The word for the day is adieu. Bob Steele, the voice that coaxed Connecticut from slumber for 66 years, closed a thousand schools, whistled a million tunes, told a zillion corny jokes and did more for proper pronunciation and grammar than an army of English teachers, died Friday at the age of 91.
The Steele family said he died in his sleep, but had been feeling fine. As recently as Wednesday, he autographed 52 copies of his new book, "The Word for the Day," for the Travelers Employees Club.
"I don't think anyone in radio here has ever been bigger, and I don't think anyone will be," said WTIC sports announcer Arnold Dean, who began working with Steele in 1965. "If I'm wearing a WTIC shirt walking through an airport in St. Louis, someone will ask me about Bob Steele."
Said Bruce DuMont, president of the Radio Hall of Fame, into which Steele was inducted in 1995: "He was as much a part of New England as the Red Sox. Not only was he a ratings king but the fact that he was able to do it for such a long period of time in a cutthroat industry was amazing.
"Bob was one of a handful of local personalities who was so dominant at what he did that he was inducted and enshrined in the same hall as Jack Benny and Bob Hope. What he did, and the success he had working in a relatively small market, is an incredible story."
Steele retired from his weekday early-morning perch at WTIC-AM (1080) on Oct. 1, 1991, 55 years to the day from when he started there.
Although he was officially retired, he continued to do a morning show on the first Saturday of each month, except December, January and February.
Steele's son, Phil, said his father had told the family that the show he did on Nov. 2 would be his last.
"Not because he was sick," Phil Steele said. "It was just that at 91, he wanted to be free of obligations and commitments like that. He ended that show by saying `auf Wiedersehen, cheerio, sayonara,' and then `What I'm trying to say is, goodbye.'"
"Those were his last words on the air. It had an extra level of meaning because I thought it was his last show. And it turned out to be his last show," Steele said.
Steele added that his father showed no signs of ill health.
"Over the years, he had a little angina and took a little medication, and was known to never go to the doctor," he said. "He was never morbid, but 10 years ago, he started to say, `Well, I probably won't be around much longer,' and even on the radio would sign off, `I'll see you on the first Saturday of next month if I'm still around.'"
Steele, whose full name was Robert Lee Steele, built a huge radio audience on a blend of erudition, impeccable pronunciation, flawless timing and some of the corniest jokes known to mankind.
To hundreds of thousands of Connecticut residents - and hundreds of thousands of others outside the state - Steele became almost like a member of the family, with his recipe for scrambled eggs, word of the day, bad predictions and comments about fictitious relatives.
Steele dominated his market as few in radio do.
"It's tough to pull out ratings on one Saturday a month," said Steve Salhany, operations manager for Infinity Radio in Hartford, owner of WTIC. "But I know people enjoyed listening to Bob because the feedback I got from people was incredible. He's one of the main reasons for this station's status."
People who never knew Steele addressed him by name as an old friend. He commented on this once, after he had been in radio for four decades. ``After 40 years at 50,000 watts, you can't not be recognized," he said. But it was more than that. To a large percentage of people in central Connecticut, he was a friend.
He was the person who got people out of bed in the morning with his frequent announcements of the time, and who then shared his own morning, confessed his weight and elicited chuckles, or groans, with his jokes - which he so obviously relished himself.
Steele might chide a person for making an error in grammar or pronunciation, but his humor was gentle. It didn't hurt anyone, and perhaps this was part of the secret of his longevity in the radio business.
"He was the most professional person I ever worked with," Dean said. He said Steele would let you know "if you mispronounced a word, a geographic location or piece of music while you were on the air with him.
"But he was even more demanding on himself. If he ever screwed anything up, which was rare, he would take it with him. It was almost like he didn't know if he should even show up the next day."
Steele's humor could come from any direction. "He had a quirky sense of humor," Dean said. "He didn't just tell jokes, he thought funny."
Some classic Steele:
``Where I live in Wethersfield, we have a scientist who's active in genetics. He crossed a praying mantis with a termite. Got a bug that says grace before eating your house."
In 1978, Steele was given a roast. ``I trained for it for several weeks by attending a lot of warm-up banquets," he said. What did the ``L" in Robert L. Steele stand for? ``Elmer," he would say.
"One of his favorite things was breaking you up while you were on the air," Dean said. "He would tell a joke and then throw it to you. If he could break a booth announcer up, he thought that was hilarious. He got me a few times."
WDRC radio personality Brad Davis remembered doing his "Connecticut Bandstand" show on WTIC-TV while Steele was on WTIC radio. Davis spun the latest records for the kids to dance to, while Steele liked to sing along with corny records, a favorite being "Old McDonald Had A Farm." "I told him to dress up as Old McDonald and come on my show and lip-sync to the song," Davis said. "He did, and the kids went nuts."
