Larry L. Oatman: Lee Leonard got his start in Lima

By Larry L. Oatman - Guest Columnist

He had a better voice than most, perhaps even a notch higher than the announcer he replaced in the summer of 1958.

The list of those who worked radio announcers during the afternoon drive-time at WIMA is a long one, more than most listeners of the 1150 AM station can remember.

He was born on April 3, 1929, in New York City as Maxwell Irvin Lefkowitz. His name suggests that his ancestors were Jewish from Germany. So he changed it to Lee Leonard, a name more fitting to his handsome good looks.

Lee was on the air from 2 to 6 p.m. every afternoon except Sundays. A couple of nights a week he also did live commercial at the jointly owned television station.

Radio program director Easter Straker hired Lee to replace the popular afternoon disk jockey Walt Reno, who moved onto a bigger Indianapolis station. It may have been Lee’s first radio gig, after serving in the Army in Germany during the Korean War. He had graduated from DeWitt High School in the Bronx, but his attendance at Columbia University was interrupted by the Army.

On the air, Lee had a personable, friendly style and soon became a familiar voice.

At the time, WIMA played a wide variety of music, and one novelty song by Sheb Wooley was No. 1 that summer of 1958. It was called “The Purple People Eater.” So on the air, Lee asked what does a purple people eater look like, and he invited listeners to mail him their drawings of the mythical thing. The response was so overwhelming, Lee had to get judges and even awarded a grand prize.

Earlier that summer, I, along with 10 other area high school students who were involved in the local Junior Achievement program, were selected to attend the national conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Later, Tom O’Mara, director of the local JA program, contacted the 10 as participants to produce a weekly, half-hour radio program on WIMA. Each week a different school was selected with a dozen students in the studio audience.

Lee, representing WIMA, was our advisor. I served as president and announcer. He, like a great coach, offered us excellent suggestions for improvement It was lots of fun, especially working with students from Bath, Elida, Lima, Shawnee and Lima Central Catholic.

One night, after taping the weekly program, the building’s elevator failed, trapping all 10 of us in the basement for an hour. A repairman was called to rescue us, and Lee interviewed me live on the radio.

That fall, Lee moved on to a larger radio station in Norfolk, Virginia, and later a station in Cincinnati.

Among the local WIMA announcers who went to big time were Jim Phillips, whose football play-by-play became the notable voice of Clemson University.

Bill Frink, sports voice on WIMA, later became legendry in Chicago television.

In 1964, Lee again moved to New York City to host a midday radio program.

Lee would later write a novel, “I Miss You When You’re Here,” about a disc jockey who becomes the star of a network television show. He gave the lead character, Maxwell Lefkowitz, his real name,

Then in the early 1970s he launched CBS’s pre-game NFL show. Later, NBC hired him to partner with Bryant Gumbel for its Sunday televised football studio coverage. He also hosted Midday Live, the daily talk show on WNEW-TV.

In 1980, Lee moved to CNN, where he hosted People Tonight, the network’s first Los Angeles-based live entertainment news talk show.

From 1996 to about 2002, Lee hosted New Jersey’s Talking on News 12.

Perhaps Lee will best be remembered for what said on Sept. 7, 1979: “If you’re a fan… what you’ll see in the next minutes, hours and days to follow, may convince you’ve gone to sports heaven.” Lee was the first voice to be heard on ESPN in the inaugural broadcast that launched cable’s ESPN’s SportsCenter.

Lee Leonard died Sunday at his South Orange, N.J. home, at age 89, and now he has gone to sports heaven.

By Larry L. Oatman

Guest Columnist

Larry L. Oatman lives in Lima.

Larry L. Oatman lives in Lima.

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