Friends, family, fans and colleagues said a public farewell to WBAL radio show host Ron Smith Tuesday at Goucher College. And it was as powerful and moving in some respects as the way Smith, who died in December at age 70, lived his final weeks and months after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in October.
The manner in which Smith shared his final days with his radio audience until he could no longer go on air, and then the way he said farewell to them in a live broadcast, was remarkable -- both public and yet incredibly intimate. In 35 years of reporting on media, I have heard nothing like it.
So, it is high praise to say that Tuesday's ceremony, which was designed by Smith and his wife, June, and brought to life by his colleagues at WBAL radio, was worthy of the man whose life it celebrated with about 800 fans and friends at Goucher's Kraushaar Auditorium. The gathering included U. S. Senators Ben Cardin and Barbara Mikulski.
In keeping with who Smith was both on-air and off, there was nothing phony or sentimental about the ceremony. It lasted slightly over an hour and featured remembrances from Smith's closest friends and workplace colleagues.
Master of ceremonies, WBAL sportscaster Gerry Sandusky, opened by telling the group that he had just received his "marching orders" backstage from Smith's wife, June: "Nothing maudlin," he quoted her as saying.
"Ron Smith was insightful, intelligent, engaging and articulate," Sandusky said in his opening remarks. "But we're not here to canonize Ron, because Ron was also enraging, maddening, outrageous, outlandish and opinionated. He was also the voice of reason. And whether you agreed with Ron or disagreed with Ron, whether you thought he was spot on or completely off base, he held your attention."
Sandusky did a nice job of setting the tone for what followed.
Ed Kiernan, general manager of WBAL and 98 Rock, talked about what it was like being Smith's boss.
He shared an anecdote about a consultant whom the station had hired telling him and the senior management team that they absolutely had to stop Smith from referring on air to WBAL radio as "the mighty 1090," which he loved to do. The consultant felt only the call letters should mentioned -- and that anything else would cause brand identity confusion.
Kiernan said he called Smith in and told him what the consultant said, and then the general manager shared with the group at Goucher the dismissive gesture Smith made in response to the consultant's words. It was one of the largest laughs of the day.
"Yeah, sure," he quoted Smith as saying.
Smith referred on-air to WBAL radio as "the mighty 1090" right up to his last broadcast.
Stan Stovall, who co-anchored with Smith at WBAL-TV and remained a lifetime friend, also drew big laughs with a recollection of his audition to join a newscast that employed the formula known as "Action News." That format was characterized in part by anchors presenting the news at a hyped-up almost crazed pace.
Stovall said his audition was his first experience with the action format, and after sitting at the anchor desk listening to Smith speak at pace so brisk he could barely understand the words, he was dumbstruck when his turn to read the news came. All he could do, he said, was stop the audition and ask why Smith was talking so fast.
"That's why it's called Action News," Stovall quoted Smith as saying with an edge in his voice.
And everyone in the auditorium who knew Smith in person or over airwaves laughed at the memory of the broadcaster's dry, keen, arch sense of humor.
Jonathan Murray, senior vice president at UBS and one the Smiths closest friends, offered some of the most poignant words of the day in praising June Smith -- words that surely resonated with anyone that knew them as a couple on or off the air, particularly in the last days.
"June made Ron smile even at the very end," Murray said. "Humor sustained them. And to witness her strength, her grace, her dignity, her selfless love knowing that every tick of the clock meant one step closer to the inevitable, was extraordinary. In the nine weeks from his diagnosis to his passing, June got out of the house for a total of six hours."
But the most powerful words of all Tuesday came from Smith himself -- played in voiceover at the end of the ceremony.
They were the words from his riveting live final broadcast on November 28.
"The curtain is coming down right now," Smith was heard to say again Tuesday. "I'm bidding everyone a very fond farewell."
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