Retired KWOA farm broadcaster is familiar voice to many
WORTHINGTON -- His was the distinctive voice that awakened many Worthington area residents for several decades.
"It's a beautiful day in Worthington, Minnesota," became Bruce Lease's trademark greeting during his years as the farm broadcaster for the local KWOA AM radio station, even when the weather outside was far less than delightful.
Bruce doesn't doubt that his daily pronouncement evoked more than a few grumbles from his listeners and perhaps even provoked some to do damage to their clock radios.
"I'd heard this from a radio announcer in Chicago," he recalled about the origins of what became his catch phrase. "When I started giving the weather here, and it was adverse weather, we'd report that it was blizzarding or whatever and that people should bundle up or stay home. Then, one day, a local businessman, maybe Hardy Rickbeil, called in and said, 'Hey, would you tone it down a little bit? We want people to still come out and shop.' So instead, I'd say, 'It's blizzarding, but it's a beautiful day in Worthington,' and it just kept going from there."
Bruce is now retired from farm broadcasting, although he comes out of retirement for every year to broadcast from the area county fairs. And he still enjoys every minute spent in a profession he never anticipated pursuing.
"I was going to be a farmer, you see," he explained, recalling his growing up years on a farm near Galva, Iowa, about 100 miles straight south of Worthington. "I farmed with my dad for three years, but that was during the Korean War, and I was subject to the draft.So I sat on a tractor, trying to decide what to do: wait to get drafted and sit in a foxhole or go in on my own and have a bed. I decided to go into the Air Force for four years. The day I left home, I got my draft notice."
While stationed in San Antonio, Texas, Bruce was trained as a cryptographer -- code breaker -- and met the love of his life, wife Dorothy.
"I met her at a bunko party at a church youth group," he said. "I was transferred to Fairbanks, Alaska, three months after we were married. So I went up and got settled, then came back and got Dorothy and we drove up. Alaska was still a territory; it was 1953 when we went up there. It had this newness about it. Our oldest daughter, Shari, was born there."
Following his discharge from service, Bruce took advantage of the G.I. Bill and attended Iowa State University, earning a degree in ag business.
"Tuition was $69 a quarter, then you had books on top of that," he detailed. "Our daughter Lori was born in Ames. After graduation, we moved to Worthington; I accepted a position with a farm management company out of Omaha, and they had me open an office in Worthington. I managed farms for 10 years -- 75 farms in southwest Minnesota and northwest Iowa. I enjoyed it -- I got to spend other people's money."
During this time in Worthington, the Lease family grew again with the addition of son Kevin. But Bruce and Dorothy were offered a business proposition that entailed going back to San Antonio.
"My wife's uncle had a moving and storage business in San Antonio," Bruce said. "He offered me 51 percent of the business after five years if we moved down there and learned the business."
So they packed up the family and moved to Texas, only Bruce's heart wasn't in this new venture. He missed being involved in agriculture, he missed Worthington. Jim Wychor, manager of local radio station KWOA, got wind of Bruce's dissatisfaction, so when his ag broadcaster quit, he offered the job.
"So, the very first time I sat down at a microphone, I was a farm broadcaster," Bruce recalled. "I was nervous. Jim sat right in the studio beside me in case I passed out."
But Bruce soon discovered he had a knack for radio, and joining the Toastmasters organization when he worked in farm management had paved the way for this new career.
"Wychor always told me I had a distinctive voice, not a big voice, but a distinctive voice," he noted.
While radio wasn't the most lucrative profession and entailed putting in some long hours, Bruce's job had its perks. He became acquainted with farm broadcasters all across the country and traveled to the far reaches of the globe, including junkets to China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. He's interviewed national and state ag officials, foreign dignitaries, Jimmy Carter and been in the same room with several other presidents.
He literally went out on a ledge for his job.
"Doing the Turkey Day Parade, I crawled out on a ledge of a window in the Hotel Thompson," he said. "We also used to do it from the roof of the Firestone Building. The year that (Robert) Kennedy was here, we had to make sure the police and security knew what we were up to."
Meeting and interviewing such notable people was exciting, but the most enjoyable part for Bruce was working with young people through FFA and 4-H. He took great pleasure in interviewing the many youths who passed through those programs.
"I had fun, and Dorothy raised our three kids while I was having fun," he said with a grin.
But the "fun" entailed getting to the radio station in the wee hours of the morning, working nights, weekends and holidays and occasionally getting stuck out at the radio station in the midst of a winter storm. Bruce also played a role in some crazy radio promotions, including a couple of pingpong ball drops -- balls dropped from an airplane for a prize giveaway -- and hosting a hog roast at the Radisson South Hotel in Minneapolis.
"We invited all the ag professionals in the Twin Cities to this hog roast," Bruce explained. "We had to get a special permit to bring in the hog and had to hire a chef to watch us do it, because it was a union thing."
Bruce was also one of the founders of the Pork Bowl, an event to promote local pork producers and what was then Worthington Junior College.
"Arlo Mogck would pick one of the college's home football games, and that would be the Pork Bowl," he said. "We'd get five pork organizations to come in and cook hamburgers, and there would be five pork queens there for it. We had that for a number of years. We also had Pasture Pool, where local businessmen invited farmers in to play golf."
A decision to enter the political arena suspended Bruce's radio career for a while. He decided to run for state representative against formidable incumbent Ted Winter.
"I had to quit my job to do it," Bruce explained. "When Ted cleaned my clock, I had to find a job, so I went to K101. After I started drawing Social Security, I went to work part-time for KITN. Now, K101 still uses me five days a year at the county fairs, interviewing young people. After you retire from a job, I find it's more fun working."
During the 360 days of the year when he's not on the radio, Bruce keeps busy with other endeavors. He's still very active in the Masonic Lodge; although he no longer rides in parades, he was one of the first Oaze Cycle Patrol members and estimates he's been in more than 500 parade throughout the region either with Oaze or representing a radio station. For seven or eight years,he and Dorothy wintered in Texas.
"Then we got involved watching our grandkids in sports" and no longer made the trip south, Lease said. He and Dorothy have five grandchildren.
Throughout his career and into retirement, he's also been active in the national farm broadcasters organization, Jaycees, city government and organizations, the American Legion, First United Methodist Church and the Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce. He is the 2010 recipient of the Chamber's Community Service Award, which was presented by his longtime radio colleague Larry Rogers, who made a joke about Lease's public service endeavors.
"He claimed that it was volunteering. I have seen him work with one hand passing it out and one hand shoveling it in," Rogers quipped.
These days, Lease's gift for gab is mostly used at daily coffee sessions with cronies at the Blue Line Travel Center. He and Dorothy spend time with their children and grandchildren whenever possible. Bruce also shuttles vehicles for a local car dealership and volunteers for the valet service at the hospital.
"I'd rather be working," he lamented. "The mind says yes, but the body doesn't."
On the radio and off, to Bruce every day is still "a beautiful day in Worthington, Minnesota."