In The Arena

In the Arena: Doing what you like

“Bloom where you’re planted.”

A science teacher wrote that in one of my school yearbooks 30 years ago. At the time, I didn’t know what he meant, but I now know it has something to do with being comfortable in your own skin.

There is no one who fit that bill better than my friend and mentor Bill Wiles, to whom we said goodbye earlier this week.

The obituary headline in The Recorder read “Greenfield Radio Voice Still,” but Billy was a lot more than just a voice to anyone who really knew him. I was lucky enough to be in that club and it’s impossible to accurately explain what he meant to me — and to an entire generation of broadcasters — without going back to the beginning.

When I got into radio in 1986, it was a very big deal. Besides being the culmination of a dream, it was the first real “adult” thing I’d ever done. At that point, everything I had ever accomplished had some connection to a school, a sports team or my family.

This was not just another part-time job for me. It was a chance to make my own mark in the world and I took it — and proceeded to make every possible mistake a rookie could short of actually burning the building down.

Most of those mistakes involved broken equipment and, each time, it was Billy who came to the rescue — sometimes at three in the morning. He’d walk in calmly in his white T-shirt and Air Force hat, sometimes without his teeth, and fix whatever break had occurred, then tell a few jokes or pat me on the head, tell to me “stay somber” and leave.

What was missing from the admonition, yelling, and shame that, heretofore in my world, would likely have accompanied such an incident. Billy was one of the first adults who made me feel completely comfortable all the time and I sometimes wonder what might have become of my broadcast career had it been someone else who came through the door in those moments.

That comfort level never changed, regardless of the situation. Radio stations can be funny places. I imagine it’s a lot like being on the set of the TV show “M.A.S.H.” There are strong personalities, and everyone wants to be Hawkeye, but not Billy. He was our Col. Potter, the gentle, guiding force who often delivered the line that brought the house down.

He’d warn us to “stay out of the hot sun,” often on the coldest day of the year. He was a great storyteller, and it was clear by the ones he shared with me that his happiest days were spent “on the beat.” His favorite “get” was an exclusive sit-down with Burl Ives when he learned that Ives was spending the weekend in Northfield one winter. You could tell how much that moment meant to him, even with the multiple versions of that story later.

He used to work crazy hours, one of the many “perks” of the radio biz, but Billy did me one better when it came to going above and beyond the call to get the story.

“I used to get up at five, and I’d get a phone call at three from (former Greenfield Police) Chief Kiefer,” he said. “He’d say ‘what are you doing?’ And I’d tell him ‘sleeping.’ And he’d say ‘you can’t get any news sleeping.’ And that’s when I knew he had a story for me.”

Billy became a copywriter in his later years, banging out his scripts on a manual typewriter in an increasingly computer-dominated world. He eventually left the office to “retire,” but he was never far from the building — or our hearts — and I can’t think of a single time where I wasn’t happy to see him, including the final time we spoke a couple of weeks before his death, as he tried to advise me on a potentially life-changing professional decision.

“Opportunities are good, but at the end of it, you have to do what makes you happy,” he said. “I’ve been lucky in that way. Luckier than I could have ever hoped.”

If you ask me, we were the lucky ones.

Thanks for the memories, old friend. I will miss you more than words can express.

And I promise to do my best to stay in out of the hot sun.

Right replacement

I guess Greenfield didn’t need to do a nationwide search after all to find its new town clerk.

Greenfield Town Council President Mark Wisnewski has informed the council chairs that Acting Town Clerk and Assistant Clerk Deborah Tuttle is his choice to replace long-time Clerk Maureen Winseck, who stepped down in January. Tuttle was one of four who interviewed for the post, and bravo to her and to President Wisnewski for making the right call for that office and the town.

Chris Collins is the Franklin County News Bureau Chief for WHAI, WPVQ and WHMP Radio. He is a former staff reporter for The Recorder, and is a Greenfield native.

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