On Monday, Oct. 20, 2014, I woke up and did my daily routine. First, I look at my phone. I check emails, messages, Twitter and Facebook. Most days I find I didn’t miss anything important.
But that morning, there was a message from Danny Howard, the manager at Sunny 92.3, WDEF radio. Danny used to invite me to fill in for Luther Masingill during his rare illnesses and vacations. Danny informed me that Luther had passed away overnight, and asked me to come to the studio to reminisce about his life. Of course, I said “I’m on the way,” before realizing I should probably shower and get dressed. In reality, I’m pretty sure I just stood around and processed it for a few minutes.
As you know, Luther was very special to me, and became even more so during the past few years. Even though he was 92, I wasn’t prepared for his death. For most of his life, he had an incredible run of good health. From back in the 1940s, all the way to 2002, he never called in sick. Not once. He loved his job so much, he often came in when he probably shouldn’t have. Starting when he was about 80, he would indeed get sick now and then, and he did miss a few days, when his wife Mary would insist he stay home. But he was what coaches would call a “gamer.” When his number was called, he stepped up to the plate.
He had beaten a couple of serious illnesses in the year before his death, and that may be why I was so surprised when I heard the bad news. In April 2013, he got a urinary tract infection, which is very painful, and often fatal for elderly patients. I went to see him in the hospital, and he was responsive, but weak. Upon leaving, I remember thinking that might be the last time I’d see him. So of course, a week later he was back on radio and TV.
Two months later, in June 2013, he was back in the hospital, this time with pneumonia. Again, at age 91, this was very serious. Many elderly pneumonia patients don’t leave the hospital alive. During this visit, he looked even sicker and weaker than he did in April. He was not as responsive, and honestly, I was sure I’d seen him for the last time. Well, you guessed it. A few days later he was back at work. So you can’t blame me for thinking he could beat just about anything.
As it happened, in mid-July of that year, I was scheduled to do a program about my Chattanooga Radio & TV book at the Tennessee Valley Theater in Spring City, Tennessee. The owner had asked me to put together a show with some pictures, video and jokes to entertain a theater audience. I gladly agreed, and for several weeks I worked on that show. Although I had taken Luther along to some events, I never even considered it this time due to his health problems.
About two weeks prior to the show date, he called me. “David,” he said, “I got a flyer in the mail, and it says you’ll be doing a show in Spring City on July 17. Would you like for me to go?” Of course I would, if he was able to do so. He loved the stories and the memories, and the audiences loved him. I would set up his jokes, and he delivered the punch lines with his great timing. “Luther?” I’d say, “Are you still doing your exercises?” “Absolutely,” he’d reply. “Every morning, I touch the tips of my shoes fifty times.” “Really?” I’d say. “Yes sir,” he would reply. “Then I take those shoes off the dresser and put ‘em on my feet.” I heard that one a few hundred times, and he made people laugh every time.
Anyway, when he asked about the Spring City show, I cautioned him, “It’s about fifty miles away, and it’s late on a Saturday night. Are you sure you’ll feel up to it?” “I’ll tell you what,” he said. “Call me that morning, and I’ll see how I feel.”
So I did. Around 10 o’clock that morning, I called him. “Luther, the show is tonight. Do you feel like going?” “Call me back in about ten minutes,” he said. “I’m buying a new lawnmower.”
Well, he bought his lawnmower, mowed his yard, and went along for the ride to Spring City. We had a great time, and we did all of his jokes. I’m glad I got to spend a little extra time with Luther. To this day, every time I mention his name to an audience, everyone smiles. Yes, even now, Luther leaves them smiling. How’s that for a great legacy?