In the days ahead there will be a lot of stories told about North Texas radio legend Ron Chapman. There are thousands of grandparents who will remember carpooling kids and driving to offices with Chapman on their car radios serving up a verbal cup of coffee to start the day.
Back in those days it was so typical to spy cars on Central Expressway in the morning with shoulders and heads all moving in unison as he played “Jump,” “Copacabana” or “Stayin Alive.” In between songs Chapman and his Morning Team would briefly chat about newsy tidbits. Who needed a newspaper with this group having a real finger on the pulse of the area. That chatter would end up being the lead item around office water-coolers or neighborhood coffee klatches.
But this epic broadcast success was a long time in the making. It really began in Haverhill, Massachusetts, when baby boy Ralph Frederick Chapman was born on January 25, 1936.
It was 21 years later when Ralph joined the Army and landed in South Korea, where he produced a radio show for Voice of the United Nations Command and a talent show which got him out of more laborious tasks. Years later he laughed, recalling that by carrying a clipboard, it appeared to others that he commanded some type of authority.
After his military stint, he landed in Dallas where he was hired at radio czar Gordon McLendon’s KLIF. Along with the new job, he got a new name. He would be Irving Harrigan and eventually would become part of the morning drive show team Murphy and Harrigan, geared for teens. The twist was the rage and there was talk of an invasion underway from across the pond by some “beatles.”
It was during this time, in 1962, that he married Marilyn, the “Scott’s Liquid Gold” spokeswoman, whose voice could sell insecticide to cockroaches. While they honeymooned in Acapulco, singer Bobby Darin, who was in town filming “State Fair,” filled in for the newlywed Harrigan.
During their 20-year marriage, Chapman’s success grew and so did their family. They had a daughter, Melanie Chapman, who was the light of his life. After Marilyn and Ron parted ways in 1982, Melanie lived with Ron in a condominium fronting Glencoe Park. Despite all his responsibilities and commitments, he always made it a top priority to be there when her basketball team was on the court or she had a special occasion. In the years to come, he would be honored with local, regional and national awards, but he was proudest of the person that Melanie became.
But, back to his Harrigan days. While Harrigan lasted, Murphy didn’t and was replaced by Charlie Brown (the late Jack Woods). The team became the leading force for the AM station.
Then one day, Harrigan’s voice changed. It was obviously a different person. Months later, in 1965, the MIA Harrigan showed up as a Ron Chapman hosting WFAA-CH. 8’s afternoon version of “American Bandstand” called “Sump’n Else.” Its studio was in NorthPark Center and became the place to be after school, whether it was being part of the couples dancing on screen or on the other side of the window, watching and wishing to be part of the party.
But Chapman wasn’t satisfied with an afternoon dance show. He had greater plans. With roots in radio and his street smarts, he knew just the target audience — women. Remember, this was late ’60s and early ’70s when glass ceilings were unbreakable and men were still large-and-in-charge. But Chapman was betting everything on females who would appreciate a little empathy, respect and attention. To Chapman, a working divorced mother with two kids was the woman of his dreams.
So he and a couple of radio buds (Hugh Lampman and Jack Schell) got some backers and found a little building on Mockingbird across from the Dallas Country Club, where they launched a station called KVIL. (The “VIL” was for the nearby Highland Park Village). In the days leading up to the debut, they played ’round-the-clock music with no commercials but with teasing drops of what was to come. When they did officially go on-air, there were just the three of them serving up music, minimal talk and even fewer commercials. But eventually, Chapman’s bet was paying off. They had hit a gold mine and the operation grew both in staff and surroundings by moving to the top of Highland Park Village where Park House is today.
But this was just a stepping stone for Ron, who had totally shed his Harrigan clean shaven look. He would from this point on be identified by his signature beard, an uproarious laughter and unbeatable timing.
Eventually they outgrew HPV penthouse and moved to Mockingbird Station before it was Mockingbird Station, and then to where the DISD Administrative Office is today. These latter moves would provide Chapman with a perch to watch over Central Expressway.
Over the years staffers came and went and returned and went. Competitors chomped at the bit to dethrone the king of the morning. But Chapman had established a loyal following that would not be tempted away. It was that commitment to them that resulted in Chapman being regarded as an uber taskmaster. Pity the poor staffer who earned a “Come to Jesus” dressing-down. But in all fairness, Chapman demanded far less from others than he did of himself. He would not let his listeners settle for anything less.
And, his reputation for morning drive excellence became the envy of the industry. One radio station in another big market sent some folks to Dallas, where they set up an operation to record his show for a week to figure out the Chapman magic. Nice try. Didn’t work.
One of the legendary Chapman surprises even surprised his staff. Jody Dean was manning the phone that only had nine lines when he heard Chapman tell his listeners to pull out their checkbooks and send in a $20 check. No reason was given. Immediately, Dean found himself being blinded by the lines non-stopping lighting up. And remember, this was before there were cellphones. People were literally pulling off the road to find a phone to ask where to send the money.
In the days that followed, the mailman alone couldn’t carry in all the check-bearing envelopes. The mail was creating storage problems for the KVIL offices. When Chapman announced the end of the project three days later, more than $240,000 had been received. The hitch was, Chapman hadn’t planned on more than $500 coming in. What to do with nearly a quarter of a million dollars? Ah, he came up with the answer. The money would go to fund non-profits like a truck for the food bank and projects for such organizations as the SPCA, a woman’s shelter and others.
He told his audience if they weren’t comfortable with that game plan, their money would be refunded. Jody reported that only $2,000 was returned.
During this time Chapman pulled off other major North Texas moments, from getting the Cowboys to switch from KRLD to KVIL to creating a major traffic jam from Dallas to McKinney on Central Expressway for a get-together before sunrise on Labor Day. But he also discovered that a longtime friend was also the love of his life — Nance Murray. She was his confidant, his best friend and the person who could even amaze the master with her magic.
So the story goes that one morning he left their home at Caruth Homeplace for work before dawn, but when he returned that evening he walked in and realized that he must be in the wrong house. Going outside, he looked at the number on the front of the house. It was indeed that same number as the house that he had left, but the furnishings were totally different. It seems that Nance had had all the first floor refurnished during the day. No wonder he would describe her as Nance of the Laughing Blue Eyes.
In 2000 Chapman moved his voice to sister station KLUV for a five-year jaunt before announcing his retirement in 2005. He had already planned his exit strategy using Johnny Carson‘s departure as a guideline. He would do a victory lap in the months leading to his exit and then leave the room. Only Ron didn’t just leave the room. He and Nance left the country. They had purchased a condominium on The World for a two-year cruise around the world to make an easy transition from on-air to off-air.
It was after his retirement that the bigger-than-life, man-of-the-people Ron Chapman stepped aside for Ralph to take over. Like Ron, Ralph had boundless energy and an endless coffer of creativity. But thanks to the two-year decompressing, he and Nance were just plain happy having time to play with the grandkids, leisurely spend time with friends, travel without the pressures of deadlines and just kick back being folks.
Little did most people know that over the years Chapman’s health had been a cross to bear — migraines, heart issues, blood clots and finally strokes. With Nance always near, he overcame them all until this morning, when he made his final sign off.
Thanks, Ron, for making it a “wonderful world.”