THE POWER OF THOSE MAGIC CALL LETTERS – WGN
When I joined WGN in 1967 I had no idea of the recognition and respect that those call letters represented, not only in Chicago, but around the world. And it didn’t take long to realize that a lot of personal responsibility went along with this association. In over 30 years on the air many opportunities arose to thank the community for their loyal listening.
One of the more popular features, the annual Christmas Phone Calls, gave us all more than a few cherished memories. Producer Peter Marino came up with the idea of allowing listeners to call anyone, anywhere in the world at Christmastime and we would pay for the call. They could talk privately for ten or fifteen minutes, as long as we could broadcast the initial few minutes of their conversation to catch the surprise and then later, find out about the recipient of the call, the country they lived in and how they were to celebrate the holiday. The letters requesting the phone calls poured in. These were the days before international calling was so easy and relatively inexpensive.
We listened in as a mother talked to her daughter, a helicopter pilot serving along the DMZ in Korea. A couple in Amsterdam were able to talk with a Jewish couple they had hidden from the Nazi’s during WW II. And we reunited a Chicago family with their daughter married to a member of the Vatican’s Swiss Guard and living in Rome.
Back in the late 70’s we came up with a baseball game that culminated with a trip to the World Series. We had 25 prerecorded plays from actual Cub games, and the listener could pick three of them. If you scored a run, you were a winner and got prizes from our sponsor, True Value Hardware Stores, and tickets to a game. At the end of the season we played for a trip for two to the World Series, all expenses paid.
We did a similar promotion with the Oscars and a movie trivia quiz. The winner got a trip to Hollywood and tickets to the Oscar Ceremony. This lasted quite a few years, until the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences cracked down on any promotional use of Oscar tickets.
Of all the things we were able to do for our listeners, however, the most memorable occurred in my last year at WGN. Shortly after talking about a trip we were to take to the Netherlands and France, I received an E-mail from Donald Hill in Morris, Illinois, that read as follows:
“Dear Mr. Leonard,
I listen to your travel shows on Sunday with great interest. Your previous interview with the gentleman from Maastricht, Holland was of particular interest.
My father is buried there. He was buried in Maargarten National Cemetery in May of 1945 when I was ten years old and I have never had the opportunity to visit his grave site.
What I am asking, Mr. Leonard, would it be possible for you to have flowers placed at the grave site on my behalf? This would mean a lot to me and my adult children.”
I was surprised at how easy it was to make the arrangements. Our travel guide, Deborah Kash, contacted the American Military Cemetery just outside Maastricht, and I was amazed at the care and concern they showed. On the morning of September 23rd in 1998, our tour coach with thirty travelers was met by the American officer in charge of the cemetery. They had a beautiful bouquet of flowers at ready and led our group to the grave site, just one of 8301, all marked by marble crosses. A cemetery worker had a pail of sand from Omaha Beach in Normandy and he brushed the sand onto the stone’s lettering, which had faded slightly, so it would be easily visible for picture taking. From the towering carillon above the nearby chapel came the Netherlands’ national anthem, followed by our Star Spangled Banner and then a few words from one of our group, Major General Jack Frisbie, USMCR (Ret). Jack and his wife were regular travelers on many of our tours. In addition to the floral decoration I had some mementos that Donald had given me to leave at his Dad’s grave and after the playing of taps, we slowly returned to our coach.
A few weeks after our return, my wife Sheila and I drove to Morris one Sunday afternoon with pictures and a video tape that Joe Taylor, another member of our group, had taken and I must admit it was an emotional, but very satisfying visit.
The years spent on the air at WGN have provided many rich and rewarding experiences and I just can’t imagine this happening at any other radio station.