By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News
Celebrating the wrap of a 45-year career at one radio station is normally grounds for celebration, if not outright amazement.
After all, radio is the most inherently unstable of all media. Great talents are fired at the latest dip in the ratings or simply a boss’ whim. The joke is the smart disc jockey never buys, just rents, and always keeps the phone number of the U-Haul trailer company handy.
Lincolnwood’s Regine Schlesinger thus accepted the congratulations and best wishes of family, friends and admiring colleagues when she finally signed off recently after four and a half decades as a reporter-anchor at WBBM-NewsRadio 78, Chicago’s only all-news radio station.
But the “hook” of the Schlesinger story is not how it finished, but how it began. She was a greenhorn writer fresh out of Northwestern University in 1973, as Watergate began its daily soap opera on WBBM and all other news outlets.
Schlesinger herself calls her start in the business a “miracle.” It required her own grounding in Orthodox Judaism and a leap of faith by John Hultman, the man who hired her, to begin her tenure that would end well into another century.
In a special way, Schlesinger merely followed in the wondrous path of her parents, Chaskel and Margot Schlesinger, Holocaust survivors and beneficiaries of Schindler’s List.
It was rare back then for someone to start at a major radio station in a major city. Most journalism majors had to literally farm themselves out to the likes of Prophetstown and Polo to get their starts for $100 to $150 a week.
Her Northwestern matriculation finishing her education that started at Arie Crown Hebrew Day School and continued at Ida Crown Jewish Academy, West Rogers Park product Schlesinger simply decided to gamble that WBBM would consider a rookie like herself.
“Everywhere I went, they said that’s great, but you need experience,” Schlesinger said of her initial job-seeking. Then she managed to get an audience with Hultman, WBBM’s news director who had arrived a few months before the 50,000-watt CBS-owned station adopted its all-news format in 1968. Hultman was a busy man, doubling with a daily anchor shift.
“For whatever reason, he hired me as a writer,” Schlesinger said. “I have no idea why he hired me. He was willing to take a chance on an unknown kid.”
As with her parents’ World War II survival, timing and a connection with the right man was crucial.
“We needed a writer and she had applied,” said Hultman, who despite retiring a decade ago still comes in as a fill-in anchor. He then issued a perfect understatement: “Obviously, she was a fine writer.”
Ah, but there was a catch to taking on Schlesinger to a job often requiring night and weekend hours.
“I said there’s something I have to tell you,” she said. “I can never work Friday nights and Saturdays during the day. And he said there’s no problem, we’re hiring you for a Monday through Friday shift – 4:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. I said wonderful. I was starting on Oct. 1, and the Jewish holidays were coming up. I told John I have to take off some time immediately.
“John was just so gracious. He said no problem, we’ll work it out. I’ve never had to work on Shabbat or on a Jewish holiday. I took the holidays as vacation days. I’ve worked every Christmas of my career unless it fell on Shabbat. If Christmas fell on my day off, I said I’d be happy to work on that day.”
“(Hultman’s) a mensch, a wonderful man. After the first few months, he got himself a Jewish calendar so he’d tell me you’re going to be taking some time off in a month.”
Hultman knew he had a talent on hand willing to work the oddest shifts to compensate for taking one specific day off. When she made it on-air, Schlesinger would anchor overnights on Saturdays into Sundays, among other tough shifts.
“I respect her for consciously observing her Orthodox traditions, so it was never a question of calling her to work on Saturday,” he said.
She was still a newsroom writer for most of the rest of the Seventies without a logical transition to being on the air. Schlesinger at first encountered a glass ceiling. Almost every studio voice on a major station was male.
Schlesinger’s move from behind the scenes to behind the mic required happenstance and the right man listening at the right time.
CBS News in New York frequently asked staffers at their owned-and-operated stations to do radio reports for the network’s hourly newscasts on events in their cities. The call from Black Rock in the Big Apple came in several times to the newsroom, and Schlesinger just happened to be available to do the voicers.
“I did a couple of things for the network, not thinking it would lead to anything more than I was just being a writer doing the voicers,” Schlesinger said. “At the time the station had an opening for a reporter.
“Bill O’Donnell, the GM then, was driving around and heard one of my pieces on the network. It’s like bashert. He called Hultman and said to interview me for the job. All of a sudden, six years after I was hired as a writer, they asked if I’d like to be a reporter and writer. And I said, ‘Great, why not?’”
Schlesinger was junior reporter on a staff of all-time Chicago voices. Hultman, Dale McCarren and Donn Pearlman held down anchor shifts. By the 1980s, women like Felicia Middlebrooks and Kris Kridell staked out anchor jobs they still hold today. Bob and Betty Sanders lent a homey touch to middays. Bob Crawford was a decades-long legend in City Hall. “He’s the best reporter I’ve heard in my life,” said Schlesinger.” Len Walter is still the go-to man in Chicago financial markets. Joe Cummings had a thousand eyes at night on the police beat.”
