You’ve seen it a thousand times if you’re a creature of the night, arriving home after the world and the newspaper have gone to bed.
“Don’t miss out on this once in a lifetime collection!” an exuberant announcer will say. “Here are a few classics from the Sounds of the ’70s!”
You are fed snippets from Aerosmith to ZZ Top, with the promise of “all original artists at one low price.”
The sound of the ’70s (and beyond) in Bloomington-Normal was a single, unmistakable voice.
Forget the shaggy-haired bands in leather pants. The soundtrack of Central Illinois sports was provided by a balding, 40-something man with a mustache, headset and the pipes of an ocean liner.
Art Kimball was an original artist who came to us free of charge, from small rural gyms to Madison Square Garden. He left us Sunday at age 78 after a battle with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Gone is a man whose immense popularity traveled well. While at WLPO Radio in LaSalle-Peru, Kimball was routinely cheered as he entered a gym to set up for a game. He earned similar respect and adulation as sports director at WJBC, an eight-year run that began in 1973.
“I think he’s probably the best announcer I ever heard as far as the distinctive voice, his delivery, the pace,” said Lanny Slevin, who succeeded Kimball at WLPO and as host of the statewide Illinois High School Association Sports Report.
“He captivated you.”
Indeed, Kimball’s signature baritone reached through the radio and grabbed you by the collar. It certainly got the attention of a teenager growing up 20 miles south of Bloomington.
In Atlanta we relied on Kimball to bring local and area sports to our living room or Chevy Impala or wherever we happened to be. He was the voice of Illinois State and, frequently, Illinois Wesleyan athletics.
Beyond that, Kimball was our conduit to high school teams and athletes in an era free of the Internet and cable television.
We got our information two ways: what we heard from Kimball and read from longtime Pantagraph sports editor Jim Barnhart. They are together again in heaven’s press box, with Barnhart having passed away in August.
Kimball was honored many times over, most recently in 2008 with the Illinois Broadcasters Association’s Pioneer Award. He was a member of numerous Halls of Fame, in part because of his days in LaSalle-Peru.
LaSalle-Peru High School was a basketball power in the 1960s and early ’70s. Kimball was a fixture in a corner of the sold-out gym, next to the blaring band.
“His voice was so strong, he could talk right over the band,” Slevin said. “A lot of great fans who had to stay home listened to Art, and a lot of people listened in the gym on their little transistor radios.
“Before the game the student body would chant, ‘Hey, Art Kimball!’ and hold up their combs. Art, who was already (nearly) bald, would smile and hold up a comb or take out a handkerchief and pretend to wipe his brow.”
It was good-natured fun between a community and a man it trusted, revered.
To leave that could not have been easy, but Kimball moved on, beginning a journey that took him to WJBC, a brief stint in Peoria television, ownership of radio stations in Indiana and Mendota, 10 years of TV at IHSA state basketball tournaments and, ultimately, back to Bloomington-Normal.
He did local cable television work, again became WJBC’s voice for Illinois Wesleyan sports and produced the popular IHSA Sports Report out of his basement.
“Art was never afraid to reinvent himself,” said Stew Salowitz, Kimball’s former WJBC colleague and now IWU’s sports information director. “He was always prepared and he had such a huge fan base. Unfortunately, a lot of people now may not know who he was. They missed a guy who was pretty special.”
Kimball was a friend to all of us in the media, a congenial man who, as Slevin said, “held court better than anybody.”
He also was well known statewide. Roger Cushman, former ISU sports information director and Kimball’s longtime friend, repeatedly was reminded of that.
“Wherever we were, invariably someone would walk up to him and say, ‘Hey, I know that voice. Aren’t you Art Kimball?’ ” Cushman said. “Art would say, ‘Where are you from?’ Wherever the person was from, Art knew somebody there.
“Another dimension to Art was he was a great husband, father, grandfather. He was a real family man. He and (his wife) Mary Lou were a great team.”
Mary Lou Kimball will cling to memories now. She will close her eyes and hear that deep, pure, familiar voice.
We can, too.