Jim Zabel is rightly being remembered by Iowans as a legend. After 69 years of broadcasting on WHO Radio, the majority of which included voicing the play-by-play broadcasts of football, basketball, and every other sport under the sun (even bowling), "legend" almost doesn't seem enough.
I worked with Jim from 1997 until his passing this week, most closely as his producer for "Two Guys Named Jim" from April 7, 2002, until the present day. I didn't know him as a mythological figure, but as the colleague and friend with whom I visited every Sunday night for eleven years. And I learned from him, too. Here's what he taught me:
Praise is free, so give it away. Jim was a tough customer for a radio producer to handle. He wasn't fickle about it, nor cruel -- just demanding in the kind of way a person could be when they had been doing radio almost as long as the medium had existed. But once we had mastered how to work with one another, Jim was effusive in his praise. Every Sunday night, I could count on being thanked publicly over the air for my work behind the control board. That praise wasn't quantifiable in dollars and cents -- it simply became the reason to keep producing his show, long after most people would have naturally moved on. He could have done the show with almost anyone behind the controls, but he praised in such a way that I felt guilty about missing a single week for illness, vacations, or even national holidays. The praise was lavished on so many other people, too; never unearned, but always generous once it was merited.
Be kind. You might just make it into your 90s. Jim lived 31 years longer than the life expectancy for a man born in 1921. In the 16 years I knew him, I never saw anyone else more deftly tiptoe away from conflict. Jim must have known from a young age that he was going to be around for a long, long time to come, because he went out of his way to radiate kindness and cheer.
Doing what you love means finding what you love about what you do. A lot of people toss around "Do what you love" far too lightly. It's become a kind of dime-store, commencement-address platitude. Jim loved broadcasting and he loved Hawkeye football, but nobody could have loved the two great streaks of losing seasons he covered from the press box. It's easy to be a "homer" when your team is winning. It's much harder when your team is in the dumps (for nearly 20 years). Jim found ways to love what he was doing, even when the work was hard on the soul and trying to the body and mind. He didn't just cover football, it should be noted -- in his prime, Jim kept up a grueling schedule of play-by-play coverage, radio work, and television reporting that could have driven most people to exhaustion.
Have rivals. Have opponents. Don't have enemies. Jim Zabel clearly bled the black and gold of his alma mater, the University of Iowa. But that didn't keep him from caring about and supporting other schools and their teams. He used part of his last full show to commend his grandson for graduating from Iowa State University, and he concluded every interview with someone representing a prospective opponent with "We can't wish you good luck against us, but good luck the rest of the season." And he meant it -- Jim hated having arguments, fights, or unpleasantness with almost anyone. That's why he could be half of a radio show alongside Jim Walden, who coached at the very non-black-and-gold schools of Iowa State and Nebraska. The two could disagree with one another endlessly, but in eleven years as their producer, I never heard a hurtful or disparaging word between them -- on the air or in private.
Show up. Work hard. Then do it again tomorrow. Commercial radio started in America in 1920. Jim Zabel started at WHO Radio on May 18, 1944. And then he never left. He just showed up and worked hard, day after day after day, for 69 out of the first 93 years that radio existed. There's a reason that "legend" is the first word to which everyone turns when talking about Jim Zabel. And there's positively nothing surprising about the fact that he died with his boots on, so to speak, while at home preparing for his next radio show.
Jim will be dearly missed.
With my friend Jim Zabel in 2009. He will be missed. twitter.com/briangongol/stů— Brian Gongol (@briangongol) May 24, 2013