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O'Dell says goodbye at Metropolis show with '300 of my closest friends'
By Ted Cox | Daily Herald Columnist

Spike O'Dell of WGN Radio does his last show from the Metropolis in Arlington Heights Friday.


Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

Lt. Gov Pat Quinn talks with Spike O'Dell of WGN Radio during the host's last show Friday.


Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

At the end of his last show, Spike O'Dell of WGN Radio is congratulated by Orion Samuelson.


Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

Spike O'Dell of WGN Radio gets a hug from Dave Eanet of sports at the end of his last show at the Metropolis, Arlington Heights..


Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

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Published: 12/12/2008 10:20 AM | Updated: 12/12/2008 1:28 PM

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Spike O'Dell said goodbye to his millions of listeners bolstered and applauded by what he called "300-some of my closest friends" when he did his last show on WGN 720-AM from the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in Arlington Heights Friday.

Although it wasn't originally scheduled to be a farewell broadcast, O'Dell's retirement coincided with the stop on the station's "Hometown Voices Tour," and it gave the longtime radio host a fitting sense of closure after 21 years at WGN-AM, the last eight as the city's top-rated morning host.

"I'm not really good with audiences, because I'm very nervous with people looking at me and in front of me, but this felt very comfortable," O'Dell said afterward. "It was very cool. It was a touching and appropriate way to end the whole thing."

Metropolis Executive Director Jim Jarvis said people started showing up at 1:30 for the 5 a.m. broadcast, braving temperatures barely above zero. Doors opened at 4 for the distribution of wristbands, and seating began at 4:30. Once the show began, someone had to leave for someone else to gain admission, but eventually 565 loyal listeners were seated at some point or other. Only six who came in the last half-hour failed to get in, and even at that they threw open the doors to the auditorium in the end so that everyone could hear O'Dell's final goodbye. It was as understated, humble and straightforward as he had been throughout his radio career.

"It was a good ride," he said. "I've had fun. And thank you." His eyes might have been a little misty at the moment, and his voice quavered a little, but otherwise he steered away from an emotional farewell. He received a standing ovation and threw his headphones into the crowd.

Bill Carlsen of Willowbrook said there were about 15 people in line when he got there at 2:30. "My wife and I have been just crazy fans about him," Carlsen said, having seen him at other remote broadcasts as well. "We just had to come out. So we came out yesterday, stayed overnight at a hotel, had a couple of drinks, had a good time, came down here and practically froze to do it.

"We're gonna miss him," Carlsen added. "He's so down-to-earth."

That was exactly the sentiment shared by Dennis Horstman of Arlington Heights. "I moved into the city about the same time Spike moved over," having come from the Quad Cities to WGN-AM in 1987, while Horstman was from northwest Iowa, "and I've been listening to him ever since.

"To me, he's a real-down-to-earth, small-town kind of guy, as I am," Horstman added.

O'Dell's last show displayed that what made him such a rare talent in radio was exactly that commonness he shared with his audience. When he blew a cue, he said, "What are they gonna do, fire me?"

The many former co-workers and colleagues who came for O'Dell's last show paid testimony to his legacy. News anchors Annie Maxfield, Tom Petersen and Lyle Dean all showed up, as did weather forecaster Roger Triemstra. Dan Fabian, the general manager who first brought him to WGN-AM from the Quad Cities, also put in an appearance.

Throughout, the mood was jovial, not mournful. "Don't make me cry now," O'Dell joked at one point. "I'm gonna try to get through this." Yet more typical was the way he strung out the weather forecast by asking, "What's the weather forecast in Nashville - just for the weekend, and the rest of my life." Having squirreled away much of his salary, which peaked at a million dollars the last few years, O'Dell will retire to Nashville, where his grown children live.

"I will miss it, that's for sure," he said later. "But I'm also looking forward to a new chapter, doing different things, maybe going back to school a little bit. So yeah, I told my wife if she followed me to the age of 55, I'd follow her after that."

Political commentator Paul Green read, "An Ode to Spike," and there was a running gag with John Williams, who will replace O'Dell as morning host next week, calling in and claiming to be outside waiting in line, before he eventually came in and had the torch passed.

"He's just so homey, and he's just a good guy," said Joan Tobin of Arlington Heights. "I'm going to miss him. But John Williams is going to be great, too."

Arlington Heights Mayor Arlene Mulder proclaimed it Spike O'Dell Day, and the St. Viator Symphonic Band performed early on in the show.

Yet the best send-off might have come from O'Dell's old news colleague Dean. "Congratulations," he said. "Enjoy sleeping in."