Even toward the end of his career, Steele possessed a quick wit. One morning a few years ago when he had blown a cue that resulted in dead air, he quipped: "That five-second pause was due to my inexperience. I'm new here."
Although he was a public person, Steele also maintained a very private life. He met his wife, the former Shirley Hanson, when she was working at the Travelers Insurance Cos. and he was with WTIC, which was owned by the insurance company at the time.
They had four sons, including Robert H. Steele, a former U.S. representative from Connecticut and then unsuccessful candidate for governor in 1974. Phil Steele was an unsuccessful candidate for Congress in the 1st District this year.
That gubernatorial race presented a very personal problem for the candidate's father. How would he handle the fact, on the air, that his son was running for governor? He solved it by not mentioning the election. It was the only thing to do.
When Steele wrote a book in 1980, ``Bob Steele - A Man and His Humor," the introduction was written by Gov. Ella T. Grasso, who six years before had defeated his son for governor.
Steele was identified with radio, but in the early period of Channel 3, then also owned by Travelers, he doubled as a television announcer and had a show titled ``Close-Up on Sports."
He admitted at one time, though, that television was ``not my style," and seemed relieved when he concentrated on his first love, radio.
Although his cultivated voice fit in easily in Connecticut, Steele was a transplanted Midwesterner, and came from very modest circumstances.
He was born July 13, 1911, in Kansas City, Mo., and his parents were divorced when he was 5. After that he lived with his mother, who rented rooms in their apartment to make ends meet.
Steele went to high school at age 12 but as a teenager started going to school only half a year and working the other half. He delivered telegrams by bicycle and then emergency drug prescriptions by motorcycle.
He sold the family piano to buy the motorcycle and rode it without a license for three years until he was 16. The motorcycle was to play a big part in his early life.
Steele eventually graduated from high school but said it was as the oldest person in the class.
After high school he tried professional boxing as a 147-pound welterweight, but lost more fights than he won. In 1930, at age 18, he got on his motorcycle and headed west, to the newly booming sound motion picture industry.
Steele played bit parts and started announcing motorcycle races on the side. It was that job that led him to Hartford. Motorcycle races were popular in Hartford in the mid-'30s. They were held at Bulkeley Stadium in the South End. The promoter was George Lannon.
Lannon needed an announcer for the start of the 1936 spring season. He had heard of the announcer in Los Angeles and called him. Steele said he would come east. He hitchhiked across the country and arrived in Hartford, he recalled , at 2 in the morning. He was on Asylum Street and had 20 cents in his pocket.
While legend had it that he rode in on a motorcycle, Phil Steele said the truth is he rode in on a truck that had two motorcycles in the back. As they approached Hartford, a motorcycle came loose, and the driver asked him to sit on it - so he did come in on a motorcycle.
Steele went to the YMCA but discovered a $1 deposit was required, he said. He left and checked into the Hotel Garde on Asylum Street. The next day, he called Lannon and borrowed $5 to pay the hotel.
During the spring and summer of 1936, Steele broadcast the motorcycle races and also the baseball games of the Savitt Gems at Bulkeley Stadium.In the fall, however, Steele had to look for another job. He went to WTIC, the biggest radio station in town, and said he would like a job as an announcer.
He was hired, at $35 a week. His 50th anniversary with the radio station was marked with a book titled, ``Bob Steele's 50th Anniversary: An Affectionate Memoir."
The family released this statement Friday, which Steele wrote in July 1996,
detailing how he wanted his life and career to be remembered:
"Robert Lee Steele, born Kansas City, Mo. July 13, 1911. Moved to Hartford 1936. Husband of Shirley (Hanson) Steele, father of four sons, Robert H. (former U.S. Congressman) Paul A., Philip L. and Steven M. and eight grandchildren and two great grandchildren. Retired vice-president WTIC Radio, announcer, morning personality and sports director. Member National Radio Hall of Fame, Connecticut Sports Hall of Fame, four times named Connecticut Sportscaster of the Year, recipient of Marconi Award for top radio ratings, received Pierpont Edwards Award for distinguished Masonic service, 33 degree Mason, 50-year Shriner, Honorary doctorate (Doctor of Humane Letters) University of Hartford. Weight 202 ¾ lb."
This past year Steele added, "A wordsmith, he was instrumental in establishing the Bob Steele Literacy Volunteers Reading Center in Hartford and authored `The Word for the Day: 65 Years of Wit & Wisdom on Mispronunciation.'"
Courant Staff Writers Pat Seremet and Tara Weiss, and former Courant Staff
Writer Bill Ryan, contributed to this story.
All text and images (c) 2002, The Hartford Courant