Remembering Ted Heusel

By Scott Westerman
In the days when my dad was an administrator at the Ann Arbor Public Schools, election nights took on a special significance. It was a time when people actually voted “yes” on school bond issues and the money drove the construction of  Scarlet Junior High and the venerable Huron High School. I don’t remember the date, but I was probably in my single digits when I’d tag along with dad to the Wells Street Administration Building where the votes were tallied on huge chalk slates in the board room.

School elections were news and back then radio stations actually covered them live. I remember being fascinated that night by the blinking lights on the equipment, and by one of the men who was talking into the microphone.

He noticed my staring and called me over. “What’s your name,” he asked.

“Scotty Westerman.”

“Dr. Westerman’s son? Pull up a chair and lets talk.”

And talk, we did. I have no recollection of the conversation but it all ended up on the air. It was my first broadcasting experience and the man who made it possible was Ted Heusel.

When Ted passed away on April 27th, he’d been on the air for 56 years.

He was a true Ann Arborite, growing up in my old neighborhood on Dewey street, just down the way from our house on Granger. Ann Arbor High was still in the Frieze Building when Ted graduated and it was during his time at Michigan Normal College (now known as Eastern Michigan Universit) that he got the first taste of what would be a lifelong love of the theater. It also lead him to his first radio gig at WPAG.

But it was at WOIA that Ted “invented” talk radio. The year was 1956 and, tired of just playing records, he decided to take phone calls and talk with his listeners on the air. When he learned how to operate the stations Marti remote broadcast equipment, he took his show on the road to every corner of Ann Arbor. If something interesting was happening, Ted was usually there.

We met again in 1970. I was a bus boy at Lurie Terrace with dreams of a radio career. WPAG’s studios were located above the Hutzel’s ladies clothing store at the corner of Liberty and Main (We joked that WPAG stood for Women’s Pants And Girdles), and Ted didn’t have much of a budget for covering local news. So when a young kid with a tape recorder showed up, he put me to work. My main beat was the Ypsilanti City Council but I found my way into the midst of the post-Woodstock turmoil that was going on in Ann Arbor, covering the Black Panthers, student unrest and the pot-laced John Sinclair Freedom Ralley at Chrysler Arena.

Ted also let me substitute for him on his venerable Community Comment program, usually during holidays or when the guest was a third tier mayoral candidate. One was Lewis C. Ernst, a retiree who kept running but always came in dead last. I was certain that 200 votes he got were due to his answers to my probing questions.

The low point of my Community Comment career came on New Years Eve in 1973. The topic was New Year’s resolutions, which seemed safe enough, but I knew I was in trouble when I took the first call.

“Where’s Ted,” a woman’s voice demanded.

“He’s on vacation but it’s my honor to substitute,” I said. “Would you like to share your resolutions?”

“I’d like to thank my former friends and my un-caring family for making this the worst year of my life.” She hung up, the click reverberating in my headphones like a gunshot.

I was stunned. What would Ted say? I stumbled through a response, noting that even as we celebrated our good fortune, we should feel compassion for those in less happy circumstances. I’m certain my mentor would have done it better.

Ted introduced me to Howard Heath, WPAG’s legendary farm director and got me the job of running the controls at the studio, while Howard broadcast his 6 AM farm show from the basement of his Milan home. Thanks to Ted, I sung the praises of Shell Bladex, “the two crop herbicide for corn and soybeans”, and talked about pork bellies with confidence, long before I realized that they were bacon.

Ted taught me the magical art of on-air conversation. He was an excellent listener and had the gift of being able to ask tough questions in a way that made people want to answer them. He taught us that when you read the news you should “sound mad, because it’s authoritative.” He said that even when you made a mistake, “make it with authority. People may still think you know what you’re talking about.”

Mike Whorf may have earned the kudos for his Kaleidoscope program on WJR, but Ted’s occasional Memory Time programs on WPAG were every bit as good, and sometimes better. His mellow delivery painted vivid pictures of times past and he weaved his words amongst the records in way that turned the entire production into a sort of aural poetry. Perhaps Ken Nordine was channeling Ted’s style when he coined the term Word Jazz.

Ted was a mentor to several generations. John Landecker, the famed WLS DJ learned the trade from Ted. Skip Diegel, the long time WAAM general manager was a Heusel protege. And whenever I hear Dean Erskine on a national Auto Owners commercial, I hear echoes of Ted. Tom Graye, Tim Shy, Dennis Larson, Mike Carter, George Miller, Alan Almond, Bob Bartlett, Tom Wight, these are just a few of the many broadcasters who Ted influenced.

One of my favorite Ted Heusel memories happened during the summer of 1972 when I was working the control board for the morning farm show. Ted had 15 minutes of news that followed the 7 AM ABC national broadcast. We were lean and mean. There were no news writers, no support staff and the only actualities you had were what the afternoon news guy left you. Among my duties each morning was ripping the newswire copy and posting it on the appropriate hooks in the newsroom. I have a vivid picture of Ted’s daily arrival.

He’d burst into the news room at 7:03 with the morning newspapers under his arm, grabbing the state wire copy off of the hooks and rushing into the tiny news studio. As he read the sponsor introduction live, he was dialing up the Ann Arbor Cops to get the latest details on all of the overnight traffic stops, breaking and enterings and arrests. If Tom Rieke at the University of Michigan had a fresh tape running on their telephone newsline, Ted would have me record it on the fly as he paraphrased the jumbled pile of data on his studio desk, re-writing it in his head to make it meaningful for his Ann Arbor audience.

While our family didn’t always agree with his politics, Ted was very supportive of my father during his years as Superintendent of Schools, telling me again and again, “your dad was the best superintendent we ever had.”

I happened to be in town on the day he celebrated his 50th anniversary on the air and called to wish him well. That lead to an hour long on-air visit last year when we reminisced about our adventures and talked about the sad decline of local public interest programming on most radio stations. WAAM was one of the few to run against the grain, nurturing Lucy Ann Lance and continuing to celebrate Ted’s skills. Whenever I found my way back to Ann Arbor, I enjoyed hearing that voice, softened by the years, but still providing continuity and comfort, helping us to make sense of how current events impacted us.

This past weekend I had the chance to speak to 20,000 cancer survivors during an event my company sponsored here in Albuquerque. It was a glorious Spring day and Ted was among those on my mind as I addressed the crowd.

“Whatever you do, make it meaningful,” he used to say.

I said those exact words to the crowd. I had not yet heard of his passing, but in that instant, felt Ted Heusel again at my side.

For many who called Ann Arbor home during the last half century, Ted will always be part of our consciousness.