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One of the Greats passes ---
Late-night legend loved big band jazz
Former WGN, WCFL radio host enjoyed playing his kind of music for night crowd
By Josh Noel
Tribune staff reporter
March 29, 2006
Months after WCFL-AM traded jazz programming for rock 'n' roll in 1965, Mike Rapchak could take no more. Decrying a new format he described as "garbage," the disc jockey quit his job of seven years. On the air.
"I'm signing off for the last time," he recounted telling listeners in a 1994 interview with the Tribune. "For those of you who remember what I used to do, I'll meet you somewhere else."
On his way out of the studios, Mr. Rapchak told a WCFL official to call him if "[you] ever get your brains back."
About 13 years later, the station's brains must have returned, because Mr. Rapchak was back on WCFL. It was yet another stop for a radio veteran whose love for big band jazz took him across Midwestern radio waves, whose highest-profile stop was for 15 years with Tribune-owned WGN-AM.
Mr. Rapchak, 85, known for spinning jazz deep into the lonely overnight hours, died Monday, March 27, at his home in Robertsdale, Ind., of heart failure, family members said.
Mr. Rapchak was born in Whiting to Slovak immigrant parents, said his son, Larry.
After leaving the Army in 1946, he went to work at a northwestern Indiana soap factory but caught a bug for radio after meeting a professional disc jockey.
His first job came in the late 1940s at a Decatur station and led to several small-market stops before landing in Chicago in the early 1950s. He went to work for WCFL in 1957, playing his first love: the big band jazz that was the popular music of the late 1930s and '40s.
Friends and family widely consider the happiest years of his career to be about a three-year period when he did the overnight shift. "He loved that nighttime audience and that lonely thing where it feels like you're talking to one person," said his son. "To him that was his real prime."
Suddenly quitting the radio station in 1965 caused some hand wringing in the Hammond home where he and his ex-wife, Mae Ortman, raised their five children. Within a year he was hired by WLS-Ch. 7 to be the voice of the television station, doing promotional spots and introducing programs.
Mr. Rapchak seemed content working in television, his son said, but he was happy to return to WCFL in 1978 and play the music he loved.
By 1980, Mr. Rapchak was invited to get the biggest audience he would ever have, working for WGN-AM on Saturday and Sunday overnights, a shift that was later trimmed to only Saturday nights.
Edward Wilk, a WGN engineer who worked Mr. Rapchak's first show at the station, said Mr. Rapchak quickly proved himself to be a complete music fan.
A 1994 Tribune story said Rapchak got fan mail from 37 states while he was at WGN despite being on the air once a week.
Wilk said Mr. Rapchak responded to every letter, finally paying for the stamps himself when station management said he was spending too much of its money on postage.
Mr. Rapchak lost his job in 1995 when radio personalities were shuffled into new slots, leaving no place for the long time disc jockey. Wilk said Mr. Rapchak was fired minutes after finishing his last show.
He was bitter about his career coming to such an unceremonious and abrupt end, said his former colleague and his son.
Survivors include two other sons, Mike Jr. and Philip; two daughters, Nancy and Laura; a sister, Ruth; a brother, Bill; two grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
Services in Whiting are pending.
Copyright (c) 2006, Chicago Tribune