Neighbor Lady’s passing is mourned

Neighbor Lady's passing is mourned
It seemed rather appropriate that we used a red-and-white checkered tablecloth design as the cover for Wynn Speece's book – The Best of the Neighbor Lady by daughter Jill.

After all, Wynn had "visited" thousands of tables in kitchens from the Saskatchewan plains to Kansas wheat fields where untold numbers of her devoted listeners were waiting, with pencils poised, ready to take down her latest recipes, quips, quotes and witty sayings when she was broadcasting over station WNAX. Sadly, she died Oct. 22 at age 90.

I don't exactly remember how I became familiar with Wynn. We were always friendly rivals, but I couldn't boil water, and recipes left me cold, so she always one-upped me. She interviewed me occasionally, and I knew then that she was a real radio pro.

Here's how. We would be talking casually, and she was able to keep it up until it was a few seconds before we were to go in the air; I didn't talk when the clock showed we were five minutes from air time.

Those four minutes and 50-some seconds convinced me that she was a true professional! She could turn it on in an instant with a "Good morning, good friends." She really meant it; no wonder the ladies loved her!

I think our wedding anniversaries really brought us together mostly. Theirs was on Jan. 3, and ours was a day later. We always celebrated them together, doing some silly thing like driving to Sioux City to see Dr. Zhivago – in zero weather yet, when nobody in his right mind would be on the road. But I guess Wynn's Harry and I were not in our right minds then.

It got even better when I talked daughter Jill into writing Wynn's biography. I even agreed to produce a short history of Station WNAX as a preface if it would help her. We could produce it in our own Dakota Homestead Publishers.

Jill was between jobs at the time, so she said "Yes!" The result was The Best of the Neighbor Lady.

There are many things I could say about Wynn. How she was hired as a continuity writer by WNAX for the munificent sum of $20 per week ��which was reduced to $17.50 when the station manager found out about it. He said something like: "I appreciate your work, but no new copy girl ever started here at $20 a week!"

How her first desk at the station was a rickety typewriter table next to a Heinz 57 box. How she became the Neighbor Lady in an off-hand remark by her friend and roommate, Barbara Bates, in the Meet Ma Brown show. And how WNAX had a staff of eight full-time letter openers to handle the 111,743 pieces of mail addressed to the Neighbor Lady in 1949.

On Jan. 3, 1945, the native of Marshalltown, IA, married Harry Speece, a Minnesota boy she met when he was a cadet in a Naval Air Corps V5 program at Yankton College ��and that was the beginning of a whole new story. She became Mrs. Neighbor Lady.

Then, when she became pregnant with her first child, she thought she had to choose between being a mother and her radio career. But the station manager solved that dilemma by allowing her to continue broadcasting from home ��to the delight of her many listeners.

I could go on and on about her, but I would be gilding the lily.

The Wynn Speece story is as American as apple pie. Her awards were many, but just being the Neighbor Lady was best of all.

© 2007 Robert F. Karolevitz

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