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.

"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.

By the 1950s Norman was spinning his favorite big-band sounds on WIL-AM (now WRTH [1430 AM]) and racking up top rankings. The Old Chuckaroo began acquiring the accoutrements of celebrity: tailored clothing, a pink Cadillac and a gaggle of groupies.

"He thought he was a Casanova," remembers friend Mary Katz. Norman's young fans flocked on weekends to his sparsely furnished bungalow near Castlewood State Park. There, the highballs flowed and the chain-smoking big shot was in his full glory.

Norman later downplayed his party-hardy reputation. "He didn't want anybody to ever know he got a little high," recalls Ford. "To him, it was a show of weakness."

In 1954 Norman plunged over a 60-foot waterfall while row-boating on the Lake of the Ozarks. The boat landed on Norman's back, leaving him laid up in Barnes-Jewish Hospital for months. But he didn't let injury hamper him. Old photographs show Norman clutching his WIL microphone from his hospital bed, smartly coiffed and surrounded by women.

Norman, always the ham, dabbled in myriad mini-ventures and promotional stunts, and he reveled in flitting across town crowning high-school homecoming queens and hosting the Friday-night Miss Missouri pageant on KTVI (then Channel 36).

In 1956 the late-night talk show Norman's Nite Cap debuted. Skip Erwin, a freshly unemployed radio broadcaster, was producer.

"Chuck gave me two-thirds of the money [earned from the broadcast]. He did it to be a friend, but it was also smart," says Erwin, a current WGNU talk-show host. "He wanted me to be comfortable."

Nite Cap's guests ranged from Ray Charles to Missouri Governor James Blair to Teamsters leader Harold Gibbons. Norman had a nose for news, Erwin boasts, but network management bristled. Two years after the show began, Norman refused to devote the program purely to show biz, and he and Erwin split. From then on, Norman was sure of one thing: He'd never work for anyone again.

A Rebellious Frequency

WGNU-AM's switch flipped on one December morning in 1961, and it would forever be known as "Chuck Norman's station." Initially there were two financial backers, but strained relations among the trio led Norman to secure a permit for his own FM station three years later. That gamble turned nickels into gold.

WGNU-FM quickly became the top-rated St. Louis radio station, and within ten years of its launch, Norman was entertaining lucrative buyout offers. Already in his sixties, Norman decided to cash in his chips. He made WGNU-AM all-talk and sold WGNU-FM to the now-defunct Doubleday Broadcasting for a reported $2 million.

WGNU-AM, or "Radio Free St. Louis," as Norman boastfully called it, became a rebellious little frequency. White supremacists, anti-Semites, bleeding hearts, race-baiters -- everybody got access to Norman's airwaves. WGNU was a publicity machine, sparking controversy for making controversy its raison d'être.

Norman treated the station like a cherished toy. In 1989 he rented the entire thirteenth floor of the Senate Building on Union Boulevard to house both his apartment and the studio. He listened all day long and hosted his own program well into his seventies. Norman didn't care if WGNU cranked a profit, and he readily dipped into personal reserves to avoid debt.

But Norman's death ushered in a host of worrisome changes.

Ex- and current staffers blame Esther Wright, an ordained minister who became Norman's devoted caregiver in the late '90s, taking him to doctor's appointments and on errands. "If he wanted her there at midnight, she'd be there," remembers Art Ford.

Norman's decision in 2000 to make Wright the station's general manger caused friction among many employees, especially those with more seniority and managerial experience. Irritation grew as Wright conducted daily prayer meetings -- and, some say, went to work erecting a fortress around Norman.

"Esther would not allow people to contact Chuck if he wasn't feeling well and would threaten termination if they did," explains a staffer who asked not to be named in this story. Wright says that's not true.

When Norman died, Wright imposed a freeze on cost-of-living raises and cut back engineers' hours, causing some to lose health benefits. Wright refuses to offer an explanation for the belt-tightening, saying only, "We were pretty much in limbo for awhile."

The most troubling changes at WGNU, devoted listeners say, are the sackings over the past year of nine longtime hosts. The ex-employees include such quintessential "Radio Free St. Louis" characters as National Alliance member Frank Weltner (a.k.a. "Couch Potato"), black supremacist Onion Horton and Horton's Jewish partner, Mark Kasen.

