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The Midweek Motivator – Imus

Don Imus left us on 27 December; in the last hours of the last week of the last “teens.” Like a handful of public personalities, there was no indifference about Imus. Personifying the bromide “strong people have strong weaknesses,” Imus’ national identity was bi-polar. From his early radio moments in Southern California to his career breakout in New York, Don Imus was never in the middle. Born into wealth he seemed impervious to it; striking out on his own, moving from one private school to another, disliking them all. Somehow he found his way into the Marines, honorably discharged after serving in the Drum and Bugle Corps at Camp Pendleton. Chasing his first job, Don was hired as a window dresser at an upscale San Bernardino department store…shortly thereafter he was fired for performing strip teases on the store’s female mannequins for sidewalk passers-by (only to have been there!) After joining his brother Fred in an unsuccessful attempt to publish and perform songs, Don was virtually homeless, sleeping in a laundry until hitchhiking to Arizona. In ’66 he enrolled in the Don Martin School of Radio & TV Arts in Los Angeles but promptly thrown out for “being uncooperative.” Ironically shortly thereafter, Imus won a talent contest and from there, drove to KUTY in Palmdale where he convinced the manager to hire him for the morning show, signing on in June 1966. 

He concocted characters like Reverend Billy Sol Hargis and “The Church of the Gooey Death and Discount House of Worship.” The station rocketed to #1 leading to Imus winning the Billboard award for Medium Market Personality of The Year. On to Stockton’s KJOY where he was quickly dismissed; some said for his “Eldridge Clever Look-Alike Contest.” Then, to Sacramento where Imus pranked a local McDonald’s phone order-taker with his call representing a National Guard officer ordering 1200 hamburgers for his soon-to-arrive convoy! The well-meaning and compliant McDonald’s employee feverishly tried to write down “1200 hamburgers, 257 with ketchup and pickles, no wait…make that 259, but add pickles to 78 of them, then, uh, 306 with both ketchup and mustard but add cheese to 47 of them…” I paraphrase, but the call was very much as described, ending in hilarity. 

The big time was only a motion away…to WGAR Cleveland for fifty grand, and an award; this time for Major Market Personality of the Year. Less than three years into his radio career, on December of ’71 WNBC brought Imus to Market #1. Interspersed with some stand-up comedy, Don began to drink heavily and missed a lot of work. Despite intermittent struggles he grew into syndication, started his charity for kids, and sought other important causes. 

There should be little sorrow for his passing because Don lived his life in the fast lane, teetered on all the edges, seized every moment. Imus didn’t know what “moderation” meant or where to find it. Don’s self-esteem seemed unassailable; his abrasiveness was an art form. In 1989 he was inducted into Radio’s Hall of Fame.