The Old Chuckaroo

St. Louis radio's provocateur was a mystery in life -- and in death

On the Ides of March in 1989, Charles H. "Chuck" Norman paid $42,500 for a roomful of crypts nestled between a chapel and a hallway at the Calvary Cemetery and Mausoleum in north St. Louis. The names of Norman's parents, grandparents, brother and sister were affixed to the marble façades of seven chambers. He saved the eighth ground-floor vault for himself.

It wasn't that the millionaire owner of WGNU (920 AM), known for splashing his name on highway billboards and buses, was preparing for an imminent death. It was just that Chuck Norman, then in his mid-seventies, had witnessed enough funerals to decide that no one would ever sink his body six feet under.

Norman's relatives thought the purchase odd. Why, they wondered, would a childless, lifelong bachelor need such a large tomb? Besides that, Norman's family wasn't Catholic, and Calvary is owned by the Archdiocese of St. Louis. Stranger still, Norman's clan -- but for his sister -- was already dead and buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery right next door.

In the '50s, that suave Old Chuckaroo had quite a way with the ladies.
In the '50s, that suave Old Chuckaroo had quite a way with the ladies.

"He paid all that money for all those mausoleums that are empty," Norman's cousin Bette Constantin says with a chuckle. "It's crazy!"

The night before his death, the onetime radio star and a decades-long female friend reminisced about the good old days and sang "Singin' in the Rain." Norman's three cats -- Greta Garbo, Sherlock Holmes and Edgar Allan Poe -- lounged beside them.

On May 17, 2004, Norman died of a stroke in his Central West End penthouse. Many believed he was 83 years old, but Norman kept his true age a closely guarded secret, both secret, both by falsifying birth certificates and by putting off anyone who dared ask. Official records say he was 87.

A strange mix of truth and myth has long clung to Chuck Norman, a tangle of conflicting memory and contradiction. Daddy Warbucks one day, cheapskate the next. Starved for attention, yet hungering for privacy.

Friends say it seemed Norman used his fortune to purchase loyalty, companionship and affection. And oh, the many girls there were -- but none were anything more than fleeting lovers.

"In the end, it seemed, not only was he an enigma to people who didn't know him, but he was an enigma to people who did know him," reflects Dan Byington, a WGNU talk-show host.

Despite a wealth of friends, widespread popularity and a swashbuckling manner when in the public spotlight, "the Old Chuckaroo," as Norman called himself, was a private fellow, extremely vain and very zealous about maintaining an unfaltering image.

"He wanted everybody to think he was like a Boy Scout: honest, clean, reverent, brave," says Arnold Gilden, an ad salesman for WGNU and lifelong friend of Norman.

Fitting, then, that Norman's final resting place is an empty mausoleum -- forever in the appearance of company, but very much alone.

Within days of his death, a whisper campaign took root among former and current WGNU employees, and so-called FOCs, or "Friends of Chuck": Who did Chuck put in his will? How much loot was there? And who gets the station? The money-grubbing had begun, and several friends of Chuck would take their outstretched hands all the way to court.

The Casanova

Chuck Norman was ruled by women even before he could walk. When Chuck was just a year old, his older brother was hit and killed by a car while playing in front of the family's north-side home. His father perished a year later in the influenza epidemic. That left the little boy under the watch of his elder sister, Ruth, and his mother, Grace Francis Norman.

Grace, who grew up among railroad workers, made ends meet by running a small confectionary from home. Her son was brought up wanting, but not without ambition.

The Normans were not regular churchgoers, though relatives believe Grace may have attended Union Avenue Christian Church. For Chuck, places of worship existed strictly for social reasons. "He would go to a Jewish temple or a Catholic church as well as going to a Protestant church," notes Art Ford, a longtime co-worker and friend of 50 years.

Norman attended Soldan High School and graduated from the University of Southern California before shipping off to World War II as a flight navigator with the United States Navy. While abroad in the winter of 1946, he toured Asia.

In a typewritten journal called Trip to the Orient, Norman cheerfully describes paying his way by peddling cigarettes and whiskey. Most of the admiring musings concern others -- the courteous Japanese, the fiercely commercial Chinese. "It just dawned on me that I probably have the distinction of being the first postwar tourist of Japan," he proudly noted in the journal's final paragraph.

Back in St. Louis, where he lived with his mother until she died in 1960, the dashing and witty Norman set out to be a salesman. With his big, deep voice, he was a natural, and Frank Prendergast, manager of WTMV-AM in East St. Louis, noticed the young man's talent instantly. Norman tried to sell Prendergast a shopper's coupon book in December 1947. Prendergast responded by offering Norman a Saturday-night record show. It was the beginning of a long, pioneering run in radio.

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