Spinning music and ministry.
Back in 1939, a Philco radio was as big as a cabinet, with a recessed front where a
4-year-old boy could curl up and disappear into the magic.
A young Jack Fleming spent hours tucked up against his family's Philco, wrapped in the velvet voices of the great radio personalities, dream-weavers such as Martin Bloch who spun Benny Goodman records on "the revolving stage," the transporting power of the moment as limitless as a listener's imagination.
"It's the theater of the mind," the 72-year-old Fleming said recently, reflecting on radio's Golden Age and how it shaped his life. "I found a medium where I could not only emulate the people I admire but also be creative. The reward of being able to please people and entertain people - that's a great gift."
Fleming, one of the better-known personalities in Eugene radio history, rode radio across the country and across musical genres, and along the way he met some of the biggest names in the business.
But the modest DJ with the soothing sound will tell you it's his flip side - that is, his ministry for the Catholic church - that provides the sweetest music.
Fleming, now in semiretirement working with Eugene's KWAX classical music station, recently celebrated 50 years as a disc jockey.
It was 1957 when WWCO in Waterbury, Conn., offered him a full-time spot; the money was half what he made at his job on an assembly line, but Fleming couldn't say yes fast enough.
He saw radio as a creative outlet, a chance to follow his idols and a ticket to new destinations. Radio didn't disappoint: The following years brought an alphabet soup of stations - KRNO, KFXM, KGIL, KMEN - in Southern California, where Fleming and his first wife, Jessie, moved in '59 to escape the snow.
Connections led to connections, and as Fleming climbed the ladder in a star-studded business, he rubbed elbows with the gods.
On four or five occasions, Fleming's friends got him into the studio while Frank Sinatra recorded. During one session, The Chairman of the Board noticed that his orchestra leader had been drinking, Fleming said.
`(Sinatra) said, `Blow in my face,' ' Fleming recalled. When Sinatra smelled the booze, "he grabbed his coat and walked out. He was afraid (the orchestra leader) would screw up. He didn't have time to mess around."
Another time, a promoter and friend of Fleming's stopped by and invited him out for a ride. They drove a few blocks and stopped at the house of a friend.
"We got out of the car and walked up to the house and into the living room," Fleming said. "There were about eight or 10 people in the room. And there, sitting on the couch" - he laughed - "was Elvis Presley. I guess my mouth dropped open - they just laughed their fool heads off at me."
Fleming loved the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, but he found Southern California no place to raise a family. So he took a job in a city he'd never heard of - Eugene - to help build a radio station from scratch.
From the moment of its birth in 1968, KPNW - "as big as the Pacific Northwest" - was the 800-pound gorilla in the market.
The station had more power - and, therefore, more range - than all of the other AM stations in the metropolitan area combined.
Fleming's was the inaugural voice on KPNW. The much-anticipated opening drew Gov. Tom McCall and other dignitaries, and Fleming says he was so rattled he threw up before going on the air.
"I was so nervous," he said, smiling at the memory. "Having a 50,000-watt station in this little burg - this was a big deal."
Dave Woodward, former KPNW general manager, said Fleming cemented his place in local radio history as one of the talented young announcers who pulled out all the stops to promote the station - and had a kick doing it.
"People will always remember Jack Fleming, Si Wise and Dan Nims for being the original on-air, daytime staff," Woodward said. "Jack was fabulous on the station - all the guys then just had great attitudes, especially Jack. They made a fun job even more fun."
Fleming, slender and sporting a trim gray beard, thinks fondly of his radio days. But the chart-topper in his life, he said, came in 1983, when he had a religious epiphany and became a more devout Christian.
Fleming still gets goose bumps when he talks about the day, as he put it, the Holy Spirit "came into my life." He traded materialism for service, and now he enjoys the peace of mind that comes with knowing that whatever happens, he said, "everything's going to be all right."
For 10 years, Fleming has been a Eucharistic minister for St. Paul Catholic Church in Eugene, performing the Christian rite for elderly, often isolated people in nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
Sometimes a visit lasts no longer than the sacrament. Other times, it's clear that Fleming's company also is sought, and he stays for an hour or so.
Fleming gets as much out of it as those he visits. Like radio, it's a way to reach people, he said - but in a much more profound way.
"To them, I'm the church - I'm their church," Fleming said. "As far as I'm concerned, it's the most important thing I've ever done, or could do."
Background: 72; born in Derby, Conn.,
lives in Springfield.
Claim to fame: 50 years as a disc jockey; now with KWAX classical, 91.1 FM, Eugene, Tuesdays and Wednesdays 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Star turns: Fleming watched Frank Sinatra in the studio and emceed for the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean.
Most embarrassing on-air moment: Circa 1960, Fleming was unaware the microphone was on when he cursed; the first call to the station came in seconds, from his mother.
Family: Wife, Trudylee; son, Michael, 44;
a daughter, Lisa, died in 1995.
When not on the air: Fleming, a Eucharistic minister with St. Paul Catholic Church in Eugene, visits the elderly to perform the Christian rite.
Bet you didn't know: Fleming's two cats, Meisha and Rosie, were rescued living behind a pop machine at a Springfield supermarket.
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|Title Annotation:||General News; Jack Fleming, a DJ for 50 years, now serves a church's parishioners as well|
|Publication:||The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)|
|Date:||Sep 17, 2007|
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