For more than 40 years, listeners of WROK radio counted on Fred Speer to bring them the latest news. Paul Anthony Arco catches up with Speer to see what he’s up to today, and how he landed in the business in the first place.
That voice. It’s the first thing that grabs your attention when you think of Fred Speer. For more than 40 years, listeners of WROK 1440 AM grew accustomed to hearing Speer’s booming pipes blaring through their radios, detailing the latest news, whether a five-alarm house fire or a heinous crime on the streets of Rockford.
“He was the Walter Cronkite of Rockford radio,” says Dean Ervin, a longtime local radio personality. “When Fred talks, he commands your attention. With those dramatic pauses, I’ve never heard anyone tell a story like Fred does. He could do a dramatic reading of Cat in the Hat. His voice just resonates with people.”
Speer hung up his microphone and retired from WROK in 2002. Now 77, he’s enjoying the fruits of his labor. An affable, slender man with an infectious smile and firm handshake, Speer is the picture of health. He doesn’t take any medication, chalking up his good fortune to excellent genes.
“I feel so fortunate,” he says. “I’ve been blessed with good health, great parents, a wonderful wife, amazing kids and a fantastic career that allowed me to meet some beautiful people who will always touch my heart and soul.”
Speer grew up on Rockford’s west side with his parents, now deceased, and a younger brother, Will, who lives in Wyoming. He fondly recalls chasing emergency vehicles whenever they came screaming through his neighborhood. “If I heard a siren, I jumped on my bike to see where they were going,” he says.
He also spent a fair amount of time at Fire Station No. 8, where the fire chief formed a club to help teach Speer and other youngsters the importance of fire safety. “The highlight was a banquet that we had every year,” says Speer, who briefly considered a career in firefighting, before he discovered his passion for news.
At the time, communications seemed an unlikely profession for shy Speer, who was an introvert while growing up. That is, until one of his high school teachers pulled him aside for a chat. “He said, ‘You’re very quiet, but you have a lot of potential,’” Speer says. “He brought me out of my shell.”
After graduating from West High School, Speer moved on to Columbia College in Chicago, where he pursued a communications degree. During college, he was hired by the Chicago NBC radio and television affiliate as an assistant. Speer led public tours, answered phones and walked to nearby newsstands to retrieve copies of the daily newspaper for newsroom staff.
While still a college student, Speer put together resume tapes showcasing his voice and mailed them to radio affiliates all over the country. One day, Speer got called out of class, to take a phone call from the program director at a station in Muskegon, Mich., who asked him to start work the following Monday.
Excited and nervous, Speer skipped his last two years of college and moved north to pursue his dreams.
“I just felt it was time,” he says. “The experience I could gain working was more satisfying than what any piece of paper could give me.”
After a two-year stint spinning records and delivering local news, Speer responded to an ad for a position at WROK AM in his hometown of Rockford. In 1958, he was hired by the Todd family, who owned the Rockford Morning Star and WROK, before they sold the station to Vern Nolte, whose claim to fame was securing the original patent for the concept of a cart machine.
As a young reporter, Speer was a tireless worker, forsaking sufficient rest in order to chase breaking news. He split his sleep between three hours in the afternoon and three more at night, before starting his work day at 2 a.m. He stayed informed through a newsroom scanner and three more stationed throughout his home. “My wife, Joanne, was very understanding about that,” he says.
Over the years, Speer covered many aspects of local news. There was city and county government, school board, and police and fire, which ultimately became his niche. Many stories were unpleasant. There were murder sprees, catastrophic fires and drownings. Work nights sometimes ended with Speer shedding tears alongside police officers and grieving parents. Sometimes he bonded with those parents. He’s exchanged birthday cards with some, and served as pallbearer at the funerals of others.
“All the bloodshed and tears I saw made me realize how precious life truly is,” he says. “But I always felt it was important to give back to the city I was born and raised in, by keeping people informed about what was going on, as quickly as possible. That was my job.”
The demands of his work also took a toll on family life. “Joanne and our children endured a lot so I could do my job,” he says. Often, Speer brought his children on calls. Today, his two sons, Patrick and Tim, are officers for the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department. His daughter, Kelly Hunter, works as a property manager. Speer and Joanne were married for 30 years before she died from cancer in 2007. He has nine grandchildren.
When Speer retired after a 44-year career, the outpouring of wishes from friends, colleagues and the public was overwhelming. It was fitting that his retirement party was held at the Public Safety Building, where he’d spent considerable time chasing down leads; he was also celebrated at a Rockford fire station.
Now retired for a decade, Speer stays busy. He drives a courtesy vehicle for Lou Bachrodt Auto Mall, enjoys spending time with family and friends, and attends Riverside Community Church, where he met his lady friend, Chris.
Speer still gets his radio fix. Every Monday and Tuesday evening, he co-hosts Ervin’s one-hour radio show on 100.5 NTA FM. The lighthearted banter suits him fine, at this point in life.
“People always say there is never going to be another Fred Speer, and that’s probably true,” says Ervin. “Radio was his life, but more importantly, he’s always been just a good guy. I love him to death, and I know so many others feel the same way.”