Don Wade defined talk radio in Chicago for nearly 30 years. But without a doubt, his greatest legacy was the extraordinary partnership he shared on and off the air with his wife, co-host and inspiration, Roma.
"Last Friday morning, my hero, my best friend, my soulmate left this mortal coil behind and entered the realm of spirit while wrapped in my loving arms," Roma wrote in a message posted on the WLS AM 890 website Sunday night. "I love him more than life itself."
Just days short of one year after he suffered a seizure and underwent surgery for a malignant brain tumor, Wade died in Florida, where the couple spent their time since officially retiring from WLS last December. He was 72.
Over their 27-year run at WLS, the Wades' consistently high ratings and proven track record with advertisers made the couple the longest running radio team in Chicago — and made millions of dollars for the station. While Don relished his reputation as a conservative curmudgeon on the air, he never lost the passion, wit and good humor that endeared him to hundreds of thousands of listeners across the political spectrum.
"The WLS family and Chicago radio will forever be grateful for the legend that is Don Wade," said Donna Baker, vice president and market manager of Cumulus Media in Chicago. "We send love and prayers to Roma, Hunter, and Heather and wish them the peace that surpasses understanding." Baker said the station has received more than 10,000 emails from listeners conveying their thoughts to the Wades.
After logging 15 radio jobs in nine states, Wade arrived in Chicago in 1982 as morning personality at country music WUSN FM 99.5. In 1985, he shifted to WLS, where Roma joined him as co-host the following year. When the station switched to news/talk in 1989, the Wades were the only on-air talents to survive the transition and promptly were promoted to mornings. Though married since 1979, they didn’t tell listeners they were husband and wife until 1998.
In 2004, I interviewed Wade just after he'd signed a new four-year contract reportedly worth more than $1 million a year. In the course of our conversation, he reminisced about his first job in radio — a part-time gig at WTID AM in Newport News, Va., for which he was paid 50 cents an hour.
"I arrived at this station that was literally falling down," he recalled. "It was a wooden shack. The turntable was on the second floor. So if you slammed the front door when you walked in, the record would skip. I made 50 cents an hour, and I played religious tapes on Sunday morning, followed by a live gospel show in the studio — they had an actual studio setup — and I had to engineer that. Then we played some various other medical shows and what have you. And then I got to play some show tunes, which was real big.
"One day, they actually gave me a raise to a dollar an hour, and I thought I was in heaven. That was incredible.
"So from 50 cents an hour to here, the lesson I've learned is on a little plaque that Roma and I have had on our refrigerator door for so many years that we wanted our kids to learn from it. It's very simple: 'Find something you love to do and you'll never work a day in your life.' That's all there is to it."
Funeral will be private and plans for a Chicago memorial service are pending. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation, Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind, or Boy Scouts of America.
Here is Roma's complete statement:
"Last Friday morning, my hero, my best friend, my soulmate left this mortal coil behind and entered the realm of spirit while wrapped in my loving arms. God blessed us with almost an entire year since Don's surgery to embrace life, love, family, and adventure, all while knowing that his time on this beautiful earth was drawing to a close. What a gift! What a joy to be entrusted with my magnificent man's care for that precious time.
"I love him more than life itself.
"Thank you for all your messages of love and appreciation. You kept Don's spirit alive in your hearts and we bless you for every thought. Your thoughts are prayers.
"Just know that we had a lifetime of blessings together and one of the very best was sharing our thoughts,our family, our joys and sorrows with YOU, our radio family. You meant the world to us.
"May God bless you and keep you safe.
"With love and sorrow,
Roma, Hunter, Heather, and family"