When you are sitting in a radio studio at 5AM getting ready to go on the air and you see that your idol and inspiration, the person who’s responsible for you being there at all, has died, which is what happened to me this morning, it gets your attention, and it makes you think deep thoughts about your very existence and purpose.
I would not have gotten into radio without Larry Lujack. He had just taken over the morning show at WLS when I started listening in 1970, so he was present at the creation. And although he retired in 1987 when he was only 47 years old, he remained a real presence in the heads of all he inspired forever after.
But here’s the thing: although you could be inspired by Lujack, you couldn’t actually do what he did. Several tributes that have appeared today make clear that his offhandedness, the way he would start, stop, and shuffle papers, the making-it-up-on-the-spot feel of his shows, was actually calculated for effect—which might mean he was one of the greatest actors of his generation. Although he sounded every morning like he just woke up and found himself on the air, he was actually meticulous, prepared, and precise, which is the only way to achieve the heights he did.
His curmudgeon persona was both real and part of the act. He did not care much for ceremony, from making clear he didn’t want a going-away party at WLS and wouldn’t attend if they threw one, to insisting that there be no funeral at his death and that his body simply be donated to the University of New Mexico medical school. But he was not a misanthrope, either. Colleagues report spontaneous acts of kindness on his part, and they talk about how much they learned from him.
I am not going to link to a bunch of tributes here. You can look at my Twitter timeline to see several from earlier today. Listen to the aircheck below, or go to YouTube to find more—and if you’ve never heard the man, you should.
The last time the death of someone I didn’t know personally hit me this hard was probably when Hunter S. Thompson passed, but this feels like an even greater loss. And I am not alone in feeling that loss. Larry Lujack’s death is personal for thousands, probably millions of us, even though we never met him. As Bean Baxter of KROQ in Los Angeles put it on Twitter last night, “Losing Larry Lujack to a radio person is like losing George Washington to America.” Amen and amen. Without Lujack, many of us would be somebody else entirely.
Ol’ Uncle Lar would not care much for the tributes being paid him today, though, or for fellow broadcasters feeling sad. He’d say to us, in that familiar gravelly growl, “Suck it up and get back to work.”
And so we shall.