I sat in my Mercury Tracer, waiting to make the left out on to Kenmore Boulevard. ‘97.5’ glistened on the car’s radio. It was a Tuesday night, a little past 6 in the evening, and I was headed to the WONE studios. After only a weekend show under my belt, Harve Alan had asked me if I could fill in for J.D. Kunes that night. The Tom Petty song on the air was winding down, and that mellifluous voice that I’d admired for such a long time emerged.
“97.5, the home of rock ‘n roll and the one for Tom Petty on a Two-fer Tuesday. Little Jimmy Chenot in the captain’s chair. More two-fers on the way from Van Morrison and the Rolling Stones, and then, don’t forget, coming up at 8, the very affable Matt Anthony, filling in for J.D. this evening.”
Wow. Jim Chenot had said my name on the radio.
After pulling in to the lot of the Bernard Building on south Hawkins, I made my way to the on-air studio. Through the small square pane of glass in the studio door, I could see a man stacking cartridges and piles of compact discs. Shorter than I envisioned, he looked like a mixture of Carlos Santana and Yanni.
“Jim Chenot, man, how are ya?” he bellowed, extending his hand.
Butterflies banged in to each other inside my abdomen. He stacked several more compact discs on top of each other and started to put on the headphones that were draped around the back of his neck.
“You like the Tribe?”
I stammered that I did, trying to respond with the same power as the voice that I’d tried to emulate for such a long time. He glanced at the digital clock on the front of the cd-deck. “I need a name of an older Indians player. Who should I use?”
For whatever reason, the first name that flooded into my head was shortstop Larry Brown, who donned a Tribe uniform in the late 60’s. He placed the headphones around his ears, and I pointed to the door, motioning that I would leave the studio while he did his talk-break. Outside in the hallway, nervously pacing, I listened as Jim’s voice reverberated throughout the mostly empty complex.
“Matt Anthony is up next, and I say to you, the people…and you know who you are…..peace, love, rock ‘n roll…and good night…Larry Brown…wherever…..you are!”
I’ve thought of that Tuesday night, almost 25 years ago, many times over the past 72 hours. And since I received the news on Thursday of Jim’s death, I’m quite positive that no introductory meeting, no handshake, and no initial conversation has had more impact on me in my almost 30-year career that the one that occurred that Tuesday evening.
Many on Facebook have called him an ‘Akron radio legend’. I could see him, right now, extending both hands out in front of him, shaking his head quickly, and rejecting that moniker with a chuckle and an emphatic, “No, man.”
But it’s true.
During his tenure at WONE, there was strict competition for that title. Matt Patrick dominated mornings at WKDD. Stan Piatt held his own at WNIR. And since Cleveland stations easily penetrated Akron, there were additional claims, as well. But I contend that none of them captured the loyalty of the 9-to-5 working class Akronite with the same fervor as that which was bestowed on Jim Chenot.
That Tuesday meeting, though, started an almost 25-year friendship that, in a strange way, I still, to this day, feel awed and humbled to have had the opportunity to experience.
From a professional standpoint, I didn’t hide the fact that I wanted to be like him, on-air. I wanted to sound like him, but there was simply no way to replicate one of the most identifiable broadcast-voices ever in northeast Ohio. (He had ‘the captain’s chair’, and I had started to say ‘Sir Matthew in the easy chair…”) But I learned much from him. There was an innate smooth-ness to his patter between songs, which gave some of his breaks an almost ‘rehearsed’ cadence. But he was that good. Before I eventually left WONE for Washington, DC, I felt, unequivocally, that some of the comfort that I was beginning to feel behind the microphone was due, in large part, to following his lead.
As we became better friends, Jim and I, for a short time, even did a Sunday evening show together on sister-station WAKR. In a flagrant display of thievery, we called it ‘Radio K.A.O.S.’, after the Roger Waters album of the same name. I saved a sample of one of those shows, which I still have on my iPod.
We felt a connection early on. We are both from Canton. Our favorite bands are both British. We were both raised as Catholics, and often discussed our tribulations with our religious upbringing. We were both huge baseball fans.
And the phone calls. Everyone knows about Jim’s fixation with the Beatles and especially with the movie A Hard Day’s Night. I’d stopped counting long ago how many times he’s called me and immediately launched in to a Liverpool accent: “Are you mod or a rocker?” Um, no, I’m a mocker!” or “…and they’ve fists of matured hams for pounding poor defenseless lads like you!”
