'Those were special times': Former journalists reminisce about radio coverage of high school sports

If it were high school football state playoff time for Tri-Cities teams years ago, you could listen to the radio to hear all of the action.

That may not be entirely necessary now with so many other options, but 50 years ago, many folks tuned into WGSB 1480-AM if they could not attend a game.

WGSB was the go-to station whenever St. Charles, Geneva, Batavia or Kaneland high schools were involved in a big game.

It's different today, as many schools or communities have their own TV station, like GTV at Geneva High School or BATV in Batavia. The Daily Herald has an online page with updated scores, or you can find a feed on different high school sports apps. When I started as a sports editor job at the St. Charles Chronicle in 1978, WGSB had four key players on the sports scene - Brian Henry, Jeff Schielke (yes, the Batavia mayor was initially a local journalist), Keith Anderson and Les Hodge, who worked for me as a sports writer. Anderson and Hodge have since passed away.

Jack Brickhouse of WGN and Chicago baseball fame and his wife Nelda owned the radio station, which operated out of a small house at the dead end of Fern Avenue in St. Charles.

It was an impressive station for small towns, the only local one that aired sports, news, music and commentaries 24 hours a day.

Henry asked me to go on air with him at halftime of a St. Charles-Geneva football game in 1979. I had been covering college football the four years prior, so you can imagine how wide my eyes opened when seeing St. Charles quarterback Randy Wright perform.

I wondered what I had been missing while in college, but Wright was easily one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play in these parts, going on to a fine career at Wisconsin and playing for the Green Bay Packers.

"Those were special times," Henry said of the Wright era.

But he had plenty of other memorable moments, illustrating how interesting and sometimes difficult it is to be a leading voice on a local radio station.

Henry started at WGSB in 1975 and worked there until 1981, when Howard Miller bought the station, moved it to an office building at Richards and State streets in Geneva - and decided local sports coverage wasn't his cup of tea.

Before Miller's questionable decision, Henry compiled great stories and memories that are still interesting today.

A notable one came in 1975 when he and Beacon-News reporter Dave Lidecka covered Geneva playing in the 3A state championship game against Metamora at Illinois State University.

"We got to the stadium and asked where our spot in the press box was, and they said we had to sit outside," Henry said. "We ended up in the top row of the bleachers in the Metamora fans section, in a spot with just a metal overhang above us."

It was freezing that night, making it all the more disappointing that Geneva lost the game and the local radio station was shunned.

"ISU has a huge, beautiful press box, and they couldn't find a spot for us to hook in?" Henry asked. "What was with that?"

Another test in radio savvy occurred in 1979 when Henry went to Jacksonville, Fla., to cover the Fox Valley Lassies slowpitch softball team in its attempt to repeat as champions at the national tournament.

"There was something wrong with the hookup there, and I had to set up a phone connection in a phone booth behind the bleachers," Henry said. "And it was really hot, so they had to keep bringing me water."

From his phone booth outpost, Henry delivered the play-by-play as it was told to him by a Lassies fan named Jon Pelletier, sitting in the last row and relaying information as the action unfolded.

"I could barely see the field through the bleachers, but I just reported it like I was watching it all happen," Henry said.

Schielke, who left his journalism life behind to get into politics and his long run as Batavia mayor, still talks about when he and Henry were invited to join Brickhouse in the booth at a Cubs game.

Brickhouse had heard Henry and Schielke overcome some technical problems at a basketball game in Sycamore and was impressed with their work in keeping fans informed after the technical delay. So, he invited them to the Cubs game.

"I remember when the wind picked up off the lake, Brickhouse had some papers that his producers had put on his table, and they started blowing around," Schielke said.

"The next thing we knew, Brian and I were on the floor of the WGN press box, picking up papers and helping Jack get them organized," he added. "And he mentioned us on the air, so that was really great like a dream come true after all those years of watching him broadcast Cubs games."

After Henry departed from what was then WFXW-1480, Hodge had a Saturday morning sports show in which he would talk to area coaches. His famous signoff at the end of each show was, "OK, Ma, put on the coffee. The redhead is coming home."

It was all great stuff, and I did my part in the mid to late 1980s to keep a local flavor years later in calling into the station at 7:20 a.m. Monday through Friday, for a 10-minute segment to tell PJ Harrigan or Robin Lange what was in the day's paper and what the staff was working on.

It's hard to imagine a local Tri-Cities station could surface again. I know stations out of Aurora do a nice job covering that city and other events in the Fox Valley. Still, a proper Tri-Cities station is simply left to our memories as many local schools open the football playoffs this weekend.

Addresses theater question

The topic of Geneva's need for a theater for concerts, musicals, plays or other acts has surfaced various times over the past few decades.

Let's just say the city doesn't have a place it can point to, like the Paramount Theatre, the Norris Cultural Arts Center, the Arcada Theatre or the Batavia Fine Arts Centre.

That doesn't mean the city has been missing the boat for a long time. Proof comes in the recent Geneva Chamber of Commerce ribbon-cutting ceremony for the park district's Playhouse 38 Theatre to celebrate its 10th year of shows put on by all age groups.

Playhouse 38 opened in 2013 at 524 W. State St., more commonly known as the underground playhouse, but moved three years later to its current location at 321 Stevens St.

The fall adult production at the theater of "The Shadow Over Dunwich" starts Friday, Oct. 27 and continues with afternoon and evening shows on Saturday, Oct. 28 and an afternoon show on Sunday, Oct. 29.

Keeping track of steps

It's been kind of fun to keep track of my steps through my simple Fitbit Flex 2 wristband. The idea of reaching 1,000 straight days of more than 10,000 steps turned into a sort of competitive excitement.

I was at 947 days when Fitbit suddenly decided no one could possibly have fun keeping track like this and that the days in a row didn't mean much. Or, maybe anyone using a first-generation Flex 2 isn't worth worrying about any longer.

Thus, the upgrade for its app became a downgrade in my mind because I suddenly had no way of knowing how many days in a row the streak was at.

On top of that, I have to fiddle around with the app for two or more sequences to update the daily steps and figure out how much battery power is left on the band. All of this information was on one screen before.

But it's trickier to push aside a Baby Boomer with bad app upgrades than one would think. I turned to keeping track of my days manually. Some of you may remember this method. I use a pen to jot down the days on a slip of paper and add them to the 947 on the app when that feature exploded.

At the moment, we're moving quickly toward 970 straight days and beyond, whether the app likes it or not.

A newspaper ad from 1977 shows Brian Henry, Jeff Schielke, Keith Anderson and Les Hodge; Hodge worked for Dave Heun. Courtesy of Brian Henry
Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.