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The Cold Filtered Ramblings of Gene Mueller

Hinkley 101

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Went to school Friday.  The subject: Gordon Hinkley.

The legendary, Hall of Fame radio host/TV personality died last week at the age of 88.  He spent more than 50 years in our building, 24 of them as the host of the show we now know as Wisconsin's Morning News (it was "Top o' The Morning" under the watches of Hinkley and his predecessor, Gordon Thomas).

My seven hour course on the life and times of Gordon included reporting done by our radio news staff, live interviews with the likes of Bob Reitman, Bob Barry, Jim Peck, Bud Selig, Robb Edwards, Frank Richardson and Jeff Wagner. And then there were the phone calls, hours and hours of them from fans, listeners, and people who had some sort of encounter with Hinkley, be it in the audience of a show he hosted, a seminar he MC'd, a handshake at State Fair. All in all, it was quite an education, and here is the most obvious conclusion:

It was impossible to give Gordon Hinkley too much food. Or a compliment.

Gordon's appetite was a constant theme, his ability to navigate to the head of any buffet table or to be on the receiving end of free grub is fact, not myth.  His crock-pot pickles made in-studio for years, the way local restaurants willingly filled that same room with their fare seeking the host's approval, the way Fair vendors made sure Gordon and anyone working in the station's West Allis studio were beyond well-fed were recurring topics that morning.

And then, there was the Hinkley modesty.  Peck told the best story, having done an installment of "I Remember Milwaukee" with Gordon on Channel 10 a few years ago.  Peck pointed out how it was impossible for Hinkley to accept praise, to acknowledge his accomplishments, to absorb a compliment.  At one point, Jim says, he finally asked Gordon how he was able to be so good at what he did on the radio.  Hinkley told the story about the boss he had at one of his first radio jobs in central Wisconsin, a boss who pointed at the studio microphone before asking, "So how many people do you think you'll be talking to?"   I don't know, Gordon said, maybe thousands?   No, the boss said, you're only talking to one.  Approach the job that way, and you'll be fine.

Great advice, and Gordon would parrot it to a friend of mine years later, Big Glen at Plumbing Parts Plus, a nervous and reluctant store owner making his initial appearance on The Fix It Show one Saturday morning.  Glen says that before they went on the air, Gordon told him he looked so nervous that he thought he was going to pass out.  Gordon told him that Glen obviously knew what he was doing--otherwise, he wouldn't be a guest.  Just talk to the audience like you'd talk to your in-store customers, like you're answering a question on the phone directly to the person on the other end.  I want you to be your best, Gordon told Glen, and I won't do anything to embarrass you.  The show came off without a hitch, and Glen has been a fixture on Fix It for years, to the point where he's comfortable enough hosting it on his own when someone's on vacation.

That, in essence, was Gordon Hinkley: humble, honest, eager to make others be their best and happy to see people succeed, even if they were competitors down the hallway.

Not everyone at Radio City was excited about WTMJ's FM sister station, WKTI when I arrived to do mornings with Reitman in 1982.  The needs of those on the AM side sometimes got top treatment and there were some who thought of we on the FM side as "hippies", disrespectful of the station's heritage, as a waste of time and energy, perhaps even as competition.  There weren't many of them, mind you, but every now and then we'd get a reminder or a nudge meant to put us in our place from one of that ilk.

Never, ever, did we get even a hint of that from Gordon Hinkley.  Always supportive, always the first to compliment when something good happened to us, always there with a kind word if we'd taken some sort of a hit.  Gordon wanted radio people to succeed at their craft, be it on his station or the little upstart down the hall--or, even down the dial: my longtime business/personal friend Jerry Gavin says that, upon becoming the program director at WQFM years ago, among the congratulatory letters he received came from none other than Gordon Hinkley.  

That's who he was.  The question now, will there be another?

The media is far more diffused that it was in 1950 when Gordon came to Milwaukee from Wausau.  TV was just getting a foothold, and radio was morphing.  FM wasn't a factor and the Internet didn't exist.  Yet Gordon was multi-platform before the phrase ever existed, able to do it all because he had many talents plus a natural curiosity and a willingness to give.  Many of us got into radio because, bluntly put, we couldn't do anything else. For Gordon, radio was SOMETHING ELSE he was gifted at.  You don't last a half-century by just being decent.   You have go excel, and so he did.  A legion of guests and listeners reinforced that over an over again for seven hours Friday morning, and many probably spent a least part of this last weekend of 2013 reminiscing with friends about an encounter, a show, a handshake, a smile that they got, courtesy of one Mr. Hinkley.

There was only one, and now he's gone, but certainly not forgotten, not in the halls he walked those 50 years and not in the hearts of those who had the honor or working with him, nor in the host who took a seven-hour course in Hinkley 101 Friday morning.

What an honor to be able do that.  What a guy to remember. What a privlege to have been able to work with him.

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