(Late edit: added a link.)
I worked for KDTH and KFMD in Dubuque, Iowa, from 1979 to 1983, and in those years, Dubuque was insular to the point of weirdness. If you weren’t born there, Dubuquers would consider you an outsider, and therefore not qualified to opine on anything going on in the city. But there were strong personalities at KDTH who cut through all that. Newsman Gordon Kilgore, whom I’ve written about here in the past, was one of them. George Lipper, who was general manager of the stations during my time there, was another. A native of Massachusetts, he never entirely lost his accent (which some of my colleagues liked to imitate), but he was as utterly committed to Dubuque as if his family had founded the place. He frequently delivered editorials on KDTH, and they pushed citizens and city fathers to move forward. He was a great believer in highways as the engine of economic development, and is credited for the building of the Dubuque-Wisconsin bridge that improved transportation access to the city.
After I’d become a fulltime jock at KDTH and was about to get fired—unjustly, I felt—I went to him to argue my case. He listened kindly but was ultimately noncommittal. After I got fired, I felt as though he hadn’t done enough to save me. I got a job in Macomb, Illinois, and life went on.
It was only a few months later that George came to Macomb in his capacity as head of acquisitions for the company that owned KDTH. While the company decided not to buy WKAI—the station that competed with the one I was working for—George did. I have told the story before, so there’s no need to repeat it here. Short version: I ended up doing what I had not intended to do, and I became George’s program director.
George’s guiding philosophy was simple: do good in your community and do good radio—not “good enough for a small town,” but simply “good.” So he took a personal interest in the news department and hired a farm reporter, in an attempt to turn what had been a bad country-music jukebox into a full-service AM station like KDTH had been. It was his idea to put a Top-40 format on the FM side. He also brought in a take-no-prisoners sales manager who transformed the sales staff from order-takers into marketers. And he surprised city fathers and holdover staff at the stations—but not me—by doing editorials that urged the community forward.
He didn’t own the stations for long, however. He sold them in 1986, but he stuck around, and later that year ran for the Illinois legislature as a Democrat in a district that had been Republican since the Depression. I produced his radio ads, including one that used an audio clip of his opponent at a time when that was not commonplace, and the reaction to it was overwhelmingly negative. It didn’t cost him the election—the margin was too great for that—but even though he got trounced, he pulled more votes than any Democrat in years. (Two years later, a Democrat won the seat.)
George returned to Iowa then and took a job with the Department of Economic Development. I saw him only once after that, sometime around 1994. I was at the State Historical Museum in Des Moines, in some dark gallery in the basement of the place, when a man walked by. We made eye contact and walked on, but then each of us turned in recognition at about the same moment. It was a brief conversation, but one I like to remember.
George Lipper died last week at the age of 80. I remember him one of those people who, if they ever had moments of doubt, never let them show—but not in a negative, bravado-filled way. He conveyed an air of self-assurance that made you want to follow him. It’s probably the same sort of thing great generals have. George wasn’t asking anybody to die, but he wanted your best work and expected you to deliver it. He believed so strongly that you could do it, and would do it, that you could not bear to let him down.