ELKHART — It was a voice that entertained, engaged and informed countless numbers of listeners in a time when local AM radio was king.
If Bill Darwin said it — no matter what it was — it had meaning. For my generation, a simple sentence brought joy to thousands of children on cold wintry mornings.
As a seventh-grader in 1972, when I heard "Concord Community Schools are closed today" on WTRC 1340, my world was made better if only for a day.
Bill Darwin was the man.
He was, as countless listeners have noted since the news of his death spread Wednesday, May 7, "the voice of Elkhart."
Before the world morphed into a 24-hour news and information cycle, all there was from 6 to 9 a.m. was Darwin.
There were no morning newspapers.
There was no all-night cable television.
Before we all clicked our phones and read news to start the day, we clicked on a radio and had Bill Darwin.
Waking up to Bill and hearing him share the events of the coming day in Elkhart County was as important, and often as comforting, as a warm cup of coffee.
Bill Darwin spoke with the listeners of Elkhart County, not at them. If he told us, we listened. If he asked, we answered.
And the love from his fans was only surpassed by the love Darwin had for his listeners.
Heather Richards-Wodrich fondly remembered Darwin for his "genuineness."
"Without a doubt. When he said, 'Hello, how are you? How's your family?' And he'd name them. He cared. He actually cared,'' said Heather, who worked at WTRC from 2006-08. "He loved his community."
A trio of remarkable voices — Darwin, Allen Strike and Jack Lorri — powered Elkhart's airwaves for more than 40 years, spanning the late 1960s until 2009 when Darwin and Strike retired.
"We were basically all you had," said Strike, who came to WTRC in 1965. Darwin came to Elkhart in 1967.
"We didn't have any illusions. We were an Elkhart County ... mostly Elkhart city ... radio station," Strike said. "We were it. We were the local go-to radio station."
Generations of listeners grew up with and were inspired by Bill Darwin.
Chuck Freeby embraced him both as a youngster at Mary Beck and as an accomplished broadcaster of his own.
"As somebody who grew up wanting to be on the air, this was a guy who was there every morning," said Freeby, now the sports director at WHME-TV. "Then you'd hear him with the 'Midwest after Dark' around 5:45 or 6 p.m. all the time.
"Bill Darwin, Allen Strike and Jack Lorri ... they were the voice of the community, voices I grew up with.
"I had the thrill to emcee a luncheon with him about four years ago at the Moose Lodge. It was a thrill to work with one of my boyhood idols."
Darwin also enjoyed a successful run on "Good Morning, Michiana" — the first local morning news and entertainment show in the local market — and annually headed coverage of the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon.
No matter the venue, Darwin made people feel welcome and vital.
"When Bill Darwin was on morning radio, then later the TV show, it had personality," said Lorri, who was WTRC's sports director from 1967-85. When Darwin came to Elkhart in 1967, he replaced Lorri as the morning radio host on 1340.
"He was really quite exceptional. He's an institution, a vanishing American," Lorri said. "He was an unforgettable local personality."
Whether it was sharing the daily weather report or stock numbers, the baseball scores from the night before, or interviewing the organizer of the annual church bazaar, Bill Darwin never made it a job.
He was what community radio was designed to be — reliable and genuine. Today, it's nearly lost as an art form.
"Bill was in love with radio. He was in love with his listeners," said Vince Turner, who worked with Darwin from 1983-97. "It was really a relationship with the people he saw or imagined beyond the microphone."
Wakarusa listened, Nappanee's ears perked and the Middlebury area tuned in.
"When he was on the air, I was off the air. And when he was off the air, I was on the air," said Strike. "We didn't spend a lot of time talking to each other because we were always working. We took care of that radio station."
And Bill and Allen took care of so many of us.
When my son, Chris, came out of college to enter the broadcast world as a WTRC intern in 2004, Darwin welcomed his presence, sincerely lauded his efforts and reveled in his enthusiasm for the craft.
When I was asked to perform Friday night football and basketball play-by-play duties for the station in 2005, Bill Darwin was one of my biggest cheerleaders.
I was scared to death until Bill Darwin said, "Great job, Bill."
His words were golden in so many ways to so many people.
"A true professional. I have a great deal of respect for that man," Lorri said. "He loved radio and it loved him."
He was Elkhart then and now.
Thank you, Bill.