Mt Pleasant News
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Neighbors Growing Together | Aug 15, 2018

The voice of Mt. Pleasant

Longtime KILJ radio host will bid farewell to audiences at the end of August
Aug 02, 2018
Photo by: Grace King John Kuhens reads the weather live on KILJ on Wednesday, Aug. 1 during the morning show. Kuhens will end his historic 48-year radio career at the end of the month.

By Grace King, Mt. Pleasant News

 

It was the eve of John Kuhens’ 18th birthday when the manager at a new local radio station in Mt. Pleasant took a chance on him, the kid of a dairy farmer, and hired him as a deejay. The rest, as they say, is history.

For 48 years, Kuhens’ boisterous, neighborly voice has been the wake-up call for southeastern Iowans who tune into KILJ. With him, they laughed, cried and celebrated high school sporting championships.

Kuhens will sit down for his final Morning Show on KILJ on Aug. 31, walking out of the studio with a mic drop heard around the world as he retires.

“I’m ready for it,” Kuhens said. “I’m certainly not tired of the job, (but) it’s time for the younger generation to take over. Hopefully I’ve instilled in them some of the fun of being live (on air) and getting to experience making that picture in other people’s minds.”

 

Talk with a smile

Kuhens was only a sophomore in high school when he decided radio would be a pretty cool job. Growing up on a farm, his family constantly had the radio tuned to news and weather forecasts at the kitchen table, in the barn or while out in the fields with a tractor radio.

Kuhens graduated from Starmont High School in Strawberry Point in 1970; three days later, he went to the Professional Institute of Broadcast for a six-week course in radio. As he began applying for jobs, Kuhens received the standard answer of, “Well, if you had experience we could use you.”

“Nobody was really looking for a rookie at that time,” Kuhens said.

Looking back, then KILJ manager Paul Dennison doesn’t have a clear-cut reason for why he hired Kuhens, but he remembers there was just something about the energetic and enthusiastic young man. And with KILJ being a new radio station at the time, Dennison was looking for people to grow with it.

It wasn’t long into Kuhens’ tenure at KILJ when Dennison remembers thinking, “Hey, this guy’s going to be better than me.”

Over the years, Kuhens has been a smile on the radio. It’s his philosophy. There is an unwritten rule at KILJ that when a crew member walks through the door of the station, whether it’s a toothache, a sick family member or something else, it is set aside. When Kuhens opens up the microphone, no one can know about his bad day but him.

“There’s always someone else out there that’s worse off,” Kuhens said. “People are fighting cancer, lost loved ones, lost their jobs or are having financial difficulties. The last thing they want to hear is a guy on the radio telling them how bad it is.”

“John’s always had the attitude that when you come to work and your job is to entertain and inform, you put a smile on your face that puts a smile in your voice,” said Theresa Rose, KILJ News Director and Morning Show Host with Kuhens.

It’s not all work and no play. Kuhens keeps the atmosphere on air and in the KILJ office lighthearted and is known as a jokester when it comes to announcing birthdays and anniversaries.

 

Play-by-play

After the first couple of months on air, Kuhens found sitting in the control room cuing up records and reading live commercials was not quite what he was expecting. Sitting in a studio playing music lacked the social aspect he craved.

Dennison offered him a chance to do some play-by-play at a Danville High School basketball game. After Dennison announced the first quarter of the game, he passed the microphone over to Kuhens.

“No. 2 passes the ball to No. 10. No. 10 takes a shot and misses,” Kuhens announced the game live on-air.

At the first commercial break, Dennison turned to him and said, “You need to use names because people at home don’t have a program to read off.”

“He was very nice about it,” Kuhens said with a chuckle. “Now that I think about it, I think it was nerves more than anything else.”

Once he started using the names of the players, sports broadcasting came easy to him. He had the knack for speaking rapidly, but not too rapidly, and choosing the most important plays to describe for his audience.

The most memorable series of games Kuhens ever announced for was the Danville boys’ basketball team. They were within a few seconds of losing a tournament game in Mt. Pleasant when they were able to shoot some technical free throws and win, taking them to the state tournament.

There, they were down by three points in the first state tournament game. With only a few seconds left on the clock, a Danville player stole the ball from the opposing team and made a half-court shot, sending the game into overtime and again, against all odds, winning the game.

