Connecticut LIFE, May 2002.
looks back upon half a century in Connecticut broadcasting
by Gerry DeMeusy
Most young boys dream of someday becoming a cop, cowboy, astronaut or president of the United States, but not Brad Davis, the loquacious host of WDRC's syndicated early morning radio program. At age 10 in 1944, he set his sights on a career in auctioneering while watching his grandfather's herd of Holsteins being sold off by famed cattle auctioneer Mort Granger.
"I was fascinated by his sense of showmanship, command of the crowd, and his staccato chant that drove up the bidding," Mr. Davis recalled.
When he wasn't busy with chores on the 85-acre family farm in the Hazardville section of Enfield, Mr. Davis spent his time trying to emulate Mr. Granger's expertise while conducting imaginary barnyard auctions.
Today, at age 67, the bulk of his adult life has been spent talking into microphones instead of selling livestock. But he's now fulfilling his childhood fantasy by staging charitable auctions that benefit religious, educational and human services organizations.
Since 1997, when he held his first auction in behalf of Interval House, a non-profit protective agency for abused women and children, Mr. Davis has raised thousands of dollars with a dozen such benefit events, often sharing the podium with notables.
He teamed with Public Safety Commissioner Arthur Spada last spring for a West Hartford auction that netted St. Timothy Middle School $50,000, a sum that included a top bid of $325 for an autographed $8 state trooper cap.
Gov. John Rowland and world-famous forensic Dr. Henry Lee enlivened Mr. Davis' benefit auction for the Waterbury Day Nursery at Hotel Hilton in Southbury last winter. Their calls for bids, mixed with vaudeville humor, helped account for an audience buying response of $50,000, twice the proceeds from a previous year's auction.
The Hartford Stage derived $20,000 from a 1999 auction at Union Station. An auction by Mr. Davis the following year drew $25,000 in bids for theater tickets, concerts and private dinners with Broadway stars.
What began five years ago as annual celebrity cigar roasts to raise money for the Mark Twain House has evolved into a series of profitable auctions by Mr. Davis, and he also wields the gavel for occasional Wadsworth Atheneum bid and silent auctions.
During his 45 years in broadcasting-25 of them as emcee of his 5 a.m. to 10 a.m. radio program-Mr. Davis has turned out for hundreds of charitable ventures: the March of Dimes, Easter Seals, Toys for Tots, memorial services, patriotic parades, visits to hospitalized children, blood donor campaigns, fund drives for the hungry and "walkathons" for the homeless.
"Find a benevolent cause and you'll find Brad Davis connected with it," said Dan Lovallo, WDRC sports director.
WDRC staffers are in awe that a fellow staffer twice their age is able to keep pace with the demands for his time: chairing testimonial dinners, appearing in stage productions, speaking at school assemblies and graduations; emceeing inaugurals, hymn swings, roasts, concerts, treasure hunts, fashion shows and sporting events.
"He puts his heartfelt energies into causes in which he believes," said Governor Rowland. "His unselfish contributions over the years have helped make Brad Davis a respected member of the news media and a person of compassion for the needy."
Commissioner Spada, a retired state Superior Court judge, is Mr. Davis' closest friend. He attributes the broadcaster's concern for the less fortunate to his reclusive childhood years on the farm where his conservative views and charitable beliefs were shaped by his grandfather, the late Robert Wells.
"The simple truth is that Brad is incapable of refusing a plea for help," he said.
Because he regards Commissioner Spada as his principal critic and confidant, Mr. Davis respects his advice and tolerates his teasing that centers on the broadcaster's frugal mannerisms, his "Don King orange hair style," and disdain for modern conveniences such as microwave ovens, cell phones and credit cards.
"Farmers historically are adverse to change," chuckled Commissioner Spada. "Brad doesn't carry a wallet, prefers to pay bills in cash, is fixated to a rotary phone, wears suspenders to hold up his pants, and regards air conditioning an unnecessary luxury."
