Remarkable Woman

Terri Hemmert at WXRT radio. (Abel Uribe, Chicago Tribune)

For a kid from Piqua, Ohio, Terri Hemmert was surprisingly unimpressed when she moved to the Chicago area to attend Elmhurst College in the late '60s. She saw Chicago as a bigger Dayton, Ohio.

"Then I discovered all that it had to offer: the music, the museums, the places to eat, the neighborhoods," Hemmert said.

She never found a reason to leave, of course. Hemmert has been that friendly voice at WXRT-FM radio for 40 years now, a milestone that was noted by no less than Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel when he paid a surprise visit to the XRT studios in December to proclaim Terri Hemmert Day.

Her radio work includes a midday show Mondays through Fridays, a public service program on Sundays and "Breakfast with the Beatles," also on Sundays. (A Beatles authority, she also has hosted the annual Fest for Beatles Fans for nearly 30 years.)

But Hemmert, 65, is also an educator. She has taught radio courses at Columbia College Chicago for almost as long as she has been on WXRT, and she gives her time and talent to numerous charitable causes.

Hemmert recently sat down at the WXRT studios to discuss her life and the last 40 years on the air in Chicago. This is an edited version of the conversation.

Q: Forty years is a long time in any profession, let alone radio. And unheard-of with one station. How did this happen?

A: I just keep coming to work every day. The years catch up with you. I have that loyalty gene that my parents instilled in me. I love XRT, I love the music we play, I love the listeners — except for maybe three or four, and we have the cease-and-desists on them.

Q: Does it ever get to be a grind, going on the air almost every day for 40 years?

A: Some of it is discipline. There are days I'd much rather stay in. The hard part is going on the air every day and having to be happy, no matter how you feel. I'm a person of faith, too, and that sustains me a lot. Why do I get up? There's got to be a bigger reason than force of habit or I've got nothing else to do.

Q: Do you have a favorite radio story you've never told?

A: DJ nightmares. My good friend (and fellow WXRT personality) Lin Brehmer and I were talking about this recently. DJs have work nightmares. I remember one I had when we were still playing vinyl. I had a dream that every record in our library was a Fiestaware dinner plate, with a little hole in the middle. And I'd put them on the turntable and nothing was playing. DJ nightmares, something people don't think of.

Q: There's a side of you that's not as obvious as the person with the daily radio show. That's your work with charities. Which ones are you focusing on these days?

A: I've worked with the Peace Museum, the Inner-City Teaching Corps, the AIDS Pastoral Care Network. My main commitments now are to Columbia College and the Chicago Symphony, where I do the Classic Encounter series. I do a lot with art. But justice issues and AIDS, I feel drawn to those kinds of things. Right now I'm drawn to Let's See Action (a program she started that gets listeners involved in helping others). I'm trying to get people to find existing arts organizations and get involved. You don't have to be a musician or artist to get involved. Be a tutor, raise money.

Q: Music and art always seem the first that the bean-counters ax. But they make a difference.

A: I've met a lot of these kids who tell me how much the arts mean to them. "I wouldn't have graduated high school if not for the choir, or the gymnastics team." It gives them a reason to go to school.

Q: In your career, what drives you?

A: The music is huge. I consider it a privilege to do what I do, turn people on to music and tell them about issues. I'm (WXRT's) public affairs director, so I get to do that as well. I love that aspect. And I love that 'XRT plays old and new music.

Q: Do you have a biggest thrill in your career?

A: Meeting Paul McCartney multiple times is pretty cool. But it's not so much about one big electric moment; it's more about the intimate meetings with listeners. When done right, there's an intimacy there.