Ag broadcasting giant Samuelson turns 90

Orion Samuelson. (Courtesy photo.)

I met Orion Samuelson in 1974 at the National Farm Broadcasters Convention in Kansas City, Missouri. He spoke with a voice that was booming, yet mellow, and he articulated words so carefully that they came to my ears like they were finely crafted works of art.

I listened to his conversations with other broadcasters, spouses and friends. I realized that he was a genuine person with a strong desire to be included as an equal even though his stature made him a giant even among peers.

From his childhood on a Wisconsin dairy farm, Orion must have felt some stirrings of greatness. He surely knew his voice was unique and gravitated toward radio as an alternative to milking cows.

Timing is everything, and Orion’s was almost perfection. The big AM stations were powerful, profitable and looking for talent. He was on the radio farm team in Green Bay when he was offered a job at WGN in Chicago. He stayed there for 60 years.

Legendary status

His stature was great among more than broadcasters. Industry and government officials were eager to link with him as a speaker or a reporter to travel with trade missions and diplomatic events. He reported from Germany, China, the USSR and India in the 1960s and ‘70s.

From those experiences, he began to speak to farm organizations in Illinois and beyond. To do so he formed “Air Orion” when he bought an airplane and hired a pilot to get him to evening speeches and back to Chicago late at night.  At that convention, I heard him say he gave 400 speeches in one year.

As our careers paralleled, with mine a couple of levels of magnitude below his, I began to emulate him in travel and speaking. I also realized that I had to differentiate myself from the “Big O,” or I would just be a poor copy of a masterpiece.

He was careful with what he said and where he went. I was not. I waded into agricultural issues and hot spots with just a microphone and a camera. I hosted AgriTalk with a demeanor of being biased against both sides. I challenged the status quo. I told jokes at meetings that would have made his Norwegian complexion turn bright red. I recall introducing him as the speaker at an event. I was the emcee and had berated about half the people in the room. Orion arose and took the podium. He said, “It is always warm around Ken. It must be the heat from the bridges he burns.”

Another legend

The late Mark Pearson from WHO radio in Des Moines had his own story about him.  Mark said he was in high school and wondering what major to pursue in college. He went to an event where Orion spoke, and Mark said he was impacted like he was listening to an evangelist.  In his speech, Orion emphasized “the house that agriculture built.” 

Twenty years later, after Mark had become a well-known writer, broadcaster and speaker, he attended another of Orion’s presentations. The great orator started talking about the same subject, using the same phrase.  Pearson’s almost photographic memory jumped back to his high school rapture, and he couldn’t wait to go up to the man and meet him.

“Orion, I heard you 20 years ago, and I remember you gave the same speech!” Orion leaned over and quietly said, “It’s a lot easier to change audiences than to change speeches.”

His fame eclipsed mine so much that I once saw him at a meeting and asked, “Orion, do people come up to you and ask if you know Ken Root?” 

“No, he replied, why do you ask?” 

“Just wondering,” I said.

NAFB Hall of Fame

Orion was inducted into the NAFB Hall of Fame, and, a few years later, he was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame by Paul Harvey. Harvey’s friendship was longstanding as they worked in the same building in Chicago. Larry King introduced Paul, and as he ended his glowing and deserving comments about Orion, Harvey said, “Even the moon hides her face in his presence.” (There was a lunar eclipse that evening.)

The crowds from rural America came to hear Orion articulate the English language as much as to absorb the content of his script. He was an inspiring master of diction and intonation. He was the James Earl Jones of farm broadcasting. 

Orion was also a master presenter and interviewer on camera. He made guests feel at ease and listened to what they said. From discussions with Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz to a 7-year-old girl whose pig had won the Chicago International Livestock Exposition, he truly cared.  (That girl was Colleen Callahan, the first woman to become president of the National Association of Farm Broadcasting.)

For a brief period 20 years ago, Orion was courted to run for U.S. senator. He was sized up by Illinois politicians as honest, well known, proper and electable. (These were rare qualities at that time.) U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Denny Hastert met with him and pitched the nomination to run against a local community organizer from Chicago.

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Orion’s wife, Gloria, says he came out glowing about the offer he had just received. However, Orion had just recovered from a throat infection that was almost fatal.  Orion calls Gloria “the wife who saved my life” when he tells of the warnings (and threats) given by his doctor and Gloria. “The doctor said I had a significant chance of dying if I spent four months on the campaign trail, traveling and speaking every day. We agreed that I shouldn’t do it.”

(The Democrat candidate in the race was Barrack Obama.)

At 80 he still had the gift

When Orion was 80, I attended a speech he made to the Iowa FFA at the organization’s enrichment center in Ankeny. He was twice as old as the first time I’d met him, yet he moved smoothly to the podium, addressed the group with many encouraging comments and articulated each word with total precision. I watched the youthful faces and their rapt attention. He proceeded to awe his audience and focus them on their future. I said to my broadcasting friends following his speech, “Not 10 percent of us could have come close to that delivery when we were in our prime.”

Now we come to Orion’s 90th birthday on March 31.  Like all of mankind, he battles age.  He holds his dignity tightly and works to be as healthy and complete as when he was putting in long days as an early morning and noon voice on the radio and as a host of the weekly U.S. Farm Report TV show, not to mention several evening speeches across the region.

We jokingly called him “God.” I once asked him to take an off-stage microphone and be part of a skit at our convention.  The on-stage speaker, Dix Harper, our National Association of Farm Broadcasting historian, heard his name called with a ringing tone that would send shivers down your spine. He said, “Orion is that you?” The voice replied, “NO IT’S GOD. I JUST SOUND LIKE ORION!”

Happy Birthday, my friend.

To send birthday greetings:

Orion Samuelson

13712 Chestnut Lane

Huntley, IL 60142

Or email:

[email protected]