The commissioner and his wife learned last fall that a social visit to the Davis home can be a chilling experience.
"I remarked it was so cold we could see our breaths as we talked, and suggested he turn up the heat," said Commissioner Spada. "He told us he never fires up the furnace until November 15 because it helps America lessen its dependence on OPEC oil."
Reminding Mr. Davis that he now is a senior citizen, Commissioner Spada cautions him to cut back on the extra-curricular projects and personal appearances that keep him on the run. Already up to his armpits in charitable commitments, Mr. Davis four years ago volunteered to emcee a series of WDRC "appreciation luncheons" saluting the accomplishments of noted public figures.
His public service has earned him an avalanche of citations, humanitarian awards and letters of appreciation from organizations and people of all walks of life. He is the recipient of the United Technologies "state media volunteer of 2001" award; had a day proclaimed in his honor by the mayor of Hartford; and was singled out as grand marshal of last year's Veterans Day parade.
Intensely patriotic, partly the result of a two-year hitch in the Marine Corps and partly because his dad was a West Point graduate, Mr. Davis bristles at reports of draft dodgers and flag burners. Six years ago, he waged a successful campaign to overturn decisions by several local boards of education to terminate public school observances of Veterans Day.
When the American Red Cross was faced with a critical blood shortage in 1996, he called on ex-Marines to volunteer as donors. More than 100 responded to his broadcast plea.
Despite his age and hip problems resulting from a polo injury, Mr. Davis is reluctant to abate his involvement in charitable ventures, but allows nothing to interfere with personal commitments that include his sleep schedule, family obligations, and the 5 a.m. to 10 a.m. WDRC program carried simultaneously by Buckley Radio stations in Waterbury, Torrington and Meriden.
Except for vacations when spelled by other staffers, he rarely misses hosting his morning show, a feat made possible by a live broadcast from a Mt. Sinai Hospital bed two days after undergoing hip replacement surgery, and his agility in 1993 to scale a barbed wire security fence at 4 a.m. to get inside the WDRC studio on Blue Hills Avenue when he left home without his gate key.
"I made it, but left half of my left pants leg fluttering in the breeze from the top wire," he recalled.
The incident deprived him of the time required to scan national wire service bulletins before going on the air, his usual routine after reading the local and state news in morning newspapers.
"It's critical that I know all the breaking news, since a major portion of my program format involves discussing current events with callers," said Mr. Davis.
A lifetime health and exercise addict who does military push-ups before breakfast, Mr. Davis has consistently tipped the scales at 185 pounds since his 21st birthday. His broadcast schedule, public appearances and charitable commitments help keep him trim, but it's his wife, Rosanna, who steers him into relaxing evening activities, such as gardening, that counterbalance his hectic daily routine.
"She provides the support, advice, understanding and tranquillity I enjoy at our home in Bloomfield," said Mr. Davis.
He retains warm memories of his childhood years on the Enfield farm that today is site of the Grassmere Country Club. He was raised by his schoolteacher mother, Katherine Davis Bennett (now 94 and residing in Michigan with his sister, Judith Knowles) and his compassionate grandfather who also kindled his interest in American history and ignited his sense of thrift and industry.
Mr. Davis' early learning years during World War II were spent in a one-room schoolhouse in the Wallop section of Hazardville. When his mother married her second husband, Edwin Gowdy, the family moved to Thompsonville, where he attended high school and, like many of his classmates, worked summers in the tobacco fields.
He faced an uncertain future after graduation in 1951, so he elected to continue his studies by enrolling in Springfield College. Still unsure which career path to follow by 1954, he quit college and on impulse enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. Two years later, he opted for an honorable discharge after sustaining a serious leg injury that dashed his hope of promotion from sergeant to lieutenant.
"Although I decided against pursuing a military career, I have never regretted being a Marine," Mr. Davis said. "The experience taught me patience and self discipline."
