John Kiesewetter reports:
This time Bill Cunningham wasn’t joking: The “Truckin’ Bozo” was dead.
Cunningham explained to hundreds at a memorial service Saturday that his on-air feud with former WLW-AM overnight host Dale “Truckin’ Bozo” Sommers was all radio theatrics, just one of many crazy stunts recalled by Sommers’ co-workers and loyal listeners at Christ’s Church at Mason.
“He called me a shyster lawyer. I called him a toothless, illiterate hillbilly. The first time I saw him, I said, ‘You look like an armpit with eyeballs,’ ” he said about the bearded Sommers, who died Aug. 24 at age 68.
Cunningham often told listeners Sommers had died when he went on vacation from his show for truckers, which was heard in 38 states on 50,000-watt WLW and later nationally via syndication and satellite.
The running gag started when Sommers and his wife, Sharon, took a two-week cruise in the 1980s, before cellular phones were common. Cunningham had a friend pose as a hospital nurse reporting that Bozo suffered a fatal heart attack.
“I was in the middle of getting a haircut, and (the stylist) was crying because the Bozo was dead,” said radio executive Randy Michaels, who hired Sommers in 1984 at WLW-AM to host the overnight show for truckers. He did it for 20 years, then did a daytime satellite show until July.
Truck drivers made up about half of the audience Saturday. They came to celebrate the man who provided companionship and a voice for their issues.
“He gave us someone to talk to at night, when we do 80 percent of our work,” said Don “Jailbird” Schmidt, 46, from Perrysburg, Ohio, near Toledo.
Kyle “Slim” Hart, 28, from Lawton, Okla., hauled a load to Troy, Ohio, on Friday so he could attend the service. Many truckers parked at the Beach and rode a shuttle bus to the church.
“They wanted me to go to Riverside, Calif., today, but I told them I can’t,” Hart said.
In the vestibule, truckers shared their favorite memories of Bozo’s crazy antics – a billy goat trapped in a well, the fictional Lake Bozo and his supposed buried treasure.
Rick “Hollywood” Ward from California told of the traffic jam on Interstate 71 north of Cincinnati from truckers looking for Bozo’s “watermelon roast” picnic.
Cunningham recalled pouring free coffee one night at a Northern Kentucky truck stop after losing an on-air bet to Bozo. Within an hour, Kentucky State Police halted the promotion.
“They said they had 20 miles of trucks south on I-75, and 20 miles of trucks north on 75,” he said.
The “Bozo” also used his clout to help truckers. He urged truckers to boycott Indiana truck stops in 1988 to protest the state’s gas-tax increase and a lowered speed limit (from 65 to 55 mph) for large vehicles. Six to eight months later, Indiana Gov. Robert Orr came to WLW-AM’s downtown studios and asked Sommers to call off the crippling boycott, said sportscaster Bill “Seg” Dennison.
Sommers taught Dennison the importance of truckers to the American economy and lifestyle. “He’d often say, ‘Seg, where would we be without a truck? Hungry, naked and sleepy,’ ” Dennison said.
The sportscaster also said Sommers’ “taught me broadcasting basics that I still use every day.”
Sommers was born Glen Council in 1943 in Tennessee. His family moved to Cincinnati in 1958, and he made his radio debut a year later at age 16. He later changed his name to Bruce Dale Sommers for radio.
Former radio executive Randy Michaels, who first heard Sommers on Fairfield’s WCNW-AM, hired him to do country music in Kansas City, where he acquired the “Bozo” nickname.
Sommers had often said Michaels called him a “Bozo” after the DJ knocked down a wall during station remodeling. Michaels said the name stuck after Sommers went on the air and complained to listeners that his boss called him a “bozo.”
“I didn’t name him that, he named himself,” Michaels said.
Standing next to an urn holding Sommers’ ashes, Michaels couldn’t help wondering if the service was an elaborate joke. “All of us have heard of him being killed off more than anybody else we know,” he said.
Then he turned serious.
“He’s not gone. He lives on in our hearts. He touched millions of people on his overnight truck network. He was the best.”