The final broadcast of “The Walt Bodine Show” will air at the end of the month and, really, what do you say to that? At 91, radio and TV personality Walt Bodine is heading into full retirement, just 72 years after starting in the business.
While Kansas City claims a share of famous Walts — Disney, Cronkite — this Walt became the city’s BFF. And, maybe the highest praise for a journalist, its best listener.
“Walt’s been putting this day off for a long time,” said his son, Tom Bodine. “He turned 65 back in 1985. He loves radio and he loves Kansas City, and he’s a lucky man who’s had a job that pulled those two passions together.”
Tom Bodine said his father wasn’t in good enough health to be interviewed for this article. He has been frail for some time, blind and in a wheelchair.
“The latest adventure in aging is that his memory is fading out, and that’s been the clincher as far as his work,” Tom Bodine said. “He’s had a very loyal and intelligent audience in public radio. Even when age has held him back, his audience has been there with him.”
Bodine’s catchphrases — “What do you say to that?” and “Imagine that!” — served him well through his decades of TV appearances and radio shows, which featured guests and call-in segments.
“The Walt Bodine Show” dates to 1978. It made its home at KCUR-FM starting in the early 1980s. Bodine had launched a late-night talk show called “Night Beat” on WHB in the 1960s.
“There are so many stories,” Tom Bodine said. “The night of the Hyatt skywalk collapse, he stayed on the air all night and into the morning so the show could be a place for people to express their feelings and to get up-to-the-minute information. It was a place where people could gather.”
For the last two years, Bodine has been on the air on Fridays only, but during the previous two years, KCUR’s Gina Kaufmann, no longer with the public radio station, assisted Bodine on and off air for the daily show. In the planning and execution of the show, no matter Bodine’s ability to participate, his philosophy was clear, she said.
“He often said, ‘Let’s not get too exotic,’ ” Kaufmann said. “The local aspect of the show was dear to him. If a show idea seemed to be getting too big for our britches, he would remind us what we were there to do. And he was right.”
Bodine truly loved the call-in segments, she said.
“His respect to the listeners — it’s not just a platitude — it was beyond respect,” she said. “The listener was really on a pedestal in his mind.”
No doubt Bodine’s pacing and consistency changed with his age and health of late, Kaufmann said, but his news and conversational instincts remained strong.
“His determination to come to work no matter how he felt — I was in awe,” she said. “It was not only admirable to see, but it made you think differently about your own attitude. If more people of my generation had that, I think we would be living in a totally different world.”
KCUR’s general manager, Patricia Deal Cahill, said Bodine was a member of the search committee that hired her in 1987. He and another committee member drove to Wichita to interview her. That kind of personal touch came through in his work, she said.
“He’s like everybody’s uncle on the radio,” Cahill said. “He doesn’t have a big, brassy radio voice. It’s comfortable, familiar. We hope Walt will still come by the station. We don’t want to lose track of Walt or to let our listeners lose track of him.”
Bodine began in radio in 1940 at a station in Sedalia, Mo. After military service in World War II, he continued his radio career in Kansas City into the 1970s, when he worked for a few years in public relations.
He wrote columns for The Squire newspaper and appeared on television, including at WDAF, Channel 4, and KMBC, Channel 9. Bodine wrote several books, including “What Do You Say to That?” and “My Times, My Town.”
He interviewed hundreds of national and local figures, such as Robert F. Kennedy and Harry S. Truman, yet couldn’t resist pounding the streets for the perfect malt or bowl of chili.
Broadcast reporter Bev Chapman first got to know Bodine at Channel 9 when he hosted a TV feature about local restaurants. Bodine had a mind “like the Smithsonian’s attic,” she said, and he offered a perspective that tapped into his many years in journalism and his deep knowledge of Kansas City history.
And then there was the chili.
“I drove Walt to a funeral on a Sunday afternoon, and afterward we decided to stop at Dixon’s in Independence for chili,” Chapman said. “It’s soupy. We made a colossal mess. He used to joke that he always wore brown ties because that way nobody could tell what he had for lunch.”
KCUR reporter Steve Bell has known Bodine since they were nighttime radio show competitors back in the 1960s.
“We talk in the radio business about ‘legends,’ but Walt is one,” Bell said. “He’s covered stories from the 1951 flood to where to get a good hamburger. And through it all, Walt is just a good guy.”
Chapman said Bodine wouldn’t allow you to chide yourself for long or lament a piece that didn’t turn out well. There was always the next story to pursue, she said.
“He has been a great cheerleader for me and, as time went on, a good friend,” she said.
Monroe Dodd, a former editor atThe Kansas City Times and The Star
who co-hosted local history segments on the show, was most impressed with Bodine’s persistence.
“He is such a fighter,” Dodd said. “He just kept plugging away. Looking back, we know that he had difficulty seeing for a long time, but he didn’t let that daunt him. He’s a model for the rest of us.”