The Northeast Kingdom has lost a radio legend. For decades, Don Mullally, a familiar voice on WSTJ-AM in St. Johnsbury, has passed away. I had the privilege of being on his show at least twice over the year. He was such a fine gentleman. An article about the life and times of this legend appeared in the October issue of Vermont’s Northland Journal. In honor of Don, the following is his story as recorded by Amy Ash Nixon.
Rest in Peace, Don ———- Scott Wheeler/Publisher
Don Mullally: A Northeast Kingdom Radio Legend
by Amy Ash Nixon
Don Mullally is nothing short of an institution here in the Northeast Kingdom. The 88-year-old is still on the air at WSTJ-AM 1340 out of St. Johnsbury weekday morning, spinning albums—yes, vinyl albums. He’s the only one who still does that at the station. For almost 65 years, Mullally has been playing music and spreading the word about community events, local sports, and broadcasting that the clouds will lift and sunshine is expected later in the day.
His favorite LPs? Sinatra, the big bands, and some of “the girls”—Doris Day, Patty Page, and Rosemary Clooney. He had a Bing Crosby album on the turntable, to play some Irish tunes to celebrate the recent trip to Ireland of the station owner, Bruce James, his own Irish eyes smiling.
On air here since 1952, Mullally’s arrival came just a few years after the station’s founding owner, Dean Finney, launched the radio station in a former farm manure pit foundation. He remembers when the bomb shelter was installed in the station. Mullally explained that the FCC required the station to put the underground bunker in, complete with water supplies, bunk beds and other needed supplies, as well as a generator. The bunker was built so the station could provide communications if necessary during an emergency. It was the Cold War, another time, but he was there, working as a DJ, and he knows just about all the history connected with the radio station and Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, which has been his home since he was a little boy.
Born in West Somerville, Massachusetts, his father worked as a bakery supervisor and his mom worked as a buyer for a department store in Boston. The family moved to Montpelier, Vermont, where he began school. They moved to St. Johnsbury when he was still in grade school, where he attended the Summer Street School through eighth grade. He then attended St. Johnsbury Academy.
His family was Vermonters, said Mullally, and he’s happy he was raised here. He has never wanted to be anywhere else.
“We came back to Vermont when I was probably two or three,” he said in an interview at his St. Johnsbury home in August. His mom worked as a buyer for a St. Johnsbury department store. His dad worked at Fairbanks Scales, and was instrumental in bringing in the union. “That didn’t settle too well with some.”
Mullally was a little too young to serve in the military during World War II, but he enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1946, the year after the war ended. He served stateside, getting a taste of being part of a radio gang while in the service.
“The war was over, but I was on the radio gang and I thought, ‘Oh wow, this is going to be great,’” he recalled. His time in the Navy was short-lived. Returning to the academy in late 1947 to finish out his education, he officially graduated in 1948. He attends both the 1947 and 1948 class reunions.
After graduation, Mullally studied radio and television. He thought he would pursue it as a career, but said some of the technology, including telegraphy, was not his thing. He worked at a furniture store in town, Curran Furniture, as a salesman, and also at Hovey’s Men’s Shop. In addition, he worked at Lauren Phelps Music Shop, which also sold men’s clothing. For a time, he also worked at an auto service shop in town, Goldberg’s Auto Service.
The original radio station went on the air July 10, 1949, and Mullally said he came on board a few years later in St. Johnsbury, in 1952. Except for a stint at a radio station in Glens Falls, New York, Mullally has been on the air in the Northeast Kingdom most of the past 64 years.
As hard as he tried, he couldn’t quite put his finger on how it was he came to first start working at WTWN, the original radio station in St. Johnsbury. Once he was there, though, he said things “just blossomed,” and he found his spot for the rest of his career.
Though he’s been on the 6 to 9 a.m. shift for years, when he first began, he was on the night shift. He said he “didn’t know anything about it, but I loved to read.” He credits a teacher at St. Johnsbury Academy, Miss Dorothy Clark, with imparting to him his love of reading. “I adored her,” he said with a smile. “She got me interested in talking and public affairs, and it all just blossomed from there.”
For the past quarter century, Mullally has worked for Bruce James, who bought the station in the mid-’90s. Under James’s ownership, Don and his daughter, Lynda, had a father-daughter show for a few years, which he recalls fondly, saying they were one of the only father-daughter shows he recalls.
There was a time, though, that Mullally retired from his career in broadcasting to serve a four-year stint as a side judge in Caledonia County. Although he said he enjoyed serving as a side judge, when he turned 75 years old, he was required to retire from that job. However, he wasn’t about to sit back and do nothing. He was still a young man, at least in mind and spirit. That’s when he came out of broadcast retirement.
James, who is also the president of Vermont Broadcast Associates, was thrilled to have Mullally back, he recalled.
“Having grown up in the Northeast Kingdom, Don Mullally was the radio announcer I listened to as a young child,” James said. “He set the example as to what an announcer should sound like and how interviews should be handled. As my radio career developed, all announcers were measured by the bar Don set. I was so happy when Don told me he would come back to radio following his retirement as Judge.”
James added, “I didn’t know this until after I hired Don to come back to radio, but Don grew up with, and went to school, skied, and palled around with my aunt and mother in St. Johnsbury, making Don a part of our personal family. Our entire radio group looks up to Don as senior statesman and mentor.”
Mullally isn’t only a legend in the Northeast Kingdom. He is a Vermont legend who is even known far beyond its borders.
