Below are Bill Baker and Lee Wilder as they posed for a publicity photograph promoting the March of Dimes.
WILDER: A LIFE
Cheryl D. Wolder
It is hard to speak dispassionately about someone who was such an integral part of your life, especially a parent. Especially a parent who has passed away. But there was a person beyond my memories and apart from my experiences. To capture the essence of my father is like trying to capture light in a bottle. A complicated, talented man and a loving husband and father with many facets, light and dark, my father has left us with many memories of a life lived with courage and a sense of adventure.
Some time after his Jewish immigrant parents met and married in New York, Leon Wolder (his radio name was Lee Wilder, something he thought easier to pronounce) was born in New York City in September, 1929, the day the stock market crashed, a fact he always found intriguing. He was an only child of parents who each had fled the persecution already evident in their native Poland. In fact, his mother and her sister fled through the snows of Poland into Czechoslovakia to make it to America.
Dad grew up in the Lower East Side of New York, which was at the time where a large majority of Jews from Eastern Europe settled, since many spoke no English and had no money. But they worked hard - my grandfather was a carpenter who helped construct the synagogue my father worshipped in; they also, I found out much later, raised canaries, though I'm not sure if it was a hobby or if they sold them.
My father loved the arts, especially photography. He had a Hasselblad camera which he used to take pictures, mostly of his cat and neighborhood. He was very bright and consequently enjoyed irritating the occasional teacher with his sharp wit. But he suffered from the bullies until he met a giant of a man who befriended and protected him (a man whom the war would subtly destroy later on), so he made it through school alive.
When Dad was thirteen years old, the age when a Jewish boy is considered a man, he suffered a great loss. His father had been ill with heart trouble, but the local government made him work to earn his "welfare." On his first day of work, picking up trash outside in the oppressive heat, he collapsed and died. The loss was devastating to my father. As the male head of the household, he was now, he felt, responsible for taking care of his mother, something he did the rest of his life. He never got over missing his father.
Sometime in his youth, around seventeen years old, my Dad and some friends got a car and took a trip across the country. I remember giggling at his story of riding a donkey at the Grand Canyon around the steep trails and sharp drop-offs. When the animal smelled the distant water of the ranch, he took off so quickly, Dad barely had time to adjust. Unable to steer the determined animal, he simply held on for dear life, incurring the teasing laughter of the ranch hands as he unceremoniously was galloped into the corral. A city slicker after all.
As an adult, Dad entered New York University where he majored in radio production. It was during this time that he auditioned simultaneously for a touring theatre company and a radio job. To his surprise he got both and had to choose. He chose radio, a job in Middlesboro, Kentucky, at WMIK. He moved there alone to see if it would work out. His humor and talent made him a standout, and soon he felt good about sending for his mother to live with him there.
As one of the few Jews in the area, my father was conscious of people's curiosity, but everyone, he remembered later, accepted him and his mother into the Middlesboro community. He thrived in his job, his beautiful, well-modulated, and resonant voice becoming a familiar guest in peoples' homes. He worked also as ad and mom arranged to have their date. He went across the street to the flower shop to pick her up. As he peeked through the window, he saw her mother fussing over her, getting her ready for the date. Dad thought she looked like a china doll, porcelain and sweet. When they saw each other, it was love at first sight. They went out on their first date and two months later, they were married, even though on the day of the wedding, she wrecked his car! She wasn't hurt (and it wasn't her fault), and all Dad cared about was that she was okay.
Within a year, they welcomed their first child, me, Cheryl, followed in 22 month intervals by a son, Harold, and a daughter, Carol. All of us couldn't help but inherit my father's and mother's love for the arts (my mother sang, but stage fright kept her from performing), and many times my loving parents had to endure each of us children in our rooms playing our stereos loudly and singing at the tops of our voices. I never remember hearing a complaint (though doing all the TV commercials word-for-word seemed to grate).
My father also loved dogs, and we had a bunch over the years, mostly Shetland Sheepdogs, who, if you did not know, bark a lot.
As music changed and his family grew, my father accepted a promotion as Vice President in Charge of Programming for Plough Broadcasting, which had a very large chain of stations at the time. In this new job, my father accomplished many firsts - producing the first jingle package for the chain, setting up the first contemporary country station in the North (WJJD in Chicago), as well as writing, producing and narrating the first series of programs aired during Black History Month which focused on individuals who had accomplished great things in spite of the obstacles against them.
One day, my father had an organ delivered to our home as a gift for my mother. He and I spent a lot of time playing it, and he took up songwriting, writing the style of music he loved. I can remember him singing and playing his songs, really enjoying himself.
Dad couldn't stand to be bored, to stand still, so one day he decided we needed an addition to our home. So what did he do? He read books on carpentry, wiring, roofing, etc. and built it all by himself (and it passed code!). I can still see him sitting on its roof, hammering away, not realizing that it was pitch dark outside, such was his intensity. Though we probably weren't much help, he never minded us kids "helping," hammering diligently - though it took me about twenty swats to his one to hammer in a nail.
My father really had a great intellect and a wide variety of interests. Many times, he would try very hard to teach me math the way he learned it, while I was being taught the "new math" at school. I cried and cried as he tried to help me at my worst subject. The answers he got were right, but he didn't do the way I needed to learn it to pass. So I whined. And he never once yelled at me for that. He yelled at me for other things, but he was patient with us for our efforts in gaining knowledge. "As long you tried your best," he would say, never minding the occasional bad grade.
He was a good parent, a disciplinarian ("Wait 'til your father gets home" was my mother's battle cry - the number of times I was sent to my room by each of them escapes me) but allowing us to experiment and live our lives by our own choices most of the time. He and my mother worked hard to support our interests in band and such and gave us much love and freedom.
In the 70s, my dad took early retirement (he sure had earned it). Still boredom would overtake him, and he would work intermittently. His last job was as News Anchor at WREC radio, where illness finally stopped his working days. Still relatively young, only 57, my father, after a long, heartbreaking battle, finally succumbed to his illness in 1987. His funeral was attended by many friends and his family, who mourned his loss dearly.
At the funeral, there was a moment when the persistent rain yielded, and the sun broke through the clouds just at a particularly poignant part of the service. To me, it was very moving, as if G-d was welcoming him home.
All of us were proud of our dad. He wasn't perfect, but who is? He told me toward the end how proud he was of us, how glad he was we were able to take care of ourselves. I think this gave him a touch of peace.
We're still involved in the arts, and each of us is proud of our mom, who works hard to keep her house running in spite of her own hardships and illnesses. She's an inspiration. It reminds me of a story my sister told us. As she and Mom rested at the hospital next to my Dad that last night, she dreamed he came to her and told her Mom was stronger than she knew and she'd be all right.
As a sidebar, a year or so after my father died, we got a phone call from a man looking for him. He said he was a preacher who had done radio at WMIK and who was in Memphis on a rare trip and thought to look him up. I remember tears coming to my eyes, thinking how pleased my dad would have been to spend some time with an old friend. The preacher was so sad at my dad's passing and missing the chance to catch up on old times once more. He sweetly said how great a guy my dad was. But, he said, we probably already knew that.
We did indeed.
6/29/01 (copyright by author; all rights reserved; used by permission)