"WGNU has a real right-wing, religious kind of feel to it now," complains loyal listener La Vonda Staples. "It's not 'Radio Free St. Louis' anymore. It's 'let's-see-how-narrow-minded-and-stiff-necked-we-can-be.'"

The hosts say no reason was given for their dismissal. Kasen says he and Horton shelled out nearly $100,000 for their air-time privileges from 2001 to 2004. "Why they wanted to lose that money, I cannot tell you."

Wright won't discuss the matter but maintains that WGNU will stick with its talk shows. "I remember Chuck telling me, 'If you want to make money, you should probably turn it over to a gospel station.' But we didn't want to do that, because we like the talk format."

Nick Kasoff, the most recently ousted host, contends that Wright is tainting Norman's legacy.

"That somebody who is totally unqualified to run the station manipulated and maneuvered her way in to take over and proceeded to really piss on Chuck's grave is very distasteful to those of us who respected Chuck and his vision."

A cloud of uncertainty hovers over the station's future. Norman had said publicly for the last decade that he was bequeathing WGNU to his "employees," whom he fully expected to preserve the "Radio Free St. Louis" format.

Ford, WGNU's general manager from 1986 to 2000, says he helped Norman compose a will in the mid-'90s, which specified that current or retired employees who'd been with the station at least five years when Norman died would receive ownership shares. The will also forbade management from selling the station.

Four months after Ford retired, Norman set up the Charles Norman Trust. He left all his assets to the trust and named himself sole trustee; Lisa Krempasky, a St. Louis County attorney, was named his successor. One of the more intriguing aspects of the trust was that it guaranteed payments of $10,000 to each talk-show host and engineer who'd been with the station at least three years at the time of Norman's death.

A redacted copy of the document filed with the Federal Communications Commission shows that the Norman Trust owns the station until 2007. Esther Wright and Charles Geer, WGNU's program director, are the station's chief officers but hold no shares or voting power. Krempasky and Wright, states the trust, will be company directors "as long as they shall live."

Ford now wonders whether the station can be sold. And will certain employees acquire ownership of WGNU two years from now?

Krempasky says she's not sure if the trust prohibits the sale of the station. Most current staffers won't divulge if they know who stands to inherit company shares. Some say they're still waiting to learn if they made the short list of owners. Others, including some talk-show hosts, feel misled and argue that Norman promised ownership to his employees. Hadn't Norman considered hosts employees?

"I kick myself for not asking Norman what he meant by 'employee,'" notes exiled host Gordon Lee Baum.

"I figure with ten years that I have a percentage of the station coming," says Frank Weltner. "I felt it was a condition of salary of me working there. If your boss says on the radio that he's leaving the station to his employees, wouldn't you think that you're going to get something?"

The whole thing has left a bad taste in the mouth of Ford, who claims Norman "wasn't thinking right" in the last year or two of his life. "Somebody snookered [Norman] into something, I'll tell you," he grumbles.

Penis Pride

Chuck Norman was known to flaunt young, attractive female company like diamond-studded accessories.

"The thinner the better," Art Ford laughs.

"Eighteen to thirty-five is what he liked," remembers pal Arnold Gilden.

Rare was the evening when Norman's Rolls-Royce would pull up to a valet stand without a babe in the driver's seat.

Norman found his women at assorted functions and through his eclectic circle of friends. Recalls old chum and former parapsychologist Gordon Hoener: "Chuck used to go see the psychic Mama Lil, not for her psychic abilities, but because she always had a lot of young lady clients around. She'd say to the ladies, 'A rich man is going to come into your life,' and there he was!"

Friends seemed to get a kick out of Norman's playboy persona. "I don't think Chuck was promiscuous," says Hoener. "He just liked to have women in his company."

One buddy, who asked not to be named in this story, says Norman was a sucker for "a feminine, sexy ass" and "big boobs."

"He was a horny bastard," the friend adds with a grin. Norman, he continues, was quite impressed with the size of his genitalia and wanted to share his prized possession with his female acquaintances. Of course, he sometimes had a waggish way of doing it.

"Chuck would say, 'I'm going to take a pee, I'll be right back,' then say, 'Oh my God! My zipper's stuck!' But it wasn't."

