You never really appreciate the people who have shaped an era until some reason causes you to take pause, to reflect.
Wisconsin broadcasting lost a giant.
Gordon Hinkley, 88, died on Monday in West Allis.
If you listened to WTMJ-AM 620, chances were that you knew the voice of the man who was on the local airwaves since 1950. If you watch TV today, chances are you’ve seen him on a Church and Chapel commercial, working with the chain of funeral homes.
Besides remembering him as the morning radio host, my fondest memories include listening to "Ask Your Neighbor," a program he created in 1961.
"He was social media before social media existed," said his colleague and former boss Carl Gardner, who was the GM at the station and an executive vice president with Journal Broadcast Group.
Gardner and I talked about the transitions that radio went through in Hinkley’s career, and through the change, the consummate professional was ready for anything that was sent his way.
"We always kept him involved," Gardner said. "He would stop in on Thursdays, and sort of make his rounds. He would wear his tweed coat and carry a briefcase."
Hinkley would visit with producers, with advertising reps and with Gardner and ask, "What you got for me?"
"And he would be there for any function we would have here … retirements, celebrations, Christmas parties," Gardner said. "He’d always bring his wife, Joyce, and he would hold her hand as they walked through here."
After the news of his passing broke on Thursday, I chatted with WTMJ’s morning radio host Gene Mueller. He told me that Hinkley was always helping others, that it was in his nature.
"He had no ego at all," Mueller said.
"When I came in here to WKTI in ’82, I was so mortified … Gordie wanted to see everyone succeed. There was no ill will even though we were sort of competition at the time. He wanted to see us do great.
"He loved radio. He loved people."
Mueller and Hinkley never shared the same air, as Hinkley had the morning show on WTMJ, and Mueller was with Bob Reitman on FM with the morning show on WKTI. But growing up in Sheboygan, Mueller listened to Hinkley for years. On Friday morning, with talk show host Charlie Sykes on vacation, Mueller carried his weekday morning news show on much longer, letting callers share their memories.
In the conversation, Mueller said that Milwaukee was like the Paris or New York for his aspirations of making it to the big city. He commented that he and others went into radio because it seemed easy and because they were not good at anything else.
"Gordon was someone who was good at many things, who just happened to also be really good at radio," Mueller said on the air.
For current WTMJ GM and vice president Steve Wexler, Hinkley was a true legend.
"I first met Gordon when I began my career as an intern at WTMJ. I worked the overnight show, and he'd be coming in as I was ending my shift. I'd hang around so I could watch him work. He was a pro. He cared about his audience. And he loved spending time with them, especially at our State Fair broadcasts every August, where he could enjoy the food and interact with his listeners," Wexler said.
"Gordon was a terrific broadcaster, for sure. But for me, his kindness and decency are his most enduring traits and lessons."
That latter sentiment seems to be thread for all that talked about Hinkley, and what memories they had of the man. From the early days to singing with "Joe Schott and his Hot Shots" on radio and television, to his playing the piano at area nursing homes, Hinkley was known for his ability to make everyone around him seem important and leave them with a smile.
Whether being the host of "Invitation to Beauty" with classical music on Sunday mornings, to being remembered for always being first in line to eat for any function at WTMJ’s studios, the broadcasting giant will be missed.
Doug Russell shared a time when he worked his way to being the sports anchor on weekend mornings, when Hinkley was hosting the show. For Russell, this was his first anchoring duties, and here he is doing it with someone as experienced and as well liked as Hinkley.
"And he gave me a wink, and said, ‘Here we go, kid,’" Russell said.
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