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Ron Wilner, radio personality and political strategist, dies

Ron Wilner, radio personality and political strategist, dies
A few Baltimoreans will remember Ron Wilner’s voice. Those who don’t will still recognize his words. (Handout)

A few Baltimoreans will remember Ron Wilner’s voice. Those who don’t will still recognize his words.

During the span of his career, Mr. Wilner hosted an AM radio show, helped coin the slogan “wild, wonderful West Virginia,” named the “MARC” train, and wrote zingers for politicians in Maryland, Virginia and elsewhere.

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“My memories of him are of an individual who had real talent,” said former Baltimore Sun reporter Edgar Feingold, a longtime friend.

“Whether someone had a 15-minute exchange with him or a lifetime, everyone came away thinking, ‘That’s a good man,’ ” said his older daughter, Trudy Wilner Stack.

“Ron Wilner was one of the best professionals I ever worked with in public relations,” said former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore. “He was a warm, friendly person and a pleasure to know as well as to work with.”

Mr. Wilner died of cancer Jan. 19 at Gilchrist in Towson. He was 87.

Born May 1931 to Joseph L. Wilner, a clothing manufacturer, and Edna Pondfield Wilner, a homemaker, Mr. Wilner graduated from Baltimore City College high school in 1949. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, where he also directed the campus radio station, WXPN. After college, he worked as an on-air personality at station WASA in Havre de Grace before being drafted into the Army.

Sent to Sendai, Japan, he got a job working at the Army radio station, where he gained minor celebrity status among military and local Japanese audiences. According to a biography provided by his family, Mr. Wilner told friends, “One day you’re washing trucks, then suddenly you are invited to the general’s home for cocktails because his daughters want to meet the ‘radio guys.’ ”

After leaving the Army, he joined the now-defunct AM radio station WAYE as a morning disc jockey. “He had a technique that he would parody characters taken from the local political scene or sport scene and concoct stories about them that were really intriguing and funny, very funny,” Mr. Feingold said. “He was very good at what he did.”

Off-air, Mr. Wilner was “a little shy,” Mr. Feingold recalled.

In 1959, Mr. Wilner left radio for the advertising world, joining the Robert Goodman Agency, a fledgling company started by his friend. From the agency’s office in a converted mill on Falls Road, Mr. Wilner wrote copy and slogans for everyone from the Baltimore Orioles to Spiro T. Agnew, who was then Baltimore County executive making a bid for governor.

In the era of three-martini lunches, Mr. Wilner and his colleagues lunched daily at the Valley Inn on Falls Road. “I think a lot of their campaigns came out of those lunches,” said his younger daughter, Kassie Wilner.

In 1966, Mr. Wilner wrote the slogan: “My kind of man (Ted Agnew is),” a parody of the song “My kind of town (Chicago is).” It helped the Republican defeat Democratic candidate George Mahoney, who ran on a segregationist platform with the slogan: “Your home is your castle. Protect it.”

At the time, few suspected the corruption allegations that would later be revealed against Mr. Agnew, who went on to become vice president of the United States. “They had no idea that he was on the take,” Mr. Feingold said.

Mr. Agnew’s win helped launch the advertising firm into the national sphere for representing mainly Republican political candidates — though Mr. Wilner’s own political views skewed liberal. With the Goodman Agency, Mr. Wilner worked on winning campaigns for governors of Kentucky, Delaware, West Virginia and Virginia as well as the campaigns for Sen. Charles “Mac” Mathias and Democratic Gov. Harry Hughes. In 1980, they endured defeat when their candidate, George H.W. Bush, lost the presidential nomination to Ronald Reagan.

Even after his retirement in 1992, Mr. Wilner continued to consult on political campaigns, such as the re-election campaign for Sen. John Warner of Virginia and the Gov. Jim Gilmore’s 1997 campaign.

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Mr. Wilner “was able to create memorable lines that helped the public know exactly what you were trying to communicate,” Governor Gilmore said. “He was a real star, believe me.”

No matter his accomplishments, Mr. Wilner retained an aura of warmth and humility, friends say. “He wasn’t bombastic,” Mr. Feingold said. He loved hot dogs and drank cheap vodka.

Amid his political work, Mr. Wilner worked on commercial advertising accounts, winning a “Gold Camera” first-place award for a fundraising documentary produced for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. He invented the “wild, wonderful West Virginia” slogan for that state’s tourism board, and coined the title “MARC” for Maryland’s commuter rail service, according to his family’s biography.

In 2010, he assisted David Cordish’s team on a successful ballot issue in Anne Arundel County that allowed the Maryland Live casino to be built at Arundel Mills.

After his marriage to the poet and MacArthur Fellow Eleanor Wilner ended in divorce, Mr. Wilner met Sydney Dine, who was working as a staffer for Rep. Robert Taft Jr., then a candidate for the U.S. Senate. They married in 1971 and had one daughter.

“I thought that he was very good looking. He had a very sweet manner about him. He was engaging. He had a wonderful smile. He was honest. He was genuine. He was reliable. He was just very loving,” Mrs. Wilner said. “We had 47 wonderful years of marriage.”

The family lived in Baltimore’s Homeland neighborhood during the week and spent weekends near Annapolis, where Mr. Wilner enjoyed sailing on the Chesapeake Bay.

Mr. Wilner read broadly and voraciously, from travel novels to historical works, said Ms. Wilner. He subscribed to The New Republic and The Baltimore Sun. Additionally, he loved musicals and played show tunes on the piano for his family. He also served 22 years as a trustee for Baltimore’s Center Stage.

“He was the melody in our family that we followed,” said Ms. Wilner Stack.

A lifelong Orioles fan and longtime Colts fan, “it took him a little while to come around to the Ravens,” Ms. Wilner said.

Services were Jan. 24 at Sol Levinson & Bros., Reisterstown Road.

In addition to his wife and two daughters, he is survived by his sister, Marilyn Frieman of St. Petersburg, Fla., as well as two grandchildren.

Ms. Wilner said she thinks of her father every time she sees a MARC train or a West Virginia license plate: “Wild, wonderful.”

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