Mr. Saint Johnsbury | Music Feature | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Mr. Saint Johnsbury 

Local DJ Don Mullally has been the talk of the town for nearly six decades

Published December 14, 2011 at 11:28 a.m.

At 6:00 on a weekday morning, Don Mullally is starting his three-hour show. Settled into his chair in the cluttered basement studio of WSTJ-AM in St. Johnsbury, he reads news headlines of the day and a string of public service announcements, then flips on some canned music — or cues up vinyl on the turntable — with practiced ease. And he’s had a lot of practice: Mullally started at the station in 1952. He is now 83, and shows not the slightest inclination to slow down.

Age has brought a slight quaver to his otherwise sonorous baritone, but when Mullally speaks, several generations of local listeners recognize him instantly. Long ago, he acquired the sobriquet “the voice of the Northeast Kingdom,” and no one is likely to inherit it: His is the only remaining live show on WSTJ.

But for a few years off here and there — including two terms as a side judge — Mullally has been in radio for more than half a century. He’s earned his share of accolades and awards along the way, including one for Distinguished Service from the Vermont Association of Broadcasters. He was inducted into that organization’s Hall of Fame in 2001.

Whether he’s interviewing hometown schoolchildren or a high-level politician, Mullally is “synonymous with that station,” says Ken Squier, owner of WDEV in Waterbury. He praises the DJ for his community mindedness and relevance. “If you’re not relevant,” Squier adds, “radio is as antiquated as the horse and buggy. Don stands as the representative of what radio needs to be.”

State Sen. Vince Illuzzi (R-Essex/Orleans) concurs. “When I first ran for office in 1980, everyone said I had to get on Don’s show,” he recalls. “The locally owned stations are the ones people come to rely on.”

Mullally isn’t just a disembodied voice on the radio; he’s a presence outside the booth, too. He was a singer in a local big band in his younger years, and an actor with the St. Johnsbury Players (“I’m just a ham,” he says about his stage time). He sings in the church choir and has been a director of the Caledonia County Fair forever. He’s also a member of just about every charitable organization in town. In fact, Mullally recently received a plaque honoring his perfect attendance for 31 years at the St. J Kiwanis Club. That’s a lot of commitment, especially because the organization’s Monday-night meetings rub up against his early bedtime.

Though he’s worked pretty much every shift at WSTJ over the years, Mullally has manned the 6 to 9 a.m. slot, Monday through Friday, for more than a decade. He gets up at 3 a.m. to prepare and make his way to the station at the top of Concord Avenue.

This bastion of hyperlocal radio is, to put it delicately, humble. The former cellar hole of a barn, it clings to a precipitous hillside, and its dark-red exterior echoes that of its past incarnation. The administrative offices are on the upper level, three cramped studios below — WSTJ is cheek-by-jowl with the Notch and Kix, rock and country FM stations, respectively. Mullally can see, and sometimes hear, his fellow morning DJs through glass panes in the walls between them. The Notch’s Ed Garcia can get a “little rambunctious,” Mullally says with grandfatherly indulgence.

The décor here could be called vintage, but not in the trendy sense — nothing is new except the inevitable computers. The large, red analog clock in Mullally’s studio dates to the station’s early years, when original owner E. Dean Finney called it WTWN. Beneath the clock sits a plastic bin filled with CDs Mullally has brought from home — mostly the likes of Rosemary Clooney, Ella Fitzgerald and his favorite, Frank Sinatra.

The station doesn’t have a budget for buying music; nearly everyone gets it online. But this doesn’t work for Mullally — he’s the first to admit he isn’t “a computer person.” It may be the nearest he gets to complaining. “Anybody who wants to get into broadcasting now,” he laments, “they have to be a computer nut.”

Mullally is visibly fond of WSTJ’s building and its history, showing a visitor around like he’s introducing a rumpled old friend. He steps outside to explain the original architecture of the building. Inside, he points out the wall beside the steep flight of stairs, filled with award plaques and framed documents; the tiny, windowless original studio; the bathroom, which someone has labeled “Studio X.” Long accustomed to the unpolished environs, Mullally seems not to notice the slightly buzzing fluorescent lights or disarrayed ceiling tiles overhead. What matters are the listeners he knows are out there — the microphone his link to their ears.

On the air, it’s a little disquieting to hear this cheerful, kindly octogenarian obliged to utter lines such as “Herman Cain’s consensual sexual affair” — referring to the (former) presidential wannabe — or even reporting on some Vermont miscreant arrested for domestic violence or holding up a convenience store. But then, someone who’s been on the radio since Harry Truman was president has heard, and read, his share of unsavory stories.

Even so, Mullally’s voice subtly relaxes when he ticks off numerous local events, such as a blood drive in Lyndonville — “all types are urgently needed!” — a toy collection for needy children in St. J., an open house at Pete’s Greens in Craftsbury or Santa’s arrival for an annual holiday celebration. No event is too insignificant. A church supper? Of course. He’ll even reveal what’s for dessert. Mullally seems to relish being the guy who tells listeners what’s happening in their world and, perhaps more importantly, in their smaller circle, defined by the 60-mile radius that WSTJ’s 1000 watts embrace. These goings-on are the lifeblood of a place, and almost no one cares for his place more than Don Mullally.

“Don is an icon in this community,” says Bruce James, owner of WSTJ, the Notch, Kix and two other radio stations in Vermont. “Everybody loves him — we love him.”

James, now 60, fondly remembers listening to Mullally as a child from his grandparents’ house in St. J. “I thought Don was the most professional announcer I’d ever heard,” he says. “When I was in third grade, our class took a field trip to the radio station, and it was a thrill to see Don. It’s such a coincidence to come to this full circle.”

One of the things he likes about WSTJ, James notes, is that “the feel of the station is the station we grew up with.”

State Sen. Jane Kitchel (D-Caledonia/Orange) feels much the same. “He was just sort of that voice,” she recalls of Mullally. Raised in a large farming family in Danville, she says, “We always had the radio on, so many of the cows in the area would have heard him, too.” Now 66, Kitchel has known Mullally for decades both on air and off. In turn, he’s followed her career with the keen interest he’s shown for every politician, from presidents to local officials.

Like locally owned newspapers, Kitchel observes, “Radio connects the community with what’s going on, what the issues are, who the candidates are and what their values are.”

Though Mullally pointedly says he’s politically independent, he speaks with unabashed affection of Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy. When the St. Johnsbury Chamber of Commerce named Mullally Citizen of the Year, in 1991, he received a special gift from the senator: a flag that had flown over the Capitol. Two years later, Leahy entered Mullally in the Congressional Record with a proclamation about his achievements.

Mullally’s admiration is reciprocated. “Don Mullally is a longtime friend and the quintessential Mr. St. Johnsbury,” Leahy writes in an email. “In the tradition of Vermont’s best broadcasters, Don has always been committed to the communities he serves so well.” Leahy singles out Mullally’s talk shows and his legendary coverage of high school sports with former colleague Doug Drown. “When I think of outstanding live and local radio,” the senator concludes, “I think of Don.”

“Mr. St. Johnsbury” was born in West Somerville, Mass., Mullally reveals during an interview at his daughter’s home atop another of the town’s many hills. Mullally and his wife, Vel, moved in with Lynda Mullally-Baker in 1995. Their furry companions are a pug named Maxine, a shih tzu named Tyson and two cats, Muffin and Tina.

Mullally explains that his parents moved to Montpelier when he was 5, and to St. J when he was 10. He attended elementary school there, and then St. Johnsbury Academy, but dropped out in 1946 to join the Navy. “I was a radio operator seaman for one and a half years,” he says, noting that his job was primarily telegraphy transmission. Though naval communication has nothing to do with commercial broadcasting, his radio foundation was an omen of things to come.

When he returned to St. J after the Navy, Mullally finished high school, married Velvier Findley of Randolph (their 62nd wedding anniversary was last week) and worked several jobs, including ones at a haberdashery and a furniture store. “Because of the Navy experience, I thought [working on] cruise ships would be fun,” he says, “but that didn’t work out.”

Instead, in 1952, Mullally answered a newspaper help-wanted ad and applied for a job at WTWN. He had attended a radio-technician school in Massachusetts, but failed to pass his exams. “At that point, you had to have your FCC third-class license to take the readings on the dials,” he recalls. “I told them I had one, but I didn’t, really.”

And so Mullally’s radio career started off with “a little white lie,” his daughter teases.

“I could always read and talk,” Mullally says with a shrug and mischievous grin.

He’s certainly proved he can do the job. Mullally started on the night shift at what was then just a 250-watt station. “It was all live then,” he reminisces. “At one time there were about 13 to 15 employees.”

He eventually “graduated” to a day shift, created an interview show called “Viewpoint,” read news and those community announcements, and played music and Red Sox and Patriots games. As Leahy points out, Mullally also developed a reputation, along with Doug Drown, for delivering live commentary and analysis of local high school sports; the duo even traveled to away games. Mullally says he enjoyed keeping up with the kids. Of course, he and Vel had kids of their own — first Lynda, then Don Jr. and Michael — and, later, grandkids.

Today, Don Jr. works at IBM in Essex. Michael works in the CT lab at Fletcher Allen Radiology. Lynda worked as a legal secretary for the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington, D.C., for 32 years, she says. When she finally returned home to Vermont, she tried several jobs and then spent 11 years at WSTJ herself, the last six of them with her dad. “We used to banter with each other,” she says. “We had such a good time.” Lynda left the station in 2008.

But she recalls when just getting to the station could be a slog. There were times in the winter when her dad’s car couldn’t make it up that long, long hill. That’s when “everybody would offer him a ride,” Mullally-Baker says. “Everybody knew him.”

“Some of those snow days could be a pain in the neck,” Mullally muses. “I got stung a few times by pranksters who would call and say school was out.”

Vel Mullally has compiled several scrapbooks — newspaper clippings, photographs, event programs and the like — chronicling her husband’s career. Don dressed in a dapper sports coat and tie, dark hair slicked back, on the air. Don on stage in a St. Johnsbury Players production. Don with the much taller Sen. Patrick Leahy. Don wearing a grass skirt, emceeing an event. “Dad would do anything for anybody; all you had to do was ask,” Mullally-Baker says.

Looking through the scrapbooks with a visitor triggers some of his fondest, and funniest, memories. There was the time when he was reporting for both WTWN and owner Finney’s Newport station, WIKE, and went over to Franconia Notch in New Hampshire to see President Dwight D. Eisenhower. “We didn’t have [media] credentials, but we went anyway,” says Mullally. “Security stopped us, but Ike saw my microphone with the nameplate that said ‘WIKE,’ and he liked it. So he held it, and we got a photo.”

In Vermont, getting access to public officials was and still is pretty simple. “There is nobody of prominence in the Northeast Kingdom I haven’t talked to,” Mullally asserts. He’s also talked to all the state’s governors since the ’50s — except the current one. “I haven’t met Gov. Shumlin yet,” he concedes.

Also in the scrapbook is a newspaper account of Mullally getting the Citizen of the Year award in 1991, which reports that chamber members thoroughly roasted him. One choice remark: “Your wife may go to bed with Johnny Carson, but she wakes up with Don Mullally.”

Vel Mullally even saved her husband’s letters from local nuns — nuns! — whose compliments were considerably less prurient. “Your grammar and diction as well as pleasing manner and courteous way of dealing with people has been an example for all of us,” wrote the Sisters of Notre Dame Convent in 1963. The following year, Sr. Aloysius Marie, a principal, congratulated Mullally on his “impeccable command of the English language.”

Besides offering proof that people used to send thank-you notes, the many letters in Vel Mullally’s scrapbooks unfurl a whole spectrum of ways — from sports analysis to entertainment to grammar — in which her husband has touched people’s lives.

Mullally’s family can resurrect plenty of memories about him even without clippings to remind them. Michael Mullally, now 54, recalls going to his dad’s studio “many times.” One day in particular stands out: Don Mullally was interviewing his son and fellow classmates, who were studying culinary arts and preparing to embark on a trip to Paris. “When he came to me,” says Michael, “he called me ‘Michael Johnson.’ That was the name of our school’s athletic director at the time, and I guess Dad just slipped, but he didn’t realize it.”

So, when Mullally asked his son a question, Michael shot back, “‘I don’t know, why don’t you ask Michael Johnson?’” the younger Mullally says with a chuckle.

For his children, Don Mullally’s place in the community was a point of pride — and had its perks. Michael remembers the fun of hanging in the booth when Dad was sportscasting, watching him sing with the big band and participating in theatrical productions. “For every play, we [kids] were either part of the crew, performing or helping out somehow,” he says. “I performed a few times as a child actor.”

When they attended shows Don booked at the Caledonia County Fair, “We used to sit right up on stage,” Michael says. A Chuck Berry concert was especially memorable — and so was his three-page rider with bizarre demands. Don Mullally corralled his kids for charitable works, too, such as staffing the phone banks during a Kiwanis fundraiser, or helping to clean the community swimming pool.

“My dad is one of the most active men I’ve ever known,” Michael says. “I guess I get that from him.”

And perhaps he’s passed it on to his own son. Travis Mullally, 32, grew up in Concord, Vt., and says he heard his grandfather on the radio every day. “He’d announce my birthday on the air,” he says. “When you’re 6, that makes you feel like a celebrity.”

At a young age, Travis was aware of Granddad’s own fame. “Everyone in St. Johnsbury seemed to know him — even when we walked the dog, people would stop and talk to him. I felt like I lived with Brad Pitt.”

Travis, who works at Optical Expressions in the Berlin Mall, applies words sush as “supercool” and “awesome” to his grandfather — accolades too infrequently doled out to eightysomethings. “He’s just this amazing person,” Travis says. “Genuine, warm, caring — it’s just the way he is.”

His grandson’s appreciation only increased when, some 10 years ago, Don Mullally had a stroke. Actually, three: two little ones, followed by a major one. He was away from the radio for at least a year.

“When people found out he’d had a stroke, it was like the king had died,” says Mullally-Baker. “It was constant letters, phone calls, cards, newspaper articles,” she goes on. “People just couldn’t imagine not hearing his voice.” While he recovered, Mullally-Baker handled the radio show on her own.

Today, the only evident legacy of that incident is Mullally’s limp, but it doesn’t seem to slow him down much. And that voice? “Speech-wise, he was affected,” says Travis, “but he worked through it in rehab.”

Mullally tried to retire from WSTJ once, but it didn’t stick. The stroke didn’t keep him away for long, either.

Why does he still do it? “My mouth still works,” Mullally quips. “I just like to be around, that’s all.”

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About The Author

Pamela Polston

Pamela Polston

Pamela Polston is a cofounder and the Art Editor of Seven Days. In 2015, she was inducted into the New England Newspaper Hall of Fame.


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