Friday, September 24, 2010

Ode to a Mentor (or Letter from the Grave)

Peter Dean Lakin

This morning I’m remembering the life of Peter Dean Lakin, the guy who inspired my career in broadcasting more than 40 years ago. Pete died suddenly of a heart attack recently. He was only 68.

At the time of his death, Pete was the news director at Magnum Broadcasting, a consortium of 10 radio stations in central Wisconsin.

I met Pete Lakin 50 years ago when he was at the beginning of his radio career and I was still a prepubescent kid whose voice had yet to change.

In about 1960 or maybe 1961, Pete was the new, hip DJ on WLCX radio (AM 1490) in La Crosse, Wisconsin. His show, "Nightbeat," was on from 9 to midnight. One afternoon after school when I was 10 or 11, I was riding bikes with one of my buddies, Jim Davison (who later became an ophthalmologist). We decided on a whim to stop at the WLCX transmitter on Lang Drive by the La Crosse River, knock on the door, and see if anyone would show us around.

To our astonishment, Pete Lakin answered our knock. We were stunned. Here was our hero standing before us. He didn't look at all the way he sounded. I'd pictured a skinny, 40-year-old guy with a long neck and a huge Adam's apple. Instead, we were greeted by a handsome, 20-year-old kid with a pompadour of dark, slick hair piled above his forehead.

Pete had a big smile and rosy cheeks. As I remember, he wore a short-sleeved red shirt. (This was a pivotal day in my life, so I guess my memories are more vivid than I thought.) Anyway, he invited us inside -- my first glimpse behind the scenes of a radio station.

The place was a dump, but I was enthralled. The entryway doubled as a studio from which "Vox Pop," - a political call-in show - was broadcast. To our left was the room where a clattering UPI teletype machine unscrolled the news of the moment. (To watch was a mesmerizing experience.)

Pete was there alone running the board. He took us into the control room -- a surprisingly cramped, dimly-lit, inner sanctum where all the magic emanated. Back then, it was block programming, so he was spinning what are called MOR (middle of the road) records like Montavani -- sugary-sweet easy listening music.

Jim and I stood behind Pete, watching over his shoulder as he potted down the audio of the turntable as the song was ending, cleared his throat elaborately, then flipped a switch that keyed his microphone. Then he spoke in the honey-familiar voice we all knew so well -- but this time I was WATCHING. Amazing!

Jim and I must have stayed at least half an hour - maybe more. We wrote down several musical requests which Pete read over the air later that night on "Nightbeat." It was the first time I'd ever heard my name on the radio.

For the next several years, I was a regular visitor to the studio. I'd call first and ask if I could come and watch him work. He taught me all kinds of little broadcasting tips. The one I remember best: "Always have something cued up." (It's also a metaphor for living, I've discovered.)

Pete was always generous with his time and encouraging. On two occasions, he allowed me to be a "Guest Teen DJ" on "Nightbeat" -- reading commercials, giving the weather forecast, introducing records.

It changed the course of my life.

Until that time, I was seriously pursuing a career in law. My dad was a lawyer and we were going to go into practice together, then my plan was to use law as a stepping stone into politics. But radio was always my passion -- and remains my first love. Gradually, however, partly because of Vietnam and Watergate, I became cynical about politics, and was drawn more toward journalism, where, 40+ years later, I’m an editor on CNN’s “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer” in Washington, D.C.

Pete and I remained in touch only sporadically through the years. I would have liked to have kicked back and had a couple beers with him and gotten to know him adult-to-adult instead of from the perspective of idolizing kidhood, but it was never to be.

Yesterday morning, when I was purging an accumulation of e-mails from an address I hardly ever check, I came across a lengthy note from Pete written to me two months before his death.

Here are excerpts:

“Whenever I see a picture of you, or read something you have written, I'm always reminded of the great times we all had back in the early 60's at the swamp...on Lang Drive.

“I remember when your mom would drop you off early in the afternoon...usually on Sundays...and you'd stay until around 5 until she'd call and say she was on her way to get you. I remember that my Sunday shift ended at 6 and you always tried to get her to let you stay that extra hour. I don't think you ever came out on top in those discussions….

“You were always my favorite….I have kids ask me from time-to-time how they can get into radio….I ALWAYS tell them about you and that path you took to a highly successful job at CNN...starting just hanging out at a local radio station in La Crosse and watching the local DJ and then moving forward from there….

“Actually, my news center in Poynette is filled with pictures of my favorite people and three of them are of you….You're one of the success stories I share with kids who want to get into broadcasting….

“I still feel badly about not being able to get together with you when you were in La Crosse a dozen, or so, years ago. I've never had anything bother me for so long....I've shared my feelings of guilt with my son probably 50 times. I do hope you understand.

“Anyway, John....I'm delighted with your success as an author and at CNN and I'm proud to call you my friend.”

Rest in peace, Peter Dean Lakin, and thanks for everything.

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