Bob Schwab was one of those people you call “pioneers” in his profession.
WGGA was Gainesville’s first radio station, started in 1941 by Charles Smithgall and associates. Schwab didn’t join the station until three years later, but became the face and voice of radio in Northeast Georgia for the next couple of decades.
Bob, who died July 29 in Blue Ridge, was a folksy radio personality who appealed to listeners of all ages and backgrounds, but perhaps more so to those in what was then a very rural Hall County. Radio in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s often consisted of hometown talent, such as Harmon Kanady and the Hall County Hotshots or the Queen City Quartet.
He met his first wife, Inez Small, who preceded him in death, when she was a nurse lieutenant in the Army during World War II, and he was a tech sergeant. They settled in Gainesville.
Schwab started at WGGA as an advertising copy writer, but in a small radio station, he did everything from selling commercials to cleaning restrooms and, finally, announcing. Though born in Illinois, he cultivated a drawl of sorts that Southerners accepted. Early in his career, he called himself “Hillbilly Bob.”
He was a showman. He didn’t fit the physical mold as a Santa Claus, but played that role nicely every Christmas season because of his jolly nature. Schwab as St. Nick became a tradition on the radio and at numerous places he would appear.
World War II hadn’t ended long when he dressed up as Adolph Hitler and paraded around the downtown square in some sort of radio promotion. It attracted attention and some controversy, but his fans realized it was just Schwab doing his thing for WGGA.
He was anything but timid. Once when the rumor floated that Soviet Union leader Nikita Khrushchev had died, Schwab didn’t wait on the wire services to confirm. He telephoned Moscow, got somebody in the Kremlin and asked, “Do you have anyone over there pushing up daisies?”
His radio notoriety attracted various entertainers to WGGA, including Grandpa Jones of the Grand Ole Opry, country singers Eddy Arnold and Porter Waggoner, as well as Col. Tom Parker, who managed Elvis Presley. Schwab also had a two-hour interview with cowboy actor/singer Tex Ritter when he appeared on stage at the old Ritz Theater in downtown Gainesville.
Schwab rose in rank at the station and in popularity in WGGA’s listening area. He ascended to general manager eventually.
He would rally the community together behind all sorts of fundraising efforts, whether it be for the Community Chest, as it was called then, or the Empty Stocking Fund at Christmas. Schwab was community and people oriented. His priority was in helping people, said Phil Hudgins in his eulogy Wednesday. When students needed money for projects, Schwab was there to help them raise it.
Schwab left WGGA in 1962 to become a station owner himself. He eventually acquired or started stations in Copperhill, Tenn., Blue Ridge, Ellijay and Jasper. He became just as popular and well known as he did in Gainesville, helping various causes raise money over the radio.
David Ralston, now speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives, got his first job with Schwab’s station in Blue Ridge while still in high school.
Schwab personally interviewed three presidents, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. He and his son visited Nixon in the White House in 1970, bringing along a roll of teletype paper with more than 5,000 signatures supporting the president’s policy in the Vietnam War.
The blizzard of 1993 struck on a Friday. Schwab, according to his wife Juanita, left home for his Blue Ridge radio station with some sandwich makings, a drink and a candle in case there was a power outage. He stayed at the station till the following Thursday, taking calls for Tri-State EMC, an ambulance service, the hospital and just ordinary folks asking about friends or family or the elderly who might be stranded.
He won numerous awards during his 57-year career, but he was most proud of the Gabby, the highest honor given by the Georgia Association of Broadcasters.
Schwab, who had sold his radio stations when he retired in 2003, still was announcing obituaries for a local funeral home up until his death at Fannin Regional Hospital a week ago at age 91.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.