I had the good fortune of being a little baby disc jockey at KDTH in Dubuque, Iowa. It was one of those beloved radio stations I wrote about a few months back--it mattered to its community in a way radio stations rarely do anymore. We frequently heard from listeners who claimed their radios had never tuned away in 40 years, and we believed them. And while I was there, the personality who mattered most was Gordie Kilgore, who anchored the noon news, hosted a twice-daily call-in show called Sound Off, and produced some public-affairs programs. Kilgore had one of those old-fashioned radio voices, with a distinctive inflection that can be impersonated to this day by everyone who worked with him--the sort of thing that's bred out of today's aspiring announcers from Day One. He'd been at KDTH 28 years by the time I arrived in 1979, and because I had heard him on KDTH's FM sister, D93, while I was still in high school, I already knew who he was. And what he was, mostly, was intimidating. Not because of anything he said or did--although it was clear that he possessed a fairly substantial ego--but simply because of who he was, and the gravitas that came from his long experience.
Kilgore died yesterday at age 81, and those of us who knew him, whether we knew him personally or only through the radio, can't help remembering stories about him. Other people who knew him longer and better may have more colorful stories, but these are a couple of mine.
Kilgore was not an actual Dubuque native, although he was accepted as an honorary one, which was a big deal in pre-casino Dubuque. Back then, Dubuque was the biggest city in the country not located on an interstate highway, and its insularity was legendary. You could have lived in Dubuque 50 years and moved there when you were three, and some Dubuquers would still look down at you as an outsider. Kilgore cut through that. He loved the Mississippi River, and led each noon newscast with the river stages at various points in our listening area. He did this with such dedication that I once joked that the ultimate Kilgore lead would be, "Moscow in flames, Russian missiles headed toward New York, but first, these river stages. . . ."
One Friday before a long holiday weekend, Kilgore and the station's program director got into a disagreement over something Gordie had done, or left undone. Harsh words were exchanged, and Kilgore stomped up to the station manager's office and resigned. The next morning, the Des Moines Register reported that the longtime Dubuque broadcaster had quit, complete with a quote from Kilgore himself. (To this day, I wonder if Gordie tipped the newspaper.) That Saturday, I saw him quietly cleaning out his office, cardboard boxes full of plaques and memorabilia. On Tuesday, he showed up for work as if nothing had happened. It was the program director who ended up leaving not long afterward.
Like any lifelong radio man, Kilgore took severe weather seriously. One sunny Saturday afternoon, he stopped by while I was on the air. We had an alarm in the studio that blinked whenever the weather wire sent an urgent alert, and on that day, it had been blinking regularly, even though the weather out the window looked fine to me. Every time I checked it, there was nothing, so after a while, I stopped checking. He happened to be in the studio picking up a tape or something when the alarm blinked yet again. I saw him looking at it and I said, "Stupid thing's been going off all day." He looked at me for a second and then said, "Hmm . . . west side of Dubuque just blew away," and walked out. His point was clear--as the guy on the air, it was my job to make sure the alarm wasn't the real thing, and what if, that time, it was? I never forgot the lesson.
Although he retired several years back (during the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1993, actually, which must have made his first day at home very hard on his wife), he continued to do a bit of on-air work at KDTH until just a few months before his death, because that is also what lifelong radio men do. They aren't making broadcasters like him anymore. Beloved stations need beloved personalities, and in Dubuque, Gordie Kilgore was surely that.
(Tune of the Day will return next time; this post has been slightly edited since it first appeared.)