Tearful, sentimental, wistful, a bit eccentric and served with a side-dish of defiance, Don Imus ended nearly 50 years on the air Thursday morning. But his valedictory came early in the last edition of “Imus in the Morning” on WABC (77) shortly after 7 a.m., when he thanked listeners -- or “you” -- for the long run, and he did not forget a nod to the “I-Man” himself either.
As Imus, 77, steadied himself for what would be a final attempt to explain what these five decades meant — impossible for anyone under any circumstances, considering the tumult, controversy and color of those years — he said around 7:15 from his studio in Texas that “I thought I was going to have some more time” to puzzle out an answer. (He had planned to leave in December, but the bankruptcy of his syndicator, Cumulus, moved up the timetable to Thursday.)
Then, after noting that he was not going to miss the program (“ . . . a lot of fun, but, man, hard to do”) he said “I know in my heart there’s been nobody ever better on the radio than me. I mean that. I’m telling you how it is. Nobody ever did this – nobody – but it wasn’t me who did this. I’m gonna miss you.”
“Because you were the one, and I don’t know who ‘you’ is. I always thought and still think I was always talking to one person. I didn’t know if you were male or female, I just knew there was one person that I talked to and that would listen to me.”
He then segued to what he believed the signal achievement of “Imus in the Morning” had been, notably the many charity drives conducted over the years for children suffering from cancer, or for research on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or for wounded veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. WFAN – Imus’s previous station – and the other stations he’s worked for raised about $30 million in radiothons over the years for the Imus Ranch in New Mexico, which had been built as a camp for sick children. (Imus and his wife, Deirdre, closed it down in 2014).
He said his “friend” Richard Grasso, the former chief of the New York Stock Exchange, suggested he sell “commemorative acres” at the ranch to raise money. “I decided this is insane, but do you know we could not take the calls fast enough? That first morning we raised 5 million (dollars). You and I did that. You gave me the money and the next morning you gave me another 4 1/2 million.”
He recalled visiting wounded soldiers at Walter Reed: “We saw those young people with no arms or legs who wanted to go back – they wanted to go back not to fight for their country but for each other. You gave me 200 million at least” for them.
Then came the waterworks, as he paused, regrouped, and said what will probably be the last words of a radio career that began June 1, 1968 in Palmdale, California: “I know you’re going to miss me, but . . . but you have no idea how much I’m gonna miss you.” He fumbled with a piece of paper, saying he wrote something down on it. A few of these defiant last words cryptically referred to a “racist bigoted Civil Rights charlatan” without naming anyone in particular. Imus and the Rev. Al Sharpton had been antagonists over the years at times, notably when Sharpton organized the 2007 advertiser boycott of “Imus in the Morning” after Imus referred to the Rutgers women’s basketball team with a racist inflammatory term that led to his firing by CBS Radio.
But this tumult, he said, “was lost in the dust of the caravan rolling on the road to greatness. We did that. You did that. I did that. That’s what we did. You [expletive] right.”
And then -- from across those rolling plains, deep in the heart of Texas -- the old radio warrior, the I-Man himself, finally and officially lost it. He could say no more, and all viewers could hear was a radio microphone falling over.
Thursday’s melancholic end was preceeded by decades of storm and fire -- endless contretemps with an endless line of public figures, some of whom enjoyed the flamethrowing, others who did not. But there were a number of lives to this complex firebrand, some contradictory.
New York talk radio’s hellion of the ’70s and ’80s became a political powerbroker during the ’90s, then self-destructed in 2007 after making a flip comment about the women’s final between Rutgers and Tennesee.
He was subsequently fired by CBS radio, apologized to the team, and has spent the last decade making certain – as he said upon reinstatement at WABC nearly a year later – that “I will never say anything in my lifetime that will make any of these young women at Rutgers regret or feel foolish that they accepted my apology and forgave me.”