The friend goes on to describe an evening when Norman spotted a young, busty blonde while leaving a deli. He says Norman issued him a rather kinky order: "You tell her there's a guy outside that wants to give her $500 if she'll go to bed with him. Not screw him -- but under the sheets just hug him and kiss him for an hour, and say, 'I love you, Daddy.'"

"I think even though Chuck had a lot of friends, he was a lonely man," says old friend Earl Golliber, a former shoe salesman.

In Chuck Norman's world, money was best invested in entertaining fans and friends, and the station sometimes came second. He let work quarters run down and doled out meager wages. When Ford at last convinced Norman to institute annual cost-of-living raises, Norman griped, "When does it end, Art?"

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.

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.

"When he said, 'Jump,' I said, 'How high?'," Daniela admits. "He wanted me to be at his beck and call. But not in a rude way." But Norman, Daniela stresses, "was not my sugar daddy."

Norman never told Daniela exactly how much money he planned to leave her, but she says he promised her the "bulk of his estate" and said she'd "never have to worry" about working.

In the end, Daniela Shaw inherited Norman's Jaguar and less than $100,000. "That's nothing I can live on for the rest of my life!" she fumes.

How much did Norman's mysterious fortune total? Friends' guesstimates range from $5.5 million to $12 million, though no one but attorney Krempasky knows the estate's true value, and she won't say.

Silvia Shaw filed a petition in St. Louis Circuit Court last October, demanding to see the Charles Norman Trust to determine if Norman's last wishes were indeed his own.

Court papers show that a document examiner who compared several cards, letters and a check signed by Norman with photocopies of four trust amendments concluded that Norman's amendment signatures were not consistent with each other.

"[Norman] changed his trust quite a few times during a period when he was declining," explains Greg Wolk, Silvia Shaw's St. Louis attorney.

Daniela Shaw claims Krempasky and Esther Wright "came in at the last moment and pretended to be something else, got [Norman] to sign some papers and got him to do something that he never intended to do."

Shaw opines that Wright in particular tried to control Norman, citing a "contract for release" between Norman and Wright dated March 12, 2003. At that time, Norman was recuperating from a stroke at McKnight Place, an assisted-living facility.

The document stipulates that Norman could return home if he let Wright hire round-the-clock caregivers, let aides accompany him each time he left home and let Wright make all decisions for WGNU, among other conditions. Violation of the terms, the contract states, would result in Norman's return to McKnight Place.

McKnight Place administrator Barbara Wagner says the contract "was certainly nothing we had anything to do with." She adds: "We can't stop people from leaving, even if we think it's against their best interest, and we can't make them stay."

Both Wright and Krempasky say they don't know who drew up the contract, and Wright doesn't remember if she or Norman ever signed it.

Norman did eventually return home and submitted to round-the-clock watch. But Daniela Shaw says Norman remained "a nervous wreck" and frequently phoned her, frantic.

Two weeks before Norman's death, Silvia Shaw flew in from Florida to stay with him. He promised her ten dollars for every hour she spent by his side in the penthouse.

Norman, remembers Erwin, was telling friends for several months that he was depressed, that "the life he was living was difficult."

Spotlight Fades to Black

At Chuck Norman's funeral, a minister delivered a standard homily that mentioned few of the man's accomplishments or the kind of person he was. That prompted talk-show host Frank Weltner to pull the minister aside. "I said, 'Look, this is crazy. This was a really great guy. This guy actually believed in the First Amendment! I want you to at least say something about this. He gave a voice to people who had no voice.'"

On the day Norman entered that eighth crypt at Calvary, WGNU honored the Old Chuckaroo by changing its all-talk format to Norman's favorite big-band music.

Arnold Gilden says he talked to Norman on the telephone no fewer than six times the night before he died.

"Chuck said, 'I've been thinking. I don't think I've left enough to you. I want to leave you a million dollars. I'm leaving $11 million to various charities and $1 million to nine people or so, and the station, and taxes, but I'll take $1 million out of the $11 million for you."

After a pause, Gilden adds wistfully, "He said he knew me all my life, and that I knew things nobody else knew, and that I was his best friend. Too bad he couldn't leave me the million."

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