The Old Chuckaroo

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

Norman was also an enthusiastic trader. Rather than pony up cash for legal services or office furniture, for example, Norman used barter clubs to trade free advertising for whatever he needed. Using the trades, he then treated friends to new appliances, fine dining and suites at Caesars Palace.

He splurged on college-basketball wagers, fat tips for flirtatious waitresses and flashy automobiles. He bought sandwiches for homeless loafers in his neighborhood and a prom-night hotel room for a teenage kid he'd never met.

"He'd pull out his wallet for anything," says cousin Bette Constantin.

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.

Norman subsequently got burned by some of his close associates. "Chuck couldn't understand how people could borrow money and not pay it back," remembers Golliber. "It wasn't the money; it was the principle."

Norman also doled out do-good dollars, most famously through his Chuck Norman Christmas Party, which ran for 27 years. Norman footed the bill, donating ticket proceeds -- usually about $40,000 in the gala's final years -- to nearly 50 local charities. Norman admitted the takings totaled far less than the party's tab, but he couldn't imagine forgoing the bash -- or the publicity.

"If I was trying to put kids through college it'd be a different story," he told the St. Louis Globe-Democrat in 1985. "But what better way for me to spend my money than to cater to my own ego?"

Norman also enjoyed throwing money at charities through a Globe-Democrat column called "The Good Neighbor." His goal, he explained, was to "die absolutely penniless."

The final years were unkind to Norman. There were multiple strokes, and emphysema. A car accident in the Senate Building's garage left him with broken ribs and a shattered nose. Now Norman seemed almost desperate for companionship, and would promise whatever it took to get it.

"Listen to this arrangement," begins friend Arnold Gilden. "Chuck says, 'I've never told anybody this, but I love you like a son.' He says, 'I want you to share my apartment. You'll never have to work the rest of your life.' And he says he'll pay the rent and all the bills, food and everything. He says he'll buy me a car."

Gilden declined Norman's repeated offers because "I would become a nurse. Chuck would tell me at three in the morning, 'I want some ice cream.' And I'd have to go shopping, wipe his butt, give him a bath, shave him, and I'm not going to do that for anybody!"

When Dan Byington tried to film Norman for the 2002 documentary Radio Free St. Louis -- This is Chuck Norman, the radio legend vainly declined. "He said, 'I really want people to remember what I looked like when I was younger,'" Byington recalls. "I thought that was such a tragedy."

According to Esther Wright, Norman was diagnosed with dementia and Alzheimer's, and he endured frequent panic attacks. Dave Brandenberger, a former overnight station engineer, responded frequently to Norman's cries of distress, sometimes in the dead of night.

"Chuck," he remembers, "would be screaming like a little baby in there."

Fortune Hunting

Norman's probate file was opened in St. Louis Circuit Court last June. Clerks say not a day has gone by without someone coming in to search for clues about Norman's fortune.

Through an informal telephone tree, Norman's friends tried vetting each other. "Did you get a letter from Chuck's attorney?" they inquired, knowing a letter meant that Norman had left the recipient cash or another bequest.

If they didn't get a letter, they called Lisa Krempasky, asking why they weren't included.

"I had a lawyer look into it to see if I could get something," admits Bob Nicolai, a former WGNU ad salesman.

Norman's cousin Ann Doerr, who hardly knew Norman, wonders if he devised some capricious criteria for picking and choosing his heirs. Doerr says she and two elder relatives were shocked to receive inheritance letters that contained their names amid a host of others blacked out with marker.

"Of course, we all went to the windows and tried to read the names, only to discover that we were looking at a copy!" Doerr says. She adds that Krempasky refuses to reveal who else in the family Norman included, and that the secrecy of it all has left her feeling awkward around other relatives.

Krempasky says the trust is private.

Norman's cousin Bette Constantin confirms that she also inherited some money, as did Arnold Gilden, Esther Wright and Norman's old friend and former WGNU host Silvia Shaw, along with her daughter, Daniela Shaw.

The Shaws now wonder if they were bamboozled.

Silvia Shaw resides in Port St. Lucie, Florida, but she worked eight years full-time in the station's early days. She often brought Daniela to work, and Norman doted on her. "He took care of me," says the now-44-year-old Daniela, who manages a bed and breakfast in Stuart, Florida. "He rented me houses, apartments, bought me cars, paid my bills, everything -- like a dad."

Daniela adds that Norman took her on cross-country business trips and treated her and a friend to a cruise to the Bahamas for her 21st birthday. When Shaw's daughters were born, Norman came to the hospital bearing flowers and gifts.

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