Schlesinger worked so many years at the station that a younger colleague who joined the sports staff in 1985 eventually became her final boss.
“She was always very easy going, and an outstanding reporter and anchor,” said Ron Gleason, WBBM director of news and programming. “I certainly got to know her much better when moving into management at Newsradio in 2005. She’s been a tremendous professional, and was one of our most productive reporters. She was quick and she was on point, whether covering the most tragic stories, or previewing a new Broadway-style show coming to town. As an anchor, she always displayed true credibility in her words and the way she sounded.
“We miss her already!”
Schlesinger hit the streets just in time for the ascension of the mercurial Jane Byrne to Chicago’s mayoralty. Even with inevitable reporter-public official conflicts, Byrne was more accessible than today’s politicos. One time Schlesinger had to leave a Byrne speech before it was over. A mayoral functionary came back from Byrne with a hand-written note for Schlesinger’s use.
Schlesinger said she found Harold Washington “very congenial.” Jim Thompson was “very glib.”
Schlesinger never covered as horrific a tragedy as the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre. However, if she had come upon such a scene, she said her job as a reporter would trump her feelings of abject sadness as an observant Jew.
“You do a certain amount of distancing,” she said. “You do your job as professionally as possible. Part of your core as a reporter is your objectivity.”
As it was, Schlesinger was first at the scene of the break in the Chicago River bottom that sprung the 1992 Loop Flood. “Those were very long days,” she said. On a newsroom TV on the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, she saw the first plane crash into the World Trade Center and immediately declared it was a terrorist act rather than an accident, as was first feared. With concerns that the Sears (now Willis) Tower would be the next target, many tens of thousands of workers fled downtown as quickly as possible. But it was all hands on deck at WBBM, Schlesinger included, to cover the biggest story of the 21st. century.
She turned down one big assignment. WBBM wanted to dispatch her to Israel during the 1991 Gulf War to take advantage of her reporting talents and knowledge of Judaism and Israeli sensibilities. But she respectfully declined. Schlesinger had three younger children at home, and the assignment was a hazard with Iraqi Scud missiles being fired at Israel. She also knew the news would not stop for Shabbat. Desiring to observe the day of rest, she stayed in Chicago.
Chaskel and Margot Schlesinger were the proudest behind-the-scenes backers of their daughter with their home radio always tuned to 780. Chaskel, who had been in business in Europe after the war, was a factory worker at Kuppenheimer clothiers. Margot stayed home to raise the family. They brought to America and their homes, first in Uptown and Rogers Park, and then in the northwest corner of West Rogers Park at Sherwin and Francisco, the value of a Jewish education.
After attending Arie Crown, the teen-age Regine schlepped on buses to Lake View to Ida Crown. The West Rogers Park building on Pratt just west of California opened during her junior year. She enjoyed the shorter commute through graduation in 1969.
If Regine talked for a living, largely from scripts, her parents were more glib, talking their way out of jams several times with the Nazis. One time an SS man demanded Margot’s papers. She did not have the correct documents. Chaskel suggested she show the Nazi different papers. They would not have saved them, but somehow the impatient German decided to let them go.
Mistakenly sent to Auschwitz among 300 female workers of savior Oskar Schindler in 1944, Margot Schlesinger actually talked her way out of the death line when addressing the diabolical camp physician Josef Mengele.
“I got very frightened and very pale, and I said, ‘I’m young, I can still work,’ ” she told the USC Shoah Foundation. “So there was another doctor, and he said, ‘Let her go back.’” A Mengele medical colleague told him to let her return to work. The Schindler women were the only ones ever to walk out of Auschwitz on legal authority thanks to their fast-thinking factory-owner.
When Spielberg’s movie was released in 1993, suddenly the elder Schlesingers were inundated with requests to speak. A dutiful Regine typed up their speeches and advised them on speaking.
“After hearing them speak, kids would go up to them and want to touch them,” Regine said.
The Schlesingers led full lives, Chaskel passing away in 1999 and Margot earlier this year at 99.
Once again, Mengele and the two Adolfs, Hitler and Eichman, had failed. Regine got to practice the full measure of free press under the First Amendment that survives the Oval Office assaults today on a maximum-power U.S. station. She and husband-attorney Stuart Meisel, married for 35 years, have three children: attorney Jeremy, who has five children of his own; Rachel, an obstetrics resident at Rush Medical Center, and Ariella, a police officer for Northwestern University whose desire to uphold the law and security was stoked by 9/11.
As now the senior generation Schlesinger, the retired reporter has triumphed over the madmen who made her parents lives so harrowing for a half decade.
“Being Jewish is the most important part of my identity,” she said.
And though off the air, her own work worthy of inclusion in a WBBM Hall of Fame, Schlesinger is still part of another story without end. The conclusion of the film ‘Schindler’s List’ showed all the generations that sprung up from the workers Oskar Schindler saved from the death camps.
Chaskel and Margot Schindler have left behind 30 great-grandchildren.