SCOTT SIMON, host:
One of America's most familiar voices has died. Paul Harvey was 90. Until very recently, was still heard by millions on his daily ABC radio show.
NPR's Robert Smith has more.
ROBERT SMITH: His sound was instantly recognizable.
Mr. PAUL HARVEY (Newscaster, ABC News): Hello Americans, this is Paul Harvey. Stand by for news.
SMITH: And at the height of his fame, more than 22 million people would stand by, waiting for his signature mix of the serious and the absurd, delivered in a unique, Midwestern staccato. He was famous for the anecdotes he'd tell about the lives of famous people.
Mr. HARVEY: Now, the rest of the story.
SMITH: The gimmick was that he wouldn't reveal the person's name until the final words of the broadcast. He would've loved telling this epic story about a radio pioneer born and raised in the South.
Mr. HARVEY: My father was a lawman in the early, dirt-street days of Tulsa, Oklahoma. He was shot to death when I was 3. So surely, at least some of my stubborn reverence for a policeman's uniform dates back to that night before Christmas many lonely years ago.
SMITH: Perhaps it was that loneliness that made this young man fall in love with words and run off to join the radio. At 14, he began his career by sweeping the floors of an AM station in Tulsa. Soon, he was sweeping the streets for news, reporting and announcing in Kansas, St. Louis, finally arriving in the city he would call home, Chicago. There, he became more storyteller than newscaster.
Mr. HARVEY: Oh, in Nashville, Tennessee, Albert Henry Stone fell asleep at the wheel, and his car ran through a busy intersection and jumped the curb, and tore down a fence and bounced off three buildings before it stalled out. You know Henry's unhurt, but awake.
SMITH: That was in 1963, and as the radioman would later recall, he was living the glamorous life of an ABC anchor: getting up at 3:30 in the morning, eating a bowl of oatmeal, and pouring over news clippings.
Mr. HARVEY: I tried to select from tens of thousands of possibilities, those stories which I think you need to know, and those stories which I think you want to know.
SMITH: And he'd toss in a few stories to reflect his belief in God and country.
Mr. HARVEY: Well, Cuba is desperately hungry, a universally needy nation. They took it away from the rich people, all right. So now, everybody is poor.
SMITH: He was a supporter of Senator Joseph McCarthy and an early backer of the Vietnam War. That's why his most famous broadcast may have been in 1970, when he announced his opposition to Nixon's expansion of the war. He said, Mr. President, I love you, but you're wrong.
By the time the anchor was in his 80s, his voice started to betray him. In 2001, throat problems took him off the air temporarily. His son started to fill in for him. Then last year, his wife and longtime producer, Lynne Harvey, died. When the radioman returned to the air months afterwards, he wasn't the same.
Mr. HARVEY: The loneliest days of my loneliest winter are still very much with me. The years don't always add wisdom, but they always add perspective.
SMITH: His famous anecdotes always had this twist at the end. But this tale finishes just as it began, with a man who loved words and knew how to deliver them. If you've ever listened to AM radio, you already know the rest of the story, and you know his name.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HARVEY: Paul Harvey, good day.
SMITH: And a sad day for his many fans. Paul Harvey is dead at the age of 90.
Robert Smith, NPR News.
SIMON: I knew Paul Harvey all of my life. He was a friend of father's in Chicago, and we always found him to be classy, clever, resonant, dapper and enduring. He never retired, never got jaded, and even at the age of 90, never stopped thinking about what he'd do next.
For almost 60 years, as Robert said, he got up in the middle of the night to scour stories around the world. Now, anyone can do that or think they are, on a mobile phone these days, but when Paul started Paul Harvey News and Comment in 1951, he had wire machines installed in his bathroom, arising to their clatter so he could search for stories he thought were overlooked by the news.
Smaller human stories that often ended on the note of hope: lost dog that found his way back to his family who'd never stopped hoping, the orphan child who grew up to win the Nobel Prize. Those stories were small capsules of optimism people could swallow when so much of the news was so bleak. You could forget some of the ingenuity and joy in human beings.
Over the years, whenever Paul had another milestone birthday, I would get calls from reporters who wanted to contrast us as broadcasters who both happened to be Chicagoans. He was older, I was younger. He had a fine, deep voice that I always thought pealed like some grand church organ, which no one would ever say about mine.
And we certainly seemed to hold different attitudes and opinions. But Paul and I always declined to play along with what they had in mind. We preferred to see similarities, which flattered me. Because Paul was an original, he was easy to imitate, even mock. That's sometimes the price of being distinctive. Because he lasted so long, he was easy to dismiss as old school.
But when I hear the best contemporary broadcasters, including our friends Ira Glass