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REX CAMPBELL: THE DEAN OF UTAH BROADCASTING

Published: Friday, March 17 1995 12:00 a.m. MST

"It's not the kind of work you do," William Lewis Campbell told his son, Rex, six decades ago, "it's how well you do it."

This month Rex L. Campbell, 75 - the dean of Utah broadcasting - retired from KSL Radio (AM-1160) after 50 years at the station. He broadcast his final "The Sunday Sound of Music" program on March 4, and on March 11 the show served as a farewell tribute to the radio legend, who had handled the mix of poetry, prose and music for 35 years.Campbell's father would have been proud of his son's long and varied career, which included not only radio but also teaching at the University of Utah, work in the theater and helping to launch Utah's first public television station.

Few, if any, approach Campbell when it when it comes to quality broadcasting. His diction and enunciation are flawless, his mellifluous tones unmatched. His vocabulary seems boundless. He has earned renown as the state's longest continuous radio announcer.

As it turned out, in terms of his broadcasting career, Campbell's parents were on the mark when they named him Rex LeRoy. "Rex" in Latin means king, and the French "LeRoy" also translates as "the king," as Campbell admits with a smile.

And at 6-foot-6 without shoes, Campbell has the stature for the role as well. His height seems to equal and complement the majesty of his voice. Although the years are catching up with him in mobility, his voice is as pleasurable and consistent as ever.

Meeting this giant of a man in person more than matches expectations.

Before a morning interview, Campbell and his wife, Fern, are in front of their Holladay home, sprucing up the yard on an unusually warm winter day. After 25 years they pamper their residence as if it were still an entry in the Parade of Homes, which it was in 1970. (The derivation of the name Campbell also seems significant: It means "beautiful camp" - and the Campbells keep their home as beautiful as possible.)

After a walk through their yard, a tour of the Campbell home reveals there's far more to this veteran than broadcasting. Inside the residence are countless books, pieces of art donated by his students from University of Utah classes and mementos of his loves in life.

Campbell, who prefers the original two-word pronunciation of his family name - "Camp-Bell" - makes it clear that his wife of more than 50 years is the most important of those loves.

"I think one of the great aspects of my life is my precious wife," he said. For one thing, "she's a super cook."

He then told the story of how he met Fern.

During World War II, Campbell served in the Signal Corps' military intelligence for four years, learning and cracking Japanese codes. While stationed in Edmonton, Canada, he took a stroll in the photo studio and saw a portrait of a lovely woman on the wall; she seemed to be his dream girl.

About two weeks later he attended an LDS Church meeting in the area, and there she was singing in the choir. After the meeting he met her and asked to take her to dinner. She instantly stretched out both arms toward him. Eight months later they were married, in 1944.

Campbell spent the first 10 years of his life in Montpelier, north of Bear Lake. However, he was born in a car somewhere in Idaho's Magic Valley, while his mother was en route to the hospital in Twin Falls. The family moved to Salt Lake City in about 1930.

He attended South High School, and his voice talents were already apparent, as he performed in theatrical productions for the school.

"I love drama and Shakespeare," Campbell said.

He also found time to play junior high and high school basketball. One teacher encouraged him to get into radio broadcasting after graduation.

After a year at the U. and an LDS mission to the Southern states, Campbell was drafted and entered the Signal Corps.

After the war, in November 1945, he applied for his first radio job.

"I went right to KSL for an audition, and they hired me the same day," he said.

In those days, KSL broadcast from atop the sixth floor of the Union Pacific Building on Main Street and South Temple. Campbell did his first station break there and soon became KSL's chief announcer and later its program director.

Ever hear the traditional bell that sounds at the top of each hour on KSL? That's called the "Nauvoo Bell," and Campbell and LDS Church President David O. McKay started that tradition in the 1950s.

Campbell also recalls doing Saturday evening big-band music broadcasts on KSL from Saltair in the 1950s. Today he still enjoys that style of music. He inherited many old KSL music albums, which have become part of his basement record library.

In 1958 Campbell switched to part-time duties at KSL so he could help start KUED-TV with Keith M. Engar, theater chairman at the U. Campbell later was a member of the national committee that helped launch "Sesame Street," though he's remained generally unsung for his work on that national show as well as Utah's first educational TV channel.

He served for 10 years as the director of TV and radio at the U. before leaving the post because of time constraints. Campbell believes even though Ch. 7 has become more of a public broadcasting station today, as opposed to an educational channel, it still offers quality programming and has remained true to its mission.

"KUED is doing a good job, and KBYU too."

