Sunday, June 14, 2009

By Paul Batura
Regnery, $27.95, 291 pages

On Feb. 28, 2009, one of talk radio’s much admired veteran broadcasters officially signed off. News of legendary radio personality Paul Harvey’s death shocked generations of fans who, unbeknownst to them, had listened to his final broadcast — delivered just days earlier from the Mayo Clinic where he privately lay dying.

A flurry of recollections of the iconic figure’s daily news updates and his interestingly offbeat human-interest stories flooded the blogosphere, as Mr. Harvey’s loyal audience paid tribute to this remarkable man and marveled over his extraordinary 70-year career. Many lamented that his sweet, yet authoritative Santa-type voice would never be heard again and noted that the one or two predictably out-of-pitch words Mr. Harvey threw in during most broadcasts would remain inimitable and fondly remembered.

However, Mr. Harvey’s unique skill at reading copy was not simply informative and fun, but it was also clever. Who else could make an advertisement for a baggy of Smart Balance Popcorn sound more like enthralling breaking news rather than just a commercial? Amazingly talented behind the microphone, it came as no surprise when ABC signed a new 10-year, $100 million contract with him in 2000 when he was 82 years old.

Perhaps even more commendable is the fact that Mr. Harvey achieved this level of success when one learns that he was a fatherless boy raised by a widowed mother in a boarding house in Tulsa, Okla. The family had few resources and the boy had only a high school diploma. Truly an example of the American dream.

From a very early age, Paul Harvey loved listening to local broadcasts. Fascinated by the radio, Mr. Harvey miraculously learned how to construct crystal sets before the age of 6. As a freshman in high school, his interest intersected with the influence of a talented speech and drama teacher who was instrumental in getting him his first job at a radio station looking for cheap labor.

Certainly Isabelle Ronan could not have known, when she arranged an audition for Paul Harvey at KVOO, that she was seeing him off on a lifetime voyage. But his first job, reading the lead-in to the broadcast of the Saturday matinee at the Metropolitan Opera, was the beginning of a one-way trip over the airways that lasted for the rest of his life.

After graduating from high school in 1936, he was offered by the station a full-time position at a wage of $29.50 per week. For a short while, Paul attended classes at the University of Tulsa while working on the air, but gave up all aspirations toward a college degree when a station in Salina, Kan., offered him a job and he moved away from Oklahoma. Thus began his life as a radio nomad, switching stations and locations almost every year.

Early in his career, Mr. Harvey introduced innovative techniques to his shows such as doing remote broadcasts, man-on-the-street interviews, using live music as background and even talking the Mutual Network into carrying his live on-site reports from the Mardi Gras in New Orleans. One of his jobs in St. Louis brought more good fortune into his life when he met a substitute schoolteacher, Lynne Cooper, who also worked at the station. He married her in 1940.

A very canny woman, Lynne Harvey may well have been responsible for the growth of her husband’s fame as she guided his career with intuitive business savvy. It was she who convinced him to settle permanently in Chicago and to specialize in reporting the news. His 15-minute, six days a week shows always ended with a humorous or poignant kicker. One would have to pity the man who was his stand-in as he “… never missed a broadcast. Even when he had the mumps once, he broadcasted from home.”

Chicago loved him. An ironic fact about his initial days in the Windy City was that he almost got fired because his boss, John Fetzer, hated the way he ended his program with “Good day,” thinking it too abrupt.

The station where Harvey worked was located in the Merchandise Mart owned by Joseph Kennedy, a fan. Kennedy got him an audition with ABC Network in 1950 and, for the first time, the local personality got national exposure.

From his five-minute broadcasts of “The Rest of the Story” to his 15-minute daily news reports, Paul Harvey was a newsman who never forgot who his audience was — the quiet American, whom he described as our country’s true strength. He believed in hard work and decried big government: “… if your government is big enough to give you everything you have, it’s big enough to take away everything you have.”

At the same time, he seems to have had a critical eye when it came to Washington and politicians, even becoming what he called a neo-isolationist during and after the Vietnam era. Never adhering to a rigid political dogma, he campaigned against Reagan’s intervention in Central America and deplored the fact that the abortion question had become a public debate. He was for the Equal Rights Amendment and urged President George W. Bush to dedicate resources to the development of alternate energy.

Paul J. Batura writes that his book is the only biography of Paul Harvey ever produced. Recognizing the influence and length this man’s career, the reader can only wonder why this is the case. It is obvious that Mr. Harvey was a man who led an interesting life in a field he loved. The author tells us that it was difficult gathering all the information on his subject, as he was a very private man who lived for the future and spoke little about his life experiences.

“Ever since I made tomorrow my favorite day, I’ve been uncomfortable looking back.” Perhaps painting a picture with a few more shades would have made for a richer veneer. Nevertheless, the reader gets a lovely portrait of a national treasure who chased his dream and reached the stars.

Katie Wendy is a writer living in Boca Raton, Fla.

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