But we also shared a love for the movie Amadeus. Some times Jim would call and leave a message like, “Hey, Matt, I listened to you last night and all I have to say is… it’s quality work but there are simply too many notes. Just cut a few and it will be perfect!” Or he’d call and generate a long preamble like, “Hey, man, I liked the open you did for ‘Beatles Break’ for me, but your use of German there in the beginning? It’s…uh…too brutal!” And then he’d explode in laughter, as if he’d just fired off that quote for the first time ever. (This past year, he’d taken to ending his calls with that pre-recorded laugh-track from the old Big Chuck and Hoolihan Show!)
Our shared connection to Canton showed up in his calls and messages, too. “Hey, man, I just wanted to let you know that I just sucked down a coney-dog from the Arcade. I was gonna have some burnt ends from Kennedy’s Bar-B-Q, but I opted for the coney. Figured you’d be proud of me. Now, man, I’m about to line up behind the rest of the Harrison Paint White Sox Mitey-Mite team for a strawberry cone at Patrick’s!” Jim peppered much of his syntax with the word ‘man’, left over, I guess, from teenage-years immersed in the counter-culture 60’s. But he did so with the trained vocalic-technique that can only be honed with years behind the microphone. The word seeped in to his dialogue with great emphasis, sometimes stretched out, seemingly, in to 2 or 3 syllables.
For years, when not in the best of moods or during a tremendously busy day, admittedly, I’d cringe a bit when he’d reel off lines from the same Beatles movie I’d been hearing from for the past two decades. Now, I kick myself for not saving one of those voice-mails.
Jim was gracious. He treated listeners like guests. He treated servers at restaurants with dignity and friendliness. He treated ushers at the ballpark and the food-service people who served him with outward respect.
I’ll miss our trips to Progressive Field to see the Indians. We’d meet at The Summit and drive up from there. We’d always park in the same $5.00 lot, across from the Wolstein Center. Unless he had been given tickets, Jim liked to buy them at the box office, and not from a scalper. And once inside, we’d head directly to the stand near the first-base line. For him, all of The Jake’s exquisite new culinary options were no match for two all-beef kosher dogs and a Dortmunder Gold from Great Lakes Brewing.
Jim was also a very spiritual person. We routinely talked about meditation and prayer, both Eastern and Catholic approaches. Those chats, though, would almost always be punctuated with a ,”Wow, man, what would Monsignor Kotheimer think about this discussion? We might have to say 10 fucking Hail Marys for this one!”
I also sensed loneliness. And he was a loner. He went to a dozen or more games by himself. He was also a regular at the Cedar-Lee theatre in Cleveland Heights. One day this past summer, I was waiting for Donna to buy bird-seed at a store near Chapel Hill and I spotted Jim walking down Howe Avenue by himself with a bag from Target. The traffic noise and the distance made it impossible for me to get his attention, but he walked with head bowed, each step measured. Akron’s radio legend dodging unsuspecting drivers en route to his apartment. It was a poignant moment.
I’ve told my wife over the years that there are few people who remain in your life once you move on to something else, especially if that change is geographical. But wherever we’ve been, whether in Washington, DC (twice), Knoxville, Pittsburgh, or St. Louis, Jim Chenot was always there. He’s always stayed in touch. He’s always called me, and he’s always dropped notes via email. And in the past several years, he’s always used text to reach out and make a comment about the Tribe or the Cavs, reel off a quip about communion wafers or the Rosary, or poke fun because I almost went to Lehman High School.
Last fall, while returning from an Indians game, we drove that dark, solitary stretch of I-77 between the turnpike and Ghent Road. We were sort of talked out, and I glanced over at him momentarily while driving. He was looking out the window, and I realized that I still hadn’t full comprehended how someone who I’d regarded as an idol had still managed to be my friend after all these years. I was grateful for that, and I still am.
So last evening, I opened a Great Lakes Christmas Ale and I thought of Jim and how fortunate I was to know him as a mentor, as a cohort, as an associate, a buddy, a pal, a struggling spiritual person, and as a friend. I drank and I wept. And then I toasted ‘peace’. I toasted ‘love’. I toasted ‘rock ‘n roll’. And said ‘good night, Jim Chenot….wherever you are’.