Tuesday, December 30, 2014
Galesburg in 1960's
Roger Coleman Hall of Fame Speech
It is an honor for me to represent the former employees of WGIL Radio who worked for Roger Coleman between 1954 and 1976 and to induct Roger Coleman into the Galesburg High School Hall of Fame as a “Friend GHS Athletics.” This is a happy day for all of us who worked with Roger when he was general manager of WGIL.
Roger Coleman is all Galesburg all the time. He was born at St. Mary’s Hospital in Galesburg on November 27th, 1930. His father, Haven Coleman, was the first basketball coach at Corpus Christi High School in Galesburg. Haven Coleman was also an athletic director, who had worked at Wheaton College,Western Illinois University and at Hedding College in Abingdon until becoming sick with encepalitis and becoming an invalid. Haven Coleman died in 1939.
Roger loved two things in life: sports and radio. Although not a gifted athlete, he did run track for Galesburg High School and spent a lot of time watching the great football and basketball teams of C. C. Van Dyke and Gerald Phillips.
Seven-year olf Roger and his mother were present on that hot, muggy day on June 12, 1938, when WGIL Radio first signed on the air at a packed ceremony in the Galesburg Armory hosted by Pierre Andre of WGN Radio in Chicago.
If you look at the short bio under Roger’s photo in the 1948 Reflector, the Galesburg High School yearbook, the caption says, “Seller of ads for the Budget [GHS’s student newspaper].” This was a precourser of what was to come in the future.
Roger Coleman graduated from GHS in 1948, and he went on first to Knox College for two years, and then to the broadcasting program at the University of Iowa. He graduated from Iowa in 1952 after working many hours at the campus radio station. Radio was in Roger Coleman’s blood!
When Roger got out of the army in 1954, he worked for a short time at a radio station in Peoria, and then was hired as the morning man at WGIL in Galesburg, his hometown radio station.
WGIL had broadcast every Galesburg Silver Streaks football and basketball game since the radio station signed on the air in 1938. Roger joined a long list of sports announcers famous in Galesburg broadcasting history: Howard Miller, Tom Hamlin, Murry Hurt, Bob Dickson, Kenny Schleifer, Jim Dunleavey, Bob Mann, and Dale Atkins. Roger did the morning show and filled in on games when WGIL was between sports directors.
Then Roger Coleman began selling advertising for WGIL, and he was just as good at selling WGIL advertising as he had been at selling ads for the The Budget. Roger knew everyone in town. His step-father was a car dealer in Galesburg so everyone knew Roger’s family.
Because Roger was such a great radio ad salesman, WGIL owner Bill Pritchard, the current mayor’s father, appointed Roger as WGIL’s general manager. Bill Pritchard’s death left Roger on his own to run the station. Roger Coleman was only 29 years old when he took over as WGIL general manager in 1960!
Roger wanted to stabilize the radio station’s Silver Streak broadcasts, and he needed a good play-by-play man who would stick around and who knew Galesburg. Roger had heard of the play-by-play talents of Bill Pearson, who graduated from GHS in 1956, but Pearson was in the army and wasn’t scheduled to get out until the next year. WGIL had just lost its sports director, and it was December, one of the busiest times of the basketball season.
Roger contacted U.S. Senator Everett McKinley Dirkson and convinced Senator Dirkson to let Bill Pearson out of the army early on a hardship deferment since Bill’s wife was pregnant. Immediately, WGIL’s broadcasts of Silver Streak games became something special with Bill Pierson handling the play-by-play.
Meanwhile, John Thiel had coached the Silver Streaks downstate in 1956, losing to eventual State Champion Rockford West, 66-64 in double overtime. Thiel’s basketball teams had also gone downstate in 1957, 1959, 1960, and 1963. Roger could see how popular Silver Streaks basketball had become in town, and he recognized that Coach John Thiel’s personality was made for radio. Roger set out to make GHS basketball even more popular.
Roger actually hired John Thiel as a part-time employee of WGIL The radio station had exclusive rights to interview Thiel. WGIL’s competitor, WAIK, didn’t even think about broadcasting Silver Streak games because Roger had Coach Thiel locked up. Thiel did a Wednesday night show called Sports Line where he would talk about the upcoming game, play jazz records, and pontificate on life in Galesburg. The listeners loved it.
