It doesn’t matter whom you ask — bosses or colleagues, family or friends — there was only one Don Weeks, whether you are talking about the Hall of Fame radio icon or the person.
“He was the same guy in the hallway as he was on the air as the person you would meet in a restaurant,” said Kristen Delaney, who as vice president and regional market manager for iHeartRadio oversees the station group that includes WGY 810 AM. “He was a true gentleman and a sweetheart of a guy.”
Weeks, who fulfilled a childhood ambition by entertaining and informing generations of radio listeners as an iconic morning personality on WGY, died Wednesday. Weeks, who retired from a Hall of Fame career in 2010, was 76 and had been in failing health in recent months.
For three decades Weeks served as the morning host on the AM powerhouse, presenting a show that was a mix of news, interviews and humor that rarely if ever veered into the acerbic, even as talk radio grew more vitriolic in the 1990s. The formula worked, as “Don Weeks and the WGY Morning News” earned high ratings, a Marconi award for the host and a spot for the Schenectady native in the New York State Broadcasters Hall of Fame.
“Uncle Don,” as he was known to listeners, carried on a mostly congenial conversation that lasted for 30 years, through six presidencies, more than three dozen characters, hundreds upon hundreds of schools closings and thousands of interviews and comedy bits.
“I don’t think of myself as a performer,” he said in a 2009 interview with The Daily Gazette. “I think of myself as somebody who everybody knows — everybody who listens to WGY knows — and I just show up in the morning and talk about things that they’re interested in.”
But Weeks was in fact a performer, dating back to childhood all the way through a multifaceted professional career that took many twists and turns.
As a boy he would play act being on radio, sitting behind a wooden orange crate, pretending he was a DJ, and would later craft comedy bits with a friend. In a mid-1990s Gazette interview, Weeks looked back and described himself as a lonely kid, an only child eager to be liked.
“There’s still a lonely little kid in me that comes out and says, ‘I want you to like me,’ ” he said in 1995, halfway through his WGY run.
Weeks’ actual radio career began as a teenager, when the 1956 Nott Terrace High School graduate won a contest to host WOKO’s Saturday afternoon show “Teen Time” for five weeks. His first paying gig came at WSNY on the upper floor of the old Plaza Theater on State Street. He then played Top 40 for WTRY.
In 1965, Weeks jumped to television and WAST (now WNYT) as the cartooning weatherman for “Wally Weather” segments in an era before weathercasters were almost all meteorologists. He turned down an offer to work for the Walt Disney animation program — a move he called one of his few regrets.
In 1968, he became art director at WRGB, before leaving two years later to becoming creative director at Helpin & Williams, an Albany advertising agency.
But he kept his hand in radio, hosting a morning show at WABY before working a full day at the ad agency. In 1980, he took the morning show job at WGY, and a Hall of Fame career took off. It also fulfilled a childhood dream of working for the AM station.
“I grew up listening to WGY,” Weeks said in 2009. “I’m old enough to say this — I was born on the cusp, when radio was making a transition to television and television was pretty much radio shows they could produce cheaply on television. I remember drama on the radio, I remember listening to ‘Gunsmoke’ in the 1950s before it made its transition to television, and I just loved the medium. I loved the idea you could conjure up pictures of things on the radio. They used to call it ‘Theater of the Mind,’ and I was fascinated by it.
“Bill Edwardsen was on in the morning on WGY, and I thought he was the coolest guy in the world because he would talk to celebrities. He seemed to be the toast of the town, and I thought, ‘Wow, what a dream job. I would love to be the morning man at WGY.’ ”
Weeks’ shows were heavy on characters and bits into the 1990s. “In terms of radio he was a voice actor,” WGY colleague Bob Cudmore said. Characters gave way to a mix of taped and live interviews, riffs off the news, humor and a speed-reading of school closings in the pre-Internet era.
“That is the first thing people said today — ‘I remember Don closing the schools,’ ” longtime colleague Chuck Custer said Wednesday.
Joe Gallagher, who did afternoons at WGY in the 1980s and still is heard on the station on weekends, said he and Weeks had a friendly on and off-air rivalry.
They had bake-offs. They raced each other in luges at Lake Placid. “He always outdid me,” Gallagher said. Well, Gallagher did win some of the times they raced tractors outside of WGY’s studios.
“We kidded each other a lot, but there was a great deal of mutual respect,” Gallagher said. “And he was a great friend.”
Gallagher and Custer, who worked with Weeks for a quarter-century and would replace him as the morning host as half of the “Chuck and Kelly” team with Kelly Lynch, visited Weeks last Thursday.
“He started out as a mentor, then we were colleagues, then friends, then brothers,” Custer said Wednesday. “He was a rock at that station for so many years.”
Custer said one of the best lessons he learned from Weeks came off the air, when Weeks was already an established star who didn’t need to put in extra time at the station.
“He would spend three hours in a studio to put together a two-minute bit,” Custer said. “He didn’t know any other way.”
Weeks’ morning show was largely apolitical with periodic exceptions, making it distinct in the second half of his career as news talk radio in general, and WGY in particular, veered toward a predominantly conservative format. IHeartRadio Regional Operations Manager John Cooper said “the genius of Don is he stayed ahead of his audience” — adjusting his show so it never got stale, allowing for his longevity.
“We had eras here … Don’s was the longest,” said Joseph A. Reilly, the former president and CEO of the New York State Broadcasters Association. “Don got ratings without being dirty. Don did it in a good, all-American way … and he had a huge following because of it.”
A national Marconi award winner for broadcasting excellence, Weeks was inducted into the New York State Broadcasters Hall of Fame in a 2009 class that included CBS television anchor and radio commentator Charles Osgood. “Well, they obviously need me to park Charles’ car,” he quipped at the time.
“Don is one of the most talented, trusted and versatile performers I’ve ever heard,” Custer says of Weeks on the Broadcasters Hall of Fame website. “Don has been a TV weatherman, a Top 40 disc jockey, an ad executive and now handles everything from serious interviews to comedy. There’s nothing he can’t do.”
Despite talking to thousands of listeners daily, Weeks said he was reserved. “You tell people this and they say, ‘Nah, come on,’ but it’s true — I do have a touch of shyness,” he said. “Once I’ve learned to fight it and get over it, once I get beyond the initial ‘Hey, aren’t you Don Weeks?’ we chat like friends. Because I consider my listeners, they’re like friends in the morning or they wouldn’t be there.”
Weeks announced his retirement on the air in June 2010 effective at the end of that year.
“It’s been a tremendous run,” Weeks said then. “They say there are no happy endings in radio. Yes, there are. It’s going to be a very happy ending for me.”
Weeks was married for more than five decades to his high school sweetheart, the girl he took to her prom. Suzanne M. Weeks died Dec. 20. The couple had four children — Jonathan Weeks of Malone, Christine DeGennaro of Scotia, Holly Weeks of Schenectady and Noelle Falvo of Glenville — and five grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements, being handled by the Gleason Funeral Home in Schenectady, are pending.
Reach Gazette reporter Mark McGuire at 395-3105, [email protected] or @MJMcGuire on Twitter.