Commentary

Saunders: Mornings aren't the same in Rockingham without radio voice of Jimmy Smith

bsaunders@newsbserver.comOctober 9, 2013 

Young Jimmy Smith on the air in the early 1950s.

COURTESY OF BILL FUTTERER

— Like dozens of little cities and towns throughout the South, Rockingham survived the closings of most of its textile mills and the loss of thousands of jobs. It even survived the departure of NASCAR from the N.C. Motor Speedway.

Can it survive this loss, though?

A few weeks ago, Jimmy Smith broadcast his last show as the morning disc jockey there on radio station WAYN-AM. He’d been as much a part of the city and Richmond County as the race track that brought the city worldwide renown, and the mills that employed generations of lintheads and sustained the businesses in which they shopped.

Twelve years ago, I wrote a column about driving through my hometown and unexpectedly hearing Smith’s familiar voice on the air. He’d been on for 50 years then, and I’d grown up listening to him tell who was born, who died and whether there’d be school tomorrow because of an impending snowflake that may or may not have been headed our way.

How, one wonders, will kids know whether there’ll be school tomorrow without Smith telling them and ringing his famous cowbell?

When he rang it for the final time a few weeks ago, he’d put in 62 years.

Another radio icon

Not even a radio historian such as Don Curtis, owner and chief executive officer of Curtis Media, could tell whether that made Smith the state’s longest-serving disc jockey at one station, but he knew it was close. He noted that Carl Lamm at WTSB in Smithfield may have been on the air longer.

Lamm’s daughter, Linda Carroll, said Wednesday her father has been on the air “continuously for 66 years. He’s on right now.”

Lamm, 88, has broadcast on stations in Rocky Mount, Dunn and Garner; Smith put in all of his time behind one microphone.

“I was 16 when I started and a junior at Rockingham High School,” he told me. “I was working at the Dixie Home store” – which later became the Winn-Dixie – “which was right next door to the station. I would get off from work there and go up to the lobby of the radio station and watch the deejay and the Associated Press teletype before I would go home.”

Showing up

One day the school announced that the station was auditioning applicants for a part-time announcer for its platter chatter show.

“There were five of us who showed up,” Smith said, “and you had to go every day” to be tutored and critiqued. “I just kept going back longer than anybody else did. On the day they hired me, I was the only one who showed up.”

See there? Woody Allen was right, at least in this instance: 80 percent of success is just showing up.

Over the years, Smith said, he was courted by stations in Charlotte and Virginia. Was he ever tempted, I asked, to take one of those jobs?

“No, not at all,” he said. “I was in my hometown, which is where I wanted to be, doing what I wanted to do.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “To laugh often and love much … this is to have succeeded.”

So, too, he might have added, is doing what you want to do where you want do it for 62 years – especially when it takes you less than one minute to get to work from home, as it did Smith.

State Sen. Eugene McLaurin, a Rockingham native, former mayor and pal of mine, said, “Jimmy helped get me up every morning and get motivated for school by ringing that cowbell and talking about cheesy grits. Jimmy loved Richmond County, and Richmond County loved him. I was proud to declare ‘Jimmy Smith Day’ in 2001,” after Smith had been on for 50 years.

I remember that durned sleep-interrupting cowbell, too, but less fondly than does McLaurin.

How did Smith know it was time to sign off for good?

“I heard Woody Durham” – the play-by-play announcer of the UNC Tar Heels for 40 years – “say he realized he wasn’t quite as sharp, and so that’s the reason he retired,” Smith said. “I can identify with that. I realized I was making mistakes that I normally didn’t make.

“I began to feel my 79 years in ways that I didn’t expect to,” he said. “I was not feeling like getting up at 4 a.m. and going in. It was great fun, though. I enjoyed every day of it. I was in love with the station before I ever went to work there.”

Saunders: 919-836-2811 or bsaunders@newsobserver.com

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