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Praising the region's radio pioneers

POSTED: June 22, 2014 1:00 a.m.
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HARRIS' RECENT COLUMNS

I don’t know if I ever called Tom Robertson by his first name, except on the radio.

When I was in high school, Robertson was the voice of the Monroe Area Purple Hurricanes. By day, he was a mail carrier for the U.S. Post Office. But when I saw him doing play-by-play, I thought he was a celebrity.

Robertson spoke in a deep drawl with a good strong radio presence. He had that Southern pronunciation and called the team the “hur-a-kins.”

When I saw he was without a statistician, I quickly offered myself for free and he accepted. I was just a kid of 14 and I wanted to be on the team. I never did football games, only basketball.

The station that carried the games, WMRE, had lost its license in a complicated thing that is a story for another day. The station was operating on short-term appeals and would be on for a few days, then silent. A telegram would come, giving them another 30 days or so. It was a roller-coaster ride on radio.

In those days, the regulated Southern Bell Telephone Co. offered something called a radio loop. It was the equivalent of having a set of wires running from a basketball gym to the station.

I became the engineer. I set up the equipment and called the phone company toll test board. The phone company, in turn, called the station and made sure the connection was going through. It was low-tech radio.

I remember donning the headset microphones and feeling my heart beating heavily at halftime in anticipation of my moment of fame.

“Now, with our first-half stats, here’s Harris Blackwood,” Robertson said.

“Thanks Tom,” I responded.

In my 14-year-old mind, I thought it was appropriate under radio rules for me to call him “Tom” on the air. But, he was the same age as my mama and I never ever called a grown man anything but “mister.” Those rules apparently went out the door.

At the same time, WLET, the powerful FM station from Toccoa (it is now WNGC), broadcast many school games in Hart, Stephens, Franklin and other Northeast Georgia counties.

Its play-by-play man was also a postman, Len Pitts. He was a solid broadcaster who gnawed on a cigar for most of the game. He was paired with the legendary Billy Dilworth, who filled their halftime with folksy interviews of people he knew from around the region.

My friend, Steve Bell, like me, was a kid radio guy. He reminded me Pitts was beloved because he was always unbiased. In a tournament, he might call the game of two rivals, but was always fair to both.

Pitts only wore a tie at tournament time. Robertson had a purple blazer with a white turtleneck. I thought he was very fashionable.

I was told Len Pitts died several years back. Billy Dilworth, once a fixture on TV, radio and newspaper, now is in a nursing home.

Tom Robertson, who was 87, died last month. I didn’t know until after his funeral. But I was glad I thought of the fond memories of traveling around Northeast Georgia in his big Pontiac and waiting for halftime when, for just a moment, he became “Tom.”

Here’s to you, Mr. Robertson.

Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose columns appear on the Sunday Life page and on gainesvilletimes.com/harris.

 

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