Soon, the Danville boys found themselves in the semifinal round where they once again came back in the last few seconds and pulled out a win. Finally, in the championship game, they were down by at least five points with a minute left to go when Kuhens thought their luck had run out.

“Darned if they didn’t come back and win it. There were steals, shots, stolen balls, free throws, and they pulled out a state championship,” Kuhens said proudly. “That’s the thing about sports. You see all that elation, but you see heartbreak too.”

Mt. Pleasant Community High School (MPCHS) coaches who have worked with Kuhens in the past raved about his passion for each sporting event.

Following a late track meet, Kuhens would call former MPCHS coach David Hutchcroft at 6:45 a.m. to follow up on the game with a “We are going live in 30 seconds,” Hutchcroft said in an email.

Former MPCHS coach Bob Jensen called Kuhens the most well-known and influential person in Mt. Pleasant. “MPCHS sports owe(s) him the greatest gratitude of all,” Jensen said in an email. “John was one of the very first people I met when I came to Mt. Pleasant in 1974. He was just getting started then. He always asked great questions and gave me a chance to convey my story.”

 

Mo’s Diner

Another broadcast Kuhens is famous for is reading the school lunch menus with co-host Rose. While the activity may seem as mundane as a weather report, Kuhens quick wit is no match for a routine lunch menu.

Many years ago, teachers at MPCHS would head over to Dave Moses’ apartment, a wrestling coach in town, for lunch and card games. In addition to reading the regular school lunch menu, he began to call out the menu of Mo’s Diner, Moses’ nickname.

“Here’s what’s being served at Mo’s Diner Today,” Kuhens would joke. “Aunt Elma’s potato soup, Mary’s meatless meatloaf,” he said, using the names of the coaches’ wives to introduce the specials.

Eventually, the station began getting calls asking where Mo’s Diner was. “We kind of got away from that because it’s a little confusing,” Kuhens said. “But we’ve always had fun with the menus.”

Making a simple task like reading the lunch menus is a prime example of Rose and Kuhens’ chemistry on-air. Rose said they work so well together because of their similar sense of humor, family backgrounds and long history in Mt. Pleasant.

Their rapport is the same off the air as it is on. “It’s not scripted, practiced or fake,” Rose said.

 

BREAKING NEWS

As the news of Kuhens’ impending retirement broke on KILJ’s Facebook page Wednesday, community members rallied together to congratulate him and wish him well.

Bonita Cass wrote that she will be broken hearted not to hear Kuhens’ voice on the radio every morning.

Allison Cody said she grew up listening to Kuhens’ voice. “I especially loved waking up on winter mornings listening wholeheartedly hoping he would say school is canceled,” Cody wrote on Facebook.

Carrie Hobbs complimented KILJ on “picking a real gem from the start.”

There was consensus among the well-wishers that Kuhens cannot be replaced. “You are a dynasty,” Jim Worrell wrote on Facebook. “Congra(t)s sir. I salute you.”

 

The Future of KILJ

Kuhens will stay in Mt. Pleasant following his retirement, staying busy by helping out with Old Threshers and volunteering with the Fellowship Cup. He may even find a part-time job to keep himself busy, but is mostly looking forward to ridding himself of the pressure to be places at a certain time.

On the day of his retirement, a lot of other people will be cleaning off their desks too, Kuhens said. While they may not have worked at their companies for 48 years like Kuhens has, they have been just as dedicated.

“I don’t think I deserve any special treatment,” Kuhens said. “I’ve just been in a high-profile position and that’s what makes my retirement known.”

Koehler Wendt, who has been assisting with production, news and sports at KILJ for the last four years, will take over as sports director and join the morning show.

Kadie Johannson also will join the radio station staff in sales and other aspects of the business. Johannson was the Henry County RSVP director. She will join KILJ staff full time mid-August.

For Dennison, who sees Kuhens like a son, the years have gone by fast. It was just yesterday that he and Kuhens began working together. After 48 years of good day, there’s no one highlight Dennison can recall.

“This town for 50 years has gotten up every morning with him,” Dennison said. “It’s going to be a change for the whole town. It’s a rare, rare thing that a community has the opportunity to have someone of his stature for this long. I say thank you, John.”

 

Andy Krutsinger contributed to this article.

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