Dave Lee, the affable voice of WCCO morning radio for more than 25 years, has announced his retirement plans. Lee, 66, shared his decision Friday with listeners while broadcasting from the makeshift studio in his basement. His last day will be April 30.
"Dave is on the Mount Rushmore of WCCO," said Lindsey Peterson, the talk station's director of content. "We're honored to be the place Dave called home for so many years."
Lee, who grew up in Hatton, N.D., listening to Twins baseball on the "Good Neighbor," said he first started contemplating stepping down about a year and a half ago during a station-sponsored trip to Italy.
"I got to sleep in a little," he said Wednesday during a phone interview with the Star Tribune. "I turned to my wife and said, 'This is kind of nice.' "
Peterson said there are no plans to name a replacement in the immediate future but that he is starting a national search.
Following in Lee's footsteps won't be an easy task.
His upbeat spirit shined through whether he was on air, raising money for charities or charming Minnesotans in person at the State Fair. He has also called games for sports from high school basketball to Gophers football. The National Sports Media Association named him Minnesota Sportscaster of the Year five years in a row starting in 2004.
It's no surprise that some of Lee's fondest memories involve athletes.
Bill Russell remains one of his favorites. He remembers telling the Boston Celtics legend how he pretended he was him while playing hoops as a kid. He softened up a stiff Nolan Ryan by exchanging tales with the baseball pitcher of growing up in small towns.
Other standout moments include hanging out with actor Julie Andrews and filmmaker Blake Edwards for four days while they were in town to premiere a stage version of "Victor/Victoria" in 1995, and getting an eye-opening history lesson about the Cuban missile crisis from author Dino Brugioni.
But Lee has also treasured conversations with those who were often overlooked. Chuck the valet. Harold the florist. Giovanni the security guard.
"They just had the beat of the city," said Lee, who started his broadcasting career in East Grand Forks, Minn., and Fargo before heading to the Twin Cities in 1989. "After all these years in radio, you become a pretty good listener. We all want someone to listen to us every once in a while. Everyone out there has a story. Maybe it's because I'm the son of a teacher, but I always felt like the person who got to walk into a library and read every book."
Lee remembers a time he was sitting in a bar with friends in 1991, right after returning from Boston where he was calling Twins games. An old high school baseball teammate approached him and pointed a finger at his chest, informing him that he was no big deal.
"I told him, 'I'm not. You're a farmer. You feed the world. I just talk on the radio,' " Lee said. "I'll never forget that moment. It's kept me humble."
Neal Justin • 612-673-7431 • @nealjustin