.

I am glad the many U of I students, faculty and administration have spoken out against Suburban Express.  There is no place in the Champaign-Urbana community (or anywhere) for this owner's intolerance toward others who look different from him, and I hope that the News-Gazette editorial staff will come to their senses and apologize.