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Obituary of James Charles White Jr.: 20-year host of 'the vampire shift' at KMOX

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 4, 2009 - Though he had been gone for a decade, KMOX Radio has turned over its website to the man who once listed his occupation as "curmudgeon" and dubbed himself "The Big Bumper."

At the radio station that calls itself "The Voice of St. Louis," few voices were better known or more welcome than that of James Charles White, who held forth on KMOX's "Vampire Shift" for 20 years. Jim White died in Pensacola, Fla., Wednesday (Sept. 2, 2009) of complications from surgery. He was 73.

Mr. White was born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pa., and attended Penn State, where he studied engineering. But the stars soon aligned to ensure that Mr. White would find his life's calling: radio.

By the time he was 21, he had begun his radio career at NBC in Pittsburgh, trying his hand as a Top 40 disc jockey. The late Bob Hardy was in need of announcing help and recruited Mr. White, whom he'd heard on the air in Pittsburgh. Mr. White joined KMOX on St. Patrick's Day in 1969 to serve as assistant news director. He went on to have a number of management roles as well as on-air work, including a Friday night dating show. But he found his true calling when he took over the 10 p.m.-2 a.m. time slot, from which he retired in 1999. He was number one in that slot for the entire 20 years.

His show, with its wide-ranging topics that consisted primarily of interaction with a call-in audience from 44 states rather than guests, was characterized by Mr. White's impatience. He would readily comment on what he believed to be a less than stellar opinion: "You can't fix stupid," he would say.

"At that hour of the night, you get some very strange calls," said KMOX news director John Butler who worked with Mr. White during his final four years at the station. "I think sometimes people called him up to egg him on to see what he'd say. But if they didn't make any sense, he'd move on to the next call."

Posted on the KMOX website is a case in point:

WHITE: Hi, this is Jim.

CALLER: Jim, I think you were rude to that girl.

WHITE: Goodnight!

"But it was all in good fun," Butler said. "The Jim White on the air was not the Jim white you talked to. In person, he was a very sincere guy and very warm."

Upon learning of Mr. White's death, the KMOX website, a technology in its infancy when Mr. White retired, became the place for listeners to reminisce. From the police officer in Mississippi, to the former overnight postal worker, to the man who declared, "I am 42 and Jim was a part of my life as long as memory serves me," the memories piled on.

Joining in the cavalcade was Steve Moore, KMOX's director of programming and operations, who never worked with Mr. White, having joined the station in 2000, a year after Mr. White's departure. Moore, a St. Louis native, had listened from childhood.

"I was mesmerized by him and fascinated by what he did on the radio, going on the air and mixing it up," Moore said.

Moore, who credits Mr. White in part for his career choice, was also amazed at his depth and breadth of knowledge.

"How does somebody know that much about that many things?" Moore asked. "He was smart, and he had an opinion on everything from politics to food, to technology, to travel and family. Everything."

Like most people, Moore recalled that Mr. White didn't take much lip.

"Jim was different than other broadcasters. He did a caller-driven show, but it wasn't the typical polite radio. Growing up I was rebellious, so I loved it," Moore laughed. "But if he felt he got a good caller on the line, he would sit and just have a conversation. He was in search of good radio and he found it. He was terrific."

KMOX news anchor Carol Daniel, remembers Mr. White's hospitality when she came to St. Louis in 1995:

"As a young woman in a male-dominated business who was dealing with a new town, a new job and pregnant to boot, I always felt like I could talk to him, and when you are working the late shift and overnight shift in radio, you better hope there's someone like Jim White there to talk to. It was always clear that family meant the most to him.

"Jim White was a rare breed in this business. He was serious about what he did, but he never seemed to take himself too seriously. He had high expectations but he was kind enough that you never felt like he would turn his back on you if you occasionally missed the mark."

Butler had experienced Mr. White's kindness.

"When I was the new guy to St. Louis in 1995, my wife and I went sailing up and down the Mississippi River with Jim and his wife. He was just a super guy."

As every listener knew, Mr. White's great hobby was sailing. In fact, he spent four days of every week, leaving each Wednesday, living on his boat. As he had promised 10 years earlier in anticipation of retirement, when the day came, he set sail in his 50-foot yacht from St. Louis down the Mississippi, up the East Coast, through the Great Lakes, and back down to St. Louis.

When Mr. White signed off from KMOX for the last time, he left this bit of wisdom, tinged with his usual acerbic humor:

"I haven't seen this many phone calls for a live person in a long time. It's very gratifying. It's been a great run. Don't trust anyone who doesn't have at least two hobbies. Do two nice things for yourself every day. Never too late to have a happy childhood and life is good. The Big Bumper leaves the building."

But there's no black crepe hanging at KMOX.

"We remember him as a broadcaster," Butler said. "Jim was all about having fun. So we are looking at the lighter side of Jim. We miss him, but we are not morose."

Mr. White’s survivors include his wife, Pat, and two daughters, Holly and Heidi.  Memorial services will be at 11 a.m., Tuesday, Sept. 8, at St. Andrew By The Sea church in Gulf Shores, Ala. In lieu of flowers, donations would be appreciated to:St. Andrew By The Sea.Music Fund, 17263 Fort Morgan Road, Gulf Shores, AL 36542  (251-968-3900);Christian Service Center, P.O. Box 882, Gulf Shores, AL 36547  (251-968-5256), orSalvation Army, 3949 Forest Park Ave., St. Louis, MO 63108-3211 (314-535-0057).

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service.