Roger wanted more. He arranged for Coach Thiel to do a post-game show at the Harbor Lights Supper Club where area coaches could stop by and chat on the air with John, and other coaches could call in and talk to him. Coach Thiel’s post-game show at Harbor Lights had no ending time. It just went on till John Thiel decided to end it. During the 1972 basketball season, I can remember getting off of the air at midnight on FM-95, and going over to the WGIL-AM studio and listening to Coach Thiel’s show. It was some of the most innovative radio I have ever heard.
Another idea Roger had was to take WGIL’s show on the road. When Dale Kelley played for Northwestern, and Zach Thiel, Coach Thiel’s son, played for SMU, Roger would pack up the broadcast equipment, and he and Bill Pierson and their entourage would go to Evanston or to Dallas, Texas and broadcast the games back to Galesburg. Just think how easy it is now to get a game on the satillite radio or TV now. In 1967, it was impossible. There just weren’t any other radio stations in the country doing things like this in the 1960’s.
And Silver Streaks basketball became a social event in Galesburg. All the most important people in town went to the sold-out games, and then out to dinner afterwards. Roger had married Marilyn Nelson, who had graduated from GHS in 1949, and had been a GHS cheerleader. Marilyn was (and still is) the connsumate entertainer, and the parties she hosted were always a hit, whether it was the famous (or should I say infamous) WGIL Christmas party, or entertaining friends after a Silver Streaks game in the Colemans’ beautiful home at Lake Rice. Marilyn Coleman was a big part of Roger’s success as manager of WGIL, and she deserves more than a passing mention today.
By the time the Silver Streaks finished second in the state in basketball in 1966 and 1968 everything was in place for WGIL. The station ran advertisements where businesses could wish the Silver Streaks good luck as they headed downstate. Roger oversaw the production of vinyl records featuring highlights of Bill Pearson’s calls of the games. The records sold like hot cakes. When the Streaks returned from Champaign, the fans were lined up 10 deep on Main Street watching the “Welcome Home Parade.” I get chills up my back just thinking about it, and I wasn’t even there.
In October of 1968, WGIL had gone through numerous color analysts who assisted Bill Pearson’s play-by-play. Roger wanted someone who was from Galesburg and would stick around, and he wanted a former Silver Streaks player. Roger went to John Thiel and asked him about hiring either Ote Cowan or Jimmie Carr, who had both starred on the 1959 team that had been ranked number one all year and had finished third in the state. Coach Thiel recommended Jimmie Carr.
Roger not only hired Jimmie Carr as a sports announcer, he also hired him full-time as an advertising salesman at WGIL. Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention that Jimmie Carr is African-American. I often think how brave Roger was to hire Jimmie, but more important how brave Jimmie was to make cold advertising calls on clients who weren’t . . . . how should I phrase it . . . very tolerant.
Roger was simply following in John Thiel’s footsteps. Coach Thiel never had a problem putting four or five Black players on the floor in the 1950’s or early 60’s when that simply wasn’t done. And Roger had no problem hiring Jimmie Carr and then taking him out to Soangetaha County Club to play golf, even though some of Roger’s friends disapproved.
The pairing of Jimmie Carr and Bill Pierson on the air was magic. Bill is the best play-by-play man I have ever heard. He rivaled Jim Durham or Lloyd Pettit with his play-by-play, and Jimmie Carr’s analysis is just as good as Johnny Miller, Chris Collingsworth, or Eddie Olczyk. Bill left WGIL in fhe fall of 1971, but Jimmie remains in Galesburg as an analyst on all the WAIK boys and girls basketball games. I listened to him yesterday, and he is just as good as he was over 40 years ago.
I’ve worked in radio since September of 1969 when I was a college student at Western Illinois University, and I have never worked for a person as knowledgable and innovative as Roger Coleman. His work as general manager of WGIL and WAAG in the 1960’s and 1970’s helped put GHS Athletics on the map. I was at a Cubs game last summer standing across the street from Wrigley Field at Murphy’s having a beer after the game. I was wearing a Galesburg t-shirt, and the bartender looked at me, smiled, and said, “Dale Kelley.”
Yes, indeed: Dale Kelley, Mike Owens, Rueben Triplet, Bumpy Nixon, Mike Campbell. The Silver Streaks of Galesburg High School, made famous by Roger Coleman, the manager of one of the finest small town radio stations in America: WGIL.
As Roger used to say when giving a station ID at the top of the hour: “You’re listening to the voice and choice of Western Illinois . . . WGIL, Galesburg.”
Congratulations, Roger, and welcome to the GHS Hall of Fame!
Posted by Massey Basketball