“This last fall at the Vermont Association of Broadcasters’ annual awards banquet, Don was introduced as Vermont’s longest serving radio announcer, making him the senior statesman of all Vermont broadcasters,” James said. “We are so proud and happy to work with Don each and every day. Don is a very important part of our radio family and we love him to pieces.”
Mullally has received many broadcasting awards and accolades, including being inducted into the Vermont Broadcasters Hall of Fame.
“I am affectionately known as the voice of the Northeast,” Mullally said humbly. His greatest reward, though, is the love of his family. He and his late wife, Vel, who he lost a few years ago, had three adult children, and he proudly ticks off what each is doing, where they live, and shares details about his grandchildren, too.
Of his broadcasting career, Mullally said, “What started out as a lark, I guess, turned into a vocation and a lifestyle. I never gave it a second thought! I just enjoy the people, and have enjoyed the people I get to meet thousands of them, really. I’ve met all the governors going back to the late Dean Davis.”
However, if things don’t change soon, one governor he’ll never meet, at least while he is in office, is the current governor, Peter Shumlin. He is not seeking re-election come the general election in November.
In the early days of his radio career, he even met President Eisenhower when he was on a re-election campaign visit to Franconia, New Hampshire. The radio station had a microphone that had the call letters WIKE on it (WIKE is one of Bruce James’ sister stations in Derby. For decades, WIKE was located in Newport). That was the microphone they sent Mullally to cover the event in which the president was speaking. There was a problem, though. Mullally didn’t have press credentials to be at the event, and there were Secret Service all around that could have easily removed him. He remembers being intimidated, but he said when the president saw the microphone with his nickname on it as part of the call letters, “IKE,” he took the microphone right away and spoke into it, Mullally recalled.
“He held it right in his hand!” he said. It’s a moment in his career he remembers crystal clear. “I can’t remember what year it was… I was scared to death!”
There are parts of any job one likes more than others. For Mullally, he recalls with deep fondness the approximately 20 years of being on the road covering high school sports with his co-workers. He covered football, basketball, and just about every other sporting event at St. Johnsbury Academy and Lyndon Institute. He also covered some of the many sporting events held at other schools.
“The kids were always so tickled to see somebody covering their games,” Mullally said. He was on the road about every night during sports seasons.
Mullally has a deep love of those he works with, and many of those he worked with in the past. They are like a second family to him.
“They are the number two love of my life,” he said of his radio family.
Number three in his list of loves is the Caledonia County Fair, which he has been a director of, having been recruited decades ago to announce the cavalcade one year when the announcer was nowhere to be found, an opportunity he said panicked him at first. The man showed up at the last minute, so he didn’t have to fill in.
The president of the fair, Dick Lawrence, was only in sixth grade when he said he first remembers meeting Mullally. That year the Lyndonville Rotary Club presented Lawrence with a Holstein calf, which he went on to show at the Eastern States Exposition. Thinking back to that day makes Lawrence sentimental, as the old friends talked on the radio live on a recent morning about the fair they both love, spreading the word for locals about this year’s special events.
Mullally is a fixture and a lifelong friend to the fair, Lawrence said. He is devoted to preserving its agricultural roots, and is a great supporter of the community spirit that keeps the fair vibrant. Throughout the years, Mullally helped with many other broadcasting duties at the fair, many as a volunteer. Today he is often seen on the golf cart wearing goofy sunglasses, offering rides and smiles to all he passes. He helps out at a few of the children’s events, including the ice cream eating contest, and the pig scramble, which he announces for and adores.
For Mullally, volunteering at the fair goes back to the ’50s, about as long as his radio career. “I’ve always loved it,” he said of his fair volunteerism every August. He has served as an active director.
He is a friendly sight who people love to see, said friend and longtime fellow fair director, Tom Warren, who is also a neighbor of Mullally’s. Every morning of the fair, Warren, who has known Mullally since his own high school years, said Mullally visits the farmers who bring their livestock, thanking them for being there.
In recent years, Warren lost his sight for about a year and a half before surgery restored it. Every morning, no matter the weather, Mullally trudged across the street when he came home from the radio station and read Warren the entire Caledonian-Record newspaper to keep him up on sports and local affairs.
“It was really special that he would do that,” said Warren, who worked at the radio station as a young man, where he first met Mullally.
“He’s been a great friend,” Warren said. “He is a terrific person. Don has a wonderful sense of humor, too. He takes everything in stride.” He said Mullally keeps his views on politics independent, and never is biased in his announcing, a true professional in his work, who he said still never misses a beat.
“His mind is still crystal-clear and very strong,” Warren said. “He’s just a wonderful person and a great man to know. He has a heart of gold. You could never meet a nicer person. He never pretends. He doesn’t have to because he is sincere.”
Dick Therrien, who works as a sales manager at the radio station with Mullally, said, “He’s the one person we all just love to see. We all just think the world of him. He’s always got a smile on his face, and he’s a happy little guy.”
Therrien remembers how excited Mullally would be covering his high school games back years ago. “He’d get so excited the numbers would about come off the game boards!” Therrien said. “He’s always been a great community supporter.”
Mullally’s love for his job and for the communities the station serves has not gone unnoticed.
“He’s a legend,” Therrien said. “He’s always done a great job every day. We hope he stays forever.”
May the voice of Don Mullally continue to echo across the sound waves of the Northeast Kingdom for many more years to come.
Amy Ash Nixon, who lives in Kirby, is no stranger to the Vermont writing world. In addition to contributing to the Northland Journal, she is a reporter for the Caledonian-Record in St. Johnsbury.