Sunday, December 23, 2012

Remembering Chet - Entry #26

Earlier this month a friend and colleague passed away (  Chet McPhee hosted the classical radio show, on rotating weeks, on the Trinity College radio station, 89.3, in Hartford, CT.  My radio program, “On Broadway,” followed his show.  For over 16 years, maybe more, I got to know Chet during the 15 minutes of overlap before my 5:30pm start time.  Or I thought I knew him.  After reading his obituary and attending his wake I unearthed a more complete picture of this gravelly-voiced, well-loved personality.  

This week I sent a sympathy card to one of his surviving sons.  Chet would always give me a feigned look of exasperation about having to drive there for Sunday dinner.  The last time I chatted with Chet he spoke of the recent trip he and this son took to the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT.  The Goodspeed is one of the most honored regional theaters in the country.  It was the first occasion the two of them had gone together and Chet said they had a great time.  In addition to conveying my condolences I wanted his son to know how much this shared time together meant to Chet.

I had known the three worlds of Chet—jazz aficionado, both as an accomplished musician and radio disc jockey; host of two radio programs, the aforementioned classical show and his longtime morning jazz program, “Sunrise Serenade,” which aired for decades every Friday morning from 6:00 – 9:00 am.; and his coaching history at Trinity College.  I was most familiar with his radio background due to our shared love for college radio.   His encyclopedic knowledge of jazz made him a listener favorite and he brought in big bucks during the yearly station fundraising drive.  Interestingly, he began his stint as a classical dj because there was an opening in the schedule that needed to be filled.  Chet volunteered.  Even though he knew next to nothing about the genre, he studied and listened to recordings and became a very credible classical music host.

I knew Chet was a highly skilled and accomplished jazz musician, but it wasn’t until I attended his wake that I had a better understanding of this part of his life.  As the line  snaked through the funeral parlor there were multiple photo collages displayed as well as a television monitor scrolling through many dozens of pictures.  Most were from his college coaching days, but a good percentage showed him in his younger years, along with members of his jazz trio, adorned in the hip dress of turtle neck and blazer.  Throughout the years Chet would tell me about this gig or that one.  He never stopped playing the bass.  In fact, I believe he had a job lined up for this New Year’s Eve.  Not bad for someone in his early 80’s.

The one part of Chet’s long life I was not too aware of was his college coaching and teaching career.  I knew he was involved in the athletic program at Trinity College in Hartford, but I didn’t think it was too significant.  Goodness, was I wrong.  First, the man earned two Master’s, a Doctorate, and taught at the college.  In all my years, he never once mentioned his high academic achievement.  According to his obituary, Chet “coached freshman football and started a lacrosse program where he coached the varsity team. [Later he] became the head coach of the Men's and Women's Swimming and Diving Teams.”  This was over a span of almost 40 years.  In 2010 a new scoreboard in the school’s natatorium was named for him.  Again, at his wake, there were countless photos with him and his athletic teams.  In line I stood in front of, I believe, the former Trinity College football coach and one of the former captain’s of the Men’s Swim team.  During my 45 minutes in the receiving line (they were expecting over 500 people at the wake) I heard their countless stories of how Chet changed lives and how he was as devoted to his charges as they were of him.  Faculty, staff, and former students flooded the funeral parlor to pay their last respects. 

So, how will I remember Chet McPhee, the man with a voice made for radio?   Good soul, beloved Trinity College alum, jazz connoisseur, and a raconteur always ready to entertain me with a good golf joke or story. 

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