Monday, January 19, 2009

A True Legend

-I received an e-mail yesterday indicating that I should provide a new post here. That means two things...I've been bad about writing lately, for which I'm sorry. And, some actually come here regularly to read my stuff...for which I'm grateful.

I would have written today anyway because I'm inspired to remember an old friend upon his passing. I was sad to read in this morning's Belleville News-Democrat that Joe May died Saturday. I knew Joe had been battling some health issues but was caught off-guard by his obit in the paper.

Joe was truly a legendary figure in the world of high-school sports and "good-old days" radio broadcasting. His membership in the Illinois High School Coaches Association Broadcasters Hall of Fame is a testament to that. Among those of us who have made a career in the media, particularly in the Metro-East, the name Joe May brings a smile to the face, and a flood of stories to the lips. I'll take a few moments here to share a few of mine.

When I first came to WIBV radio as a full-time employee in 1972 the station was a major player in the market. (Many called it the KMOX of the Metro-East in those days) Joe May was Sports Director, a job that I aspired to having at some point even though I was fresh out of school. I didn't know how long he would be in that spot...he had already been there for a few years..but there was so much sports play-by-play on the station I decided to accept a job as a staff announcer and do the play-by-play "leftovers". Joe couldn't do all the games, so Dave Bollone, Joe Albright and I would do the "non-Joe" games. I considered the opportunity a good one, but a stepping stone to higher places in sports broadcasting.

Right off the bat, I became somewhat frustrated with Joe because of his "personal tendencies" and seeming lack of attention to detail when it came to both on-the-air and off-the-air responsibilities. For example, he would show up to do a game and forget a microphone...or line-up information for one of the teams...stuff like that. Somehow Joe always got the job done...but it was always, to me, done in a state of turmoil. As a recent college grad, it didn't take long to grow frustrated with that and make my thoughts known to then GM Norm Greenberg.

Norm immediately made me understand Joe's place, and mine. He informed me that he was more than willing to put up with Joe's "negative traits" because of his overwhelming passion for the sports we did and his ability to put a "larger-than-life" personality on WIBV Sports. After that conversation, I knew there was much more to the broadcast business than what I brought to it. And Norm was right. Joe might not have been the greatest technical broadcaster to ever live...but he knew everybody in high school and college sports in our area...and they knew and liked him. For a station in the business of selling advertising in local sports broadcasts, he was a gold mine. Joe approached his work passionately and made all of those involved believe that whatever games were on our station were the most important in the world. He lived for them and loved them with a zeal that I'm still not sure I understand.

Another story I always tell about Joe, and it's a fair example of his struggles and successes in those days, is the one about a high-school football playoff game we did together in the late 70's. Belleville West was playing one of the Chicago suburban schools (Elk Grove?) in an important playoff tilt and we drove up early on a Saturday morning to get there for a 1 o'clock broadcast. As was common in those days, when we showed up at the stadium a few hours before the game, we found that Illinois Bell had not installed our phone line in the press box. Somehow installation orders from southern Illinois were always botched by the Chicago-area phone people. This day was no different. Of course, particular old me always suspected Joe might have mishandled the order somehow...but I doubt it in this case.

Joe called the phone company to see if they could get a technician out to the stadium to put in a line in time for our broadcast. They told him they would try...but it never did happen. So we were forced to come up with some other way to get the game on the air. I didn't see how it would happpen. (Remember there were no cell phones in those days). Joe asked me if I had brought my cassette recorder along. I told him yes, that I had it for the pre and post-game interviews that we normally recorded and played back on the broadcast.
"How many cassettes do you have?", he asked.
"Two"..I said.
"Great"...said the big guy.
" broadast the game into your cassette recorder. Then give the cassette to this kid (He found some student to help) and he'll run it into the school building where I will play the cassette back over the phone in the Athletic Director's office to the station back in Belleville. The game will be delayed by about a half-hour...but at least it will get on the air."
"You've got to be kidding?"..says me.
And that's what we did. It turned out to be a great game..(West lost though). And I don't think too many people back in the Metro-East knew there was a phone problem. Joe's determination to get the game on the air was the key. I might have thrown up my hands and called in some reports after each quarter...but Joe knew that people were expecting a play-by-play broadcast and fought tooth-and-nail to get them one. That speaks to his passion for what he did.

There are other stories that we might share at another time. But for now I would prefer that we remember Joe and an important part of life in the Metro-East that he represented so well. He was the personification of passion for high-school sports on the radio in Metro-East...something that has, for some inexplicable reason, mostly gone out of our lives. Sadly, now so has Joe. The stories about Joe May, and the experiences folks had with him, will surely survive for decades. In that way, Joe lives on. Rest well old friend...and enjoy the buffet line in the sky.


john said...

Tom, I enjoyed the post about Joe. Although I didn't know him personally as you did, our paths crossed occasionally. I also started in broadcasting on a local sports powerhouse in 1972, WSMI in Litchfield. We had our own icon, the late Johnny Kralick. Joe and Johnny knew each other well, and did their fair share of good natured teasing. Over the years, you and I moved on but they continued to do what they did best. That was to provide the incredibly passionate radio pictures to thousands who followed their teams on the radio. Guys like Joe were the people that made local radio the undeniably vital source of information it was and remains today.

Shawn said...

Wow another great story of improvising. It sounds like Joe was a McGyver of radio. I got into this business to be a play by play guy myself and reading this tribute makes me miss it and the Joe Mays in this business.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post about the late Joe May, Tom; thank you. Growing up in the Metro-East in the 70s, I was always grateful for WIBV and the stations in Highland (1510 kHz) and Alton (1570 kHz -- WOKZ?) for the high-school coverage they offered. I live in West County these days, but my mother is still in the Metro-East, and it's a shame that Metro-East radio coverage these days is next to nothing in comparison to the old days. Best wishes to you at KMOX.

Anonymous said...

Tom, thanks for the great piece on Joe! You mentioned long time WIBV GM Norm Greenberg. For many years he commuted from Bridgeton to Belleville everyday. He was our neighbor in Bridgeton. Any idea on where Norm is these days?

Anonymous said...


About a year ago I began exchanging e-mails with Joe through his WIBV Internet site.
Last summer while I was vacationing in Florida, I noticed an e-mail from Joe.
I opened it and discovered that he had sent the video of his interview with John Auble from Fox 2 News. So, there I was in my hotel room watching Joe being interviewed, which I would have otherwise missed. I'll never forget that.