The man who inspired me to get into the radio biz signed off last week at the age of 98. My dad’s brother, Lou Essick had been in the biz for over 50 years, starting his career right after World War 2. His adventures in radio took him from be a young announcer at a fledgling Michigan radio network, to the Carolinas and Georgia, where he became a star when personalities mattered to both the public and station owners. We’re talking about the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s.
When I was a kid, Uncle Lou would come to Toledo for an annual visit with the rest of the Essick clan. I used to think of him as a real star. After all, he talked on the radio! For a youngster, that was a big deal.
Lou was a hell of a storyteller. As recently as this past Spring, I’d listen to him tell stories of growing up during the depression. Running numbers for the syndicate in Toledo to make a buck. Lou would choke up and fight back tears when telling how, during WW2, he went to visit his brother Pip in France right after the D Day invasion, only to find out he was killed.
I asked Lou’s wife Carol to help me fill in some blanks. She writes:
Lou was sent to Fort Fisher, North Carolina for training where he met Kathleen “Kay” Taylor, who, he said, was being pursued by every GI on the base. They married and he went overseas. While he was in Europe, Sandra, his first child was born. He was injured and eventually returned to the states to rehab at the Wakeman Convalescent Center in Indiana where he was discharged September 1945. He did spend time with Dave and his mother before heading South. (I believe this is the time period when Dave’s baby boy was so sick and died.) I remember him saying he was concerned about what he was going to do for a career being disabled and having a wife and child to support. I don’t remember the details about who suggested he try radio, but he did join WGNI when it went on the air Christmas Eve 1945.
About 4 years ago, during one of our annual Jekyll Island visits. Lou told a story I had never heard before. After the war, Lou went to Grand Rapids to visit his oldest brother, my uncle Dave. Dave was selling furniture at Herpolshimers Department store. While in Grand Rapids, Lou had heard about an upstart national radio network operating out of WLAV. The owner, Leonard A Versluis gave Lou a job as an announcer. Apparently, an affiliate didn’t like the way Lou sounded and complained to Versluis who subsequently fired him. During this time, Dave and his estranged wife had a very sick infant. The baby had to be sent to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for treatment but didn’t survive. Lou tells the story of both he and Dave waiting at the train station for a very small casket containing the body of the child to arrive. It was Christmas time, 1945. After the burial, Lou turned to Dave and said “let’s get out of here.” They both left Grand Rapids for good.
I spent most of my career in Grand Rapids and I never knew I had a cousin buried there. So I located the Jewish section of a cemetery, and with my daughter Cara, grandkids Olivia and Brooklyn, son in law Jose, and my wife Sharon, we fanned out checking gravestones. And there, in the very back corner, in the last row, was the marker of Maurice Ross Essick.
The way Lou told the story was mesmerizing. I could feel the cold of that winter night and the loneliness that had to be experienced by my two uncles as they both stood, waiting for a train and a little casket. My writing doesn’t do the story justice.
Lou moved on to the Carolinas landing at WGNI in Wilmington, NC where he soon became a big hit doing crazy antics on the radio like playing The Witch Doctor or the Purple People Eater. His jokes were corny, but clean and funny. His talent for being an on air “salesman” made him a precious commodity for the station. Lou knew how to sell.. both on air and off.
The guy had a style that jumped right out of the radio. I recall hearing him on a Waycross, GA station in the early 80’s. Here was Lou playing Freeze Frame by the J Geils Band and sounding as if he was having the time of his life. He must have been in his 60s.
We used to visit with Lou and his wife Carol every year on Jekyll Island. I just saw him this past May and spoke with him on the phone the week before he died. He sounded great on the phone. I kidded him that he was shooting for 100 and he said “heck, I’m going for 110”.
The good lord apparently needed an announcer for Christmas services in heaven. At least that’s the way I like to think of it.
I’m going to really miss him. Lou Essick, signing off.