Campbell is best remembered by many for his morning newscasts on KSL in the 1970s and into the early 1980s.

"Good morning, everyone" were the three familiar words he used to lead off the start of each precisely announced newscast.

Besides broadcasting, Campbell made time to teach at the U. He spent 30 years there and made it a tradition to invite his honor students into his home, though he said his superiors did not like him doing so.

He looked across his colorful and cozy basement living room, stocked with a hundred or more neatly stacked books on the floor, toward a chair and recalled that's where one of his more intelligent and beautiful honor students once sat and wondered where she is now.

"I miss teaching like nothing in my life," he said, explaining he's now a professor emeritus at the U. He taught communication, philosophy and other courses over the years at the university.

He occasionally sees former students around town. He just wishes his memory were as sharp at remembering names and faces as it used to be.

The pleasure of being recognized and greeted by a former student "is more compensating than money," he said.

Campbell has a bachelor of science degree from the U. in general science and a doctorate in philosophy. Besides teaching, he had prominent roles in university theater productions over the years.

Many of his passions are readily visible on the wall during a tour of his home - sunflowers, roses, leaves, poetry, books, outdoor scenery, cats, Abraham Lincoln.

One room is a museum of sorts. An old-time radio there seems to serve as the room's centerpiece. (Yes, it's tuned to KSL.)

On the wall are a variety of awards, including some one might not expect. There's a Silver Beaver Scouting award, for instance, and a Sons of Utah Pioneers plaque, amid all the honor society and professional awards.

Campbell is diabetic and recently lost two toes on his left foot. He has to wear special shoes - but that doesn't stop him from taking three-mile walks daily with his wife.

"I love being with her," he said.

He proclaims walking to be the best of all sports. He isn't a big fan of other sports because he thinks they stress competition far too much. He believes cooperation should outweigh competition in today's world.

The Campbells have two daughters, Kathy and Dorothy. Fern Campbell didn't work when the children were young but earned a nursing degree when they were teenagers.

What does Campbell think of radio broadcasting today?

He dislikes KSL's current lack of daytime music but still listens to its talk format, since it's one of the best around.

"I don't like the way people pronounce today," he said, noting that broadcasters in the 1940s couldn't get away with mispronouncing anything.

Proper pronunciation and dignity were keys words for radio broadcasters in those days, said Campbell, who served as the official word pronouncer for some Deseret News spelling bees in the 1980s.

One of common phrases that irks Campbell is, "Who are you going to vote for?" It should be "For whom will you vote?"

He also doesn't care for the dress code, or lack of one, followed by today's broadcasters.

"We had to come dressed in a suit," he said of radio days past. "I think in those years announcing in radio was a top profession."

Campbell still dresses in a suit and laments the loss of a "professional" status among radio broadcasters.

Their predecessors in the 1940s and 1950s were not allowed to ad-lib, either, he said. Every comment was carefully written down.

"We didn't depend on high ratings," he said of those days.

He is less than fond of much of contemporary culture, particular what he sees as a certain moral degeneration. Broadcasting comes in for particular displeasure.

"I've never seen so much deterioration in quality programming." Sex, speed and noise are what he defines as the major themes in TV and radio today, where shock and disgust rank high.

He never listens to FM radio but does sometimes watch the "The Late Show With David Letterman" on TV, knowing he'll be shocked at how far it goes with bad language.

"I watch it because I can't believe it," he said.

If he has found a guidepost for living, he said, it's probably the motto of the fraternity Phi Beta Kappa, of which he is a member: "the love of wisdom as a guide to life."

Amid his longevity and accomplishments there have also been dark times for Campbell. His only son, Michael, committed suicide in the early 1970s. Some years earlier, Campbell had discovered the body of another broadcaster who had taken his own life. And World War II, especially the Holocaust, affected him deeply.

"I'll never forget that experience. We all cried."

Campbell also still feels a loss from the recent death of Engar, a close friend and associate for many years.

With his work at KSL now apparently behind him, what's ahead for Rex Campbell?

"I don't like retirement. I thought it would be a pleasure, but it's a perpetual boredom," he said.

KSL's recent decision to move his Sunday show from mornings to evenings probably prompted him to retire. He couldn't accept a change in programming for his show, which had begun at the same time for 35 years - at 9:05 a.m., just before the Mormon Tabernacle Choir broadcast.

Aaron Wilhelm, producer of the Sunday radio show on KSL, describes Campbell as a pioneer, a legend.

"Generations have grown up with this show," Wilhelm said.

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