As I was growing up, I would often hear my relatives lamenting when one of their favorite celebrities died. Since I grew up immersed in their TV and movie habits, I knew these older celebs and, although I didn’t live during their heyday, I still felt some sense of loss.
Now that I’m 70, I understand what they were going through. These days, more and more of the music, movie and TV stars I admire are passing. Even though many of them are 90+ and lived a good life, it is sad that they are leaving this plane of existence.
Even the 4 teachers who really helped change my life aren’t immune. Only 2 of them are still alive. One, Rod Smith, the man who taught me the beauty of words, language and literature, is a Facebook friend.
The personal nature of death is no stranger to me. I have often written about my wife and unborn son being killed by a drunk driver in 1976 when I was 25. That made me realize how one tragic incident of death can change your life forever.
I was spared the death of more important people in my life for many years after that. But, as it has with all of us, time continues to catch up with many of them. It started about 30 years ago, one night in the 1990’s, I got home from work at about 2 AM to find a message on my answering machine from a reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer. He said he had to speak with me as soon as possible.
Knowing the Inquirer was a morning newspaper, I took the chance and called him back a little before 3 AM. He was the obituary writer for the paper. He told me that he was writing the obituary for John Dinovi, who had been my chemistry teacher in high school. He is one of the “The Four,” the teachers I credit with teaching me how to think. When I won a major advertising award in the 1980’s, I wrote to all four, thanking them, as I had at the ceremony, for teaching me how to really think.
It seems Mr. Dinovi framed the letter and had it on the wall of his office. The reporter had been given the letter and, using the resources of the newspaper, tracked me down and asked me to help craft the obituary. I was sad that Mr. Dinovi was gone, but also extremely honored that I could participate in his final tribute.
A few years later, I received a similar call from an obituary writer for the New York Times. I was the first host on QVC to work with Bob Keeshan and we sold 5,000 copies of his book, “Growing Up Happy” in about 6 minutes. Bob and I stayed in touch after that and I guess his family forwarded some of the correspondence between us. Since my dad died when I was 2, Captain Kangaroo had been a televised second father to me in the 1950’s. Again, I was asked to help contribute to his final story.
For a while, I felt like QVC’s Angel of Death. As another example, consider Wolfman Jack (Robert Weston Smith). I was a real radio geek and a lifelong fan. He was one-of-a-kind. No one sounded like him, few were as entertaining on-air. He came to QVC as the representative of Brunswick Records. They offered some really fine oldies collections. Wolfman was a real expert. He made the presentation informative and fun. The collection sold out and Jack came back a few more time, with the oldies collection selling out each time.
He loved to laugh and was a lot of fun on-the-air. I mentioned the Guess Who song, “Clap for the Wolfman,” that came out in 1974. His voice was in the song. He remembered it fondly, I’m sure it was a nice payday. I told him I wrote the sequel to “Clap for the Wolfman,” but it was never recorded. When he asked me what it was called, I said, “Penicillin for the Wolfman.” He howled as only Wolfman could. I think I’m still getting memos from management for that one.
In June of 1995, he was scheduled to debut his autobiography, “Have Mercy, Confessions of the Original Rock and Roll Animal,” on QVC in early July. They sent me an advanced copy and it was terrific. Sadly, he died the night before he was scheduled to appear. They asked me to present the book solo. We had 8,000 autographed copies to sell. I knew it wouldn’t last long as it was the last signed item he would ever have. I was right. 4,000 copies sold in the preview.
During the presentation, I only had time to give a brief tribute to the great personality. “Wolfman Jack changed the game. He is proof that one man can make a difference. From his adventures on Mexican border radio through his many TV appearances, including a stint on “Battlestar 1980,” he always entertained us and showed us the positive side of life. Even when times were tough, his upbeat style gave hope to many people. Radio will now be a lot less fun. God bless you, Wolfman Jack.” At that, the book was completely sold out.
Death came knocking again when I was told that Buffalo Bob Smith had died. My producer on QVC told me in my earpiece during a break and said I had a minute to come up with a brief tribute to the man who had been my guest several times. I can thank Mr. Johnson, Mr. Lamberto, Mr. Smith and Mr. Dinovi for not only helping me to think, but to do it quickly when necessary.
My mind grabbed onto this fact: While hosting the Howdy Doody Show, Buffalo Bob used the forum to teach his young audience important life skills. He did it the best way possible, with stories and humor and commercials. (Hey, I still crave Bosco to this day.)
When we came out of the break, here’s what I said:
“Today, we lost a man who raised many of us while we were watching TV. He taught us respect, honor, the importance of friends, honesty and so many other important life skills. He lived a good life and even helped to entertain and teach us all again as a guest on QVC. In this business, I learned that you never say goodbye, you say so long for now. So long for now, Buffalo Bob. We love you! Godspeed!”
It was one of the best things I ever said in my over 15 years on QVC. While I hope it’s the last tribute I ever have to compose, it most likely is not. They have not found a cure for aging. It would be a very crowded planet if they ever do.
Not to be maudlin, but in my non revocable trust, I have already written my own obituary. I want it inscribed on the urn. I thought about it for a long time. It’s short and to the point – “He helped when he could.”
© 2021 Steve Bryant – No portion of this or any blog can be reproduced or copied and posted on any online site or read aloud on any audio or video media without the express permission of the author.
So many touching vignettes. You do help so much more than you’ll ever realize. Thank you for such meaningful writings.