Back home, he joined the Somers Playhouse cast and worked his way up to a lead role in a production of "Picnic." In 1955, when his interest turned to the field of broadcasting, he deployed employment applications to area radio stations, and spent evenings taping typical commercials and commentary on a home recorder.
The arrival of his application at WACE in Chicopee coincided with the station's need for a part-time announcer in 1956. Mr. Davis was hired and during the ensuing 18 months was given on-air assignments that sharpened his skills as an improviser.
Alerted in 1958 that Channel 3 in Hartford was seeking an experienced personality to host an upcoming major telecast, he applied for the role, and was one of a dozen candidates singled out for auditions.
Blinded by studio lights, confused by the TelePrompTer, he fumbled two attempts at reading a sample commercial for Friends Baked Beans. On his third and final try, he ignored the script, stared directly into the camera, and recited his own commercial.
"I know all about Friends baked beans," he blurted," and I know they're the best because my grandmother used to make them for dinner every Saturday night. Since those were the beans she selected to buy, they had to be good. Try them. You'll like them as I do."
In a sound-proof booth overseeing the auditions, Station Manager Leonard Patricelli came alert and hung on every word of the impromptu commercial.
"That's the guy I want for this show," he snapped. "Hire him."
The Brad Davis program, sponsored by the Connecticut Milk Producers Association, premiered in 1968 and ran until 1969 on a format of teenage interviews and dancing.
In 1970, following closure of the teenage show, Channel 3 assigned Mr. Davis and John Sablon as its investigation team for a new program, "What's Happening." Their sleuthing earned them accolades and awards, including an American Bar Association Golden Gavel and the coveted Columbia University Alfred Dupont Journalism Prize.
Mr. Davis' switch from TV to radio came in 1977 when he accepted a WDRC offer to emcee the early morning show that put him head to head against Bob Steele, host of a similar long-running WTIC broadcast.
"I wasn't concerned about Steele," said Mr. Davis. "His program was directed at adults, and mine at younger listeners."
Although initial targets may have been teenagers, the five-hour show attracts early-rising commuters and homemakers he invites to chat with him by telephone before and after news and weather reports, editorial comments, and guest interviews.
A conservative like most of his fans who have fixed opinions on a wide range of social and political issues, Mr. Davis enjoys trading verbal punches with callers opposed to his views on controversial issues such as abortion and capital punishment.
"I'm 100 percent in favor of the death penalty," he flatly declared when inundated by calls protesting the execution of Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh.
A woman caller who disagreed with his opposition to partial birth abortion became exasperated when she failed to convince him he was wrong.
"You're more to the right than Attila the Hun," she snapped, hanging up before Mr. Davis could respond.
He rushed to the defense of Commissioner Spada last July when State Police Union President Robert Veach issued a news release accusing the commissioner of stopping an out-of-state motorist for speeding on I-95, an apparent violation of Governor Rowland's order that he refrain from personally enforcing traffic laws.
Commission Spada vehemently denied the union charge, claiming it was a trumped-up account of his attempt to befriend a motorist parked on the shoulder of the expressway by warning him he was in danger of passing traffic, and suggesting he proceed to a rest area where he could park in safety.
Mr. Davis, who was a passenger in the commissioner's car at the time of the incident, verified his explanation and branded the union release a "bare-faced lie" by the union president in an attempt to retaliate against Commissioner Spada for switching him from desk to patrol duty a week earlier.
The discredited news release prompted the trooper to admit that his accusation against the commissioner was based on false information he received from an unidentified New London policeman. Governor Rowland suggested that Mr. Veach apologize to the commissioner.
Mr. Davis finds it difficult to believe that nearly a half century has elapsed since he landed his first radio job. Commissioner Spada expects him to surpass the longevity record set by Bob Steele who, at age 90, remains on the air with a WTIC Saturday morning show.
"Brad will still be broadcasting in 2034, the year he celebrates his 100th birthday," his friend predicts. CTL