Remembering radio alum Bill Wilkerson as daughter leads Hall of Fame push
November 2, 2022
Kristen Wilkerson described the last voicemail she received from her dad as “a mundane request.” But it being the final message she got from him, she cherished it. It started with his voice, saying ‘Hi Kristen, this is dad,’ and ended with ‘Bye, I love you.’
Thanks to a recent phone update, that voicemail was gone, along with all of the messages between Kristen and Bill Wilkerson. But she knew that her father’s voice had been broadcast for more than three decades on the radio. That’s when she decided to start digging, to find his voice again. She didn’t have to search long.
“Once I lost that updating my phone, that’s why I kinda went into, ‘oh my God, I need to find him. I can listen to him.’ And that’s where all this came,” she said.
Bill Wilkerson spent 27 years at KMOX, and 10 more at KTRS, both in St. Louis. During this time, he became the first Black play-by-play announcer of an NFL team as the voice of the St. Louis football Cardinals. He also provided commentary for other St. Louis sports such as the NHL’s Blues, the ABA’s Spirits and the Missouri Tigers college football team.
“I just kept hearing and seeing that he was the first, and I’m like, this isn’t nothing,” Kristen Wilkerson said. “Why isn’t more made of this, or known? Why isn’t this a thing?”
While Kristen Wilkerson knew her dad worked at the radio, she wasn’t aware of his accomplishments until recently.
“If he was the first to do that, then I’m completely blown away,” she said. “Because it’s not like he walked into the house every day, you know, ‘guess what daddy did?’ All of this stuff, he kinda kept to himself, so I’m researching him after the fact and learning about what type of person he was and what type of things he did.”
Nov. 2 marks the fifth anniversary of Bill Wilkerson’s passing in 2017. In remembrance, his youngest daughter wants to share his legacy to anyone who will hear it, even if he wouldn’t do so himself.
“He wasn’t braggadocious, but me learning about him, I definitely want more people to know what he did,” she said.
Part of that campaign includes lobbying to get Bill Wilkerson into the National Radio Hall of Fame. Kristen Wilkerson has recruited several notable people who worked with her father over the years, including Bob Costas, Wendy Wiese and Frank Cusumano.
“I don’t want him to be forgotten,” Kristen Wilkerson said. “With what I didn’t know, I feel that I was inept as his daughter… Now that I know, I want other people to know. I won’t be here, and he won’t either; he isn’t. But he will continue to live on.”
Cusumano voiced his support for Bill Wilkerson during a segment for KSDK Channel 5 in St. Louis on Oct. 17. He recalled the infamous “Fifth Down Game” in 1990 between the Missouri Tigers and Colorado Buffaloes, which Bill Wilkerson called on behalf of the Tigers.
“At the mic was a hall of fame-worthy broadcaster,” Cusumano said to introduce the segment. “He’s been gone now for five years, but should get the recognition for a wonderful career.”
The segment also featured an old interview with Bill Wilkerson, where he described getting the Cardinals play-by-play job from Jack Buck. Buck had received an offer to leave KMOX, but was not allowed to until a suitable replacement for his role was found.
As the story goes, Buck left in the middle of a game, forcing Wilkerson to handle play-by-play duties for a quarter in his absence. He did so again the next week, this time for an entire half. When KMOX general manager Robert Hyland Jr. didn’t call and complain, Buck told Wilkerson the job was his.
It was an accomplishment in and of itself for Bill Wilkerson to get the job. Having completed his bachelor degree’s in journalism at Southern Illinois in the spring of 1968, his graduation was sandwiched between the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.
“This is not a normal dream for someone to have, of color, at that stage in that age,” Kristen Wilkerson said. “And for him to pursue it, get it just a year later at 24 and accomplish what he accomplished, I’m very proud of him. I don’t know exactly how he did that, and I know that he had to deal with a lot that there’s no way that I could even comprehend, especially growing up in the South.”
Bill Wilkerson’s trailblazing set the stage for another black announcer years later. Paul Olden, the public address announcer for the New York Yankees since 2009, credited him as his inspiration in an online guest book.
“When I decided – at age 15 – to be a play by play sportscaster, I learned about Bill and used that knowledge as a role model for my efforts as a black teenager,” Olden wrote.
For many in the St. Louis area, Bill Wilkerson was the voice of their favorite sports teams, or their morning drives to work. To others, he was an inspirational figure. To his youngest daughter, he was just dad.
“To see something like that, where somebody listened to my dad and he was that influential to them, just his voice,” Kristen Wilkerson said. “Just the fact that he was able to do that. Then, ‘okay, that’s what I want to do, and because of him I’m gonna do that.’ I can’t explain what that is. I don’t know what type of feeling that gives me. I’m just shocked by it.”
Since Bill Wilkerson kept a humble outlook on his career, his daughter wasn’t familiar with his work until recently. When asked whether she preferred it that way, keeping the two personas of Bill Wilkerson the pioneer vs. Bill Wilkerson the father apart, she agreed.
“It’s overwhelming to me now, so especially with the conversations that we had and the jokes that we told and the way that we were, I don’t think I would have been able to,” she said. “Obviously I’ve always had a reverence for him, but it would have been heightened. I like the way that he did it.”
Part of what defined their relationship was his approachability. The same could be said for many of his former coworkers who are now joining the campaign to induct Bill Wilkerson into the National Radio Hall of Fame.
“That’s what meant more to him; being personable, being able to talk to people, being able to communicate, being able to be that person,” Kristen Wilkerson said. “You have to be the person that is fun and personable for me to be able to be like ‘look, I have a serious situation,’ and I knew that I could come to him on any level. But that opened it up for me.”
Kristen Wilkerson plans to partake in a tribute with Wiese on Nov. 2, the anniversary of Bill Wilkerson’s death. Costas’s tribute will also come in November. Southern Illinois University is also in the planning stages of commemorating the legacy of the Saluki alum.
All of this support could be traced back to Kristen Wilkerson’s phone updating and wiping her messages, sending her on a journey to find her dad’s voice again. Ultimately, she found his legacy, and wants it to be recognized and remembered by as many people as possible.
“The fact that they’re like ‘I believe in that, and I’m gonna get behind you.’ It makes me very grateful,” she said. “It lets me know that I’m doing the correct thing. I’m not gonna stop until I get him there or I’ve exhausted everything that I can, because I owe him that as a daughter.”
Staff reporter Brandyn Wilcoxen can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @BrandynWilcoxen. To stay up to date with all your southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.