Monday, May 20, 2002

Long Time Listener, One Time Caller

I perused my college's alumni magazine and came across a news item that the long-time geography department secretary, Barbara Wells-Howe passed away recently after a long battle with cancer. From the outside looking in, any connection probably wasn't immediately apparent. I never took a geography class. Our paths didn't naturally cross and I didn't know her hardly at all yet the news of her death saddened me because a shared love gave me a glimpse that she was a kindred coo coo kind of gal.

The story is this: Every week a mostly lone voice would at a regular time yelp out in the wilderness in the Macalester Groveland neighborhood. Sometimes the lone voice would be joined by his friend Spunky. The forum was a Saturday morning radio show on WMCN-FM 91.7, a show that featured all Frank Sinatra music. It was an odd show; a weird mixture of the wonderful music from the great American balladeer and the less than professional sounding host(s) of the show. Between songs the show was an uncomfortable mix of Soucheray/Reusse type humor with a little amateur Letterman thrown into the mixture. But mostly it came off as a soon to be Howard Beale looking into the abyss edginess with the madness minus the substance.

It wasn't exactly a shining moment in the history of the college radio station. The lone voice was both disturbed and comforted somehow that the 'you haven't heard anything like this before and thankfully you'll never hear anything like this again' style of the show wasn't exactly being heard by a lot of people. One show the voice went so far as to declare on the air that he knew no one was listening so he was just going to sit there in silence. A few moments later the phone rang with a request. The caller wanted to hear "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)." When the DJ told the caller that he didn't have that song with him that day, the caller questioned how much of a Sinatra devotee the DJ could possibly be if he didn't have perhaps the most moving song in the man's entire catalog.

The next week the listener sent a note to the lone voice. This time Ms. Wells-Howe was a bit more complimentary saying she never missed the show, a show she really enjoyed. She mentioned she appreciated the effort put in. The lone voice left the radio station that morning with a bit more of the by then missing lilt in his step. A little bit later an insane mutual acquaintance of the two let the lone voice know how big a fan of the show the listener was. "She talks about it all the time," he was told by the one he really never should have met who had Ms. Wells-Howe as a work study supervisor. You never know when someone is paying attention or where one's efforts might lead.

Ms. Wells-Howe's obituary quotes Professor Jim Laine who said, "Barb was not, how shall I say, a repressed person. She taught us all how to be a little less repressed."

In memory of the listener the lone voice grabbed his favorite Sinatra disc Songs for Swingin Lovers and as it has with every listen since he discovered it twenty years ago, the music, with its irresistible charm, made his heart feel a little bit less heavy. The true Sinatra fan, Ms. Wells-Howe, seemed to prefer Frank's down and out drink a whiskey with me torch songs. But for anyone who doubts the true genius of Sinatra's work, it is always such a wonderful reminder at how magical the best music can be. It can transform hearts and whole worlds. It can connect people, if only for a moment and a lifetime that otherwise probably wouldn't have shared anything else. Until I came across the obituary I hadn't thought of Ms. Wells-Howe for many a year. Now every time I hear a Frank song, I will remember her.

So for those of you tuned in, the message remains the same even if the singer and the listener are now gone: Just make it one for my baby and one more for the road.

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