This year’s Newport Daily Express’ Citizen of the Year Award goes to 84-year-old Bill Graham of Newport City.
Graham, who was born in Brooklyn, NY, moved with his family to Cambridge, MA, and then to Concord, N.H. While in high school, Graham joined the Sea Scouts. Graham briefly left high school to do a two-year stint in the Navy.
Back then, it was very common for young men to quit school to join the service during the World War II era, said Graham.
Graham, who spent his time on the USS A.J. Isbell, never saw war action. His ship cruised up and down the Atlantic and did "shake down" crews in Guantanamo. This was the first time Graham had ever been in a tropical area.
Graham was a radio officer on the ship. One night he broadcasted music over the ship’s public address system, a preview, perhaps, of his later life in radio broadcasting.
Graham left the navy and returned to high school. After graduation, he went to work at the Rumford Press in Concord, NH. He was in line for a promotion when he quit and went to Leland Powers School of Radio and Theater in Boston.
Graham’s first radio job was at WKBC in North Wilkesboro, N.C. He remained there a year before returning to New England. Graham eventually interviewed with Dean Finny from WTWN in St. Johnsbury. Finny offered Graham a job at WIKE in Newport. Graham accepted and started working on Nov. 8, 1952, a month after the station signed on the air.
Graham worked his way through the ranks and eventually became station manager. During his time at WIKE, Graham served on the board of the Vermont Association of Broadcasters. For two years, he served as vice-president and two years as president. His duties included running the annual conventions.
Graham married a local girl, Lorene Armstrong, and liked living in Newport, so he elected to stay and not move to a station with better pay. Of the radio station, he said: “It was my whole life. I was there for a long time. People came and went.”
One of the most difficult stories during Garham’s broadcast career was when President John F. Kennedy was shot. “I was just emotionally torn,” Graham said. “I’ll never forget that.”
In 1980, Graham underwent bypass surgery and never returned to radio. Instead, he took a job doing marketing and public relations work for Community National Bank, where he stayed until his retirement in 1995. That move meant he had time off on the weekends, something he didn’t have in radio.
“As long as that radio station is on the air, you’re responsible for it, even on weekends,” said Graham, who had to fill in for people who couldn’t work. “It was always something to worry about.”
It was also Graham’s responsibility to deal with unhappy listeners.
In 1992, 12 years after Graham left radio, the Vermont Association of Broadcasters named him broadcaster of the year. They also elected him into the Vermont Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame.
“It was quite the honor,” Graham said.
Graham remains active in the American Legion Newport Post#21, Memphremagog Lodge of the Masons and the Newport Rotary Club.