Rushville Republican

Columns

November 22, 2012

Wolfsie: Big good John

RUSHVILLE — Big John Gillis was as tall as a grizzly bear, but gentle as a teddy bear. The forty-year veteran of Indiana radio, who recently passed away, was an iconic figure. His loyal listeners looked up to him. “I guess being 6’ 4’ was a big help,” he once told me.

So ingrained in Indianapolis was the persona of Big John that until his passing, people still thought he spent his mornings in a helicopter reporting for harried commuters making their way to work. Truth is, John hadn’t been in a WIBC chopper for almost 20 years. In a bow to the economy, he had transitioned to a fixed-wing plane and then a mobile unit for his reports. He ended his traffic career broadcasting from a studio where even the sound of barking dogs on the street outside did not convince his fans he was really earthbound.

John loved the sound of his own voice. I offer this as high praise, because you always felt that each word that tumbled effortlessly off his tongue was not only meticulously chosen, but was savored for still another nanosecond before he went on to the next. “His 60-second traffic reports,” said long-time associate Jeff Pigeon at John’s funeral, “lasted about eight minutes.”

Years ago in an interview at his home, after he left WIBC, John told me: “I have 20 seconds to do what I have to do, read a sponsor’s name, and then if I can figure out a way to twist a word or inject my personality into it, that’s it. I’m a disembodied voice, and every 10 minutes I stop what I am doing and talk to my imaginary friends.”

A disembodied voice? Perhaps. But it still embodied everything that was good about radio in those years. He wasn’t just a person you recognized on the street, he was a person you felt you knew personally. Everyone liked him, of course, but far more importantly, you knew instantly that he liked you, as well.

John loved radio. It was his best friend. He wanted to introduce you to his best friend. But “why radio?’ I asked him during our visit in 2007. “Because everywhere you travel, it’s there; it takes you places immediately, it exercises your imagination.” If there was any sadness, any remorse in John, it was that media had changed. “We went to high tech and lost the high touch,” he told me. “Radio should be about content, character and personality.”

John should have thrown in loyalty, an ingredient he added to a recipe that brought him a taste of success, and also fulfilled him. There was no doubt, Big John had many opportunities to leave the market and pursue a more lucrative career elsewhere. That was not in John’s flight plan. His job was on the air and in the air, but his feet were on the ground. He loved Indianapolis; he was wedded to WIBC. Why break up a happy marriage?

“If I have 20 minutes to live and I spend the next 19 with you, having this conversation, I would die happy,” John said to me. “If in that 20 minutes, we come up with an idea and we have 20 years to make it happen, then God has blessed me far beyond my wildest dreams.”

John did not have those 20 years. But if you still hear his halting, yet mesmerizing, voice in your head, look to the heavens. No, he’s not in the helicopter, but he’s up there. Trust me.

– Rushville Republican

1
Text Only
Columns
  • Spying ways to have vacation fun I have a neighbor named John Campbell, and I am suddenly EXTREMELY suspicious of him.It all started with our summer vacation to Maryland. We made several excursions into Washington, D.C. from our “base camp” in Annapolis. In fact, of the five days we

    July 29, 2014

  • I expect them to do nothing Which crisis is at the top of the list this week? Is it the IRS scandal, the VA scandal, the fighting in Gaza, the emergence of ISIS as a deadly power in the Middle East, the intentional shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 which killed nearl

    July 29, 2014

  • Word of advice So, what’s the word? Really, what is the word? With over 250,000 words in the English language, you’d think there would be a word for just about everything. Not so. Therefore, I am on a crusade to find a term for some everyday occurrences for which t

    July 29, 2014

  • There's something about Maryland My family unit has just returned from a death march – oops, make that, “vacation” – in Annapolis, Maryland. In spite of constant 96-degree temps (though it dropped as low as 95.7 at night), and the stifling humidity, we had lots of dolgurn fun. Mainl

    July 22, 2014

  • Learning to say goodbye From as far back as I can remember, saying hello has been a part of nearly each day.During my youth, it was used when I met new people my parents introduced me to and was frequently followed by a handshake. I couldn’t count the number of times I used

    July 18, 2014

  • Lessons from the largely forgotten war As we approach the official date on which the First World War started, July 28, 1914, when the first shots were fired by the Austro-Hungarians who invaded Serbia, it’s appropriate to think about the lessons that catastrophic event has taught us one h

    July 15, 2014

  • Please go away My wife is planning our summer vacation, which we will take in the fall. We took our spring vacation this summer. We got behind in 1984 and still haven’t caught up. I don’t have much input into the planning of these trips, but Mary Ellen did assign m

    July 15, 2014

  • Soothing '60's Surf Sounds I’m sitting in my home office enjoying a serenade of rhythmic pulsations emanating from the outside wall. It’s coming from our water spigot. No. 5 son (age 13) and his buddies are using it to fill water balloons. 1,500 water balloons to be exact. 1,5

    July 15, 2014

  • Soccer-stopping Storm a Lousy Treat What a great way to spend a Saturday morning in July: I’m sitting in my car with rain cascading on the roof, lightning skittering all over the sky, and thunder sockin’ it to the atmosphere with such force that I feel a rumbling in my bum.I’m staring

    July 8, 2014

  • Only in America - Top 10 As we move into the glorious months of summer, I thought you might be amused by reading the Top Ten List of what Canadians supposedly think of how things are going in this country. It’s a lot like David Letterman’s “top ten list.”Number 10: Only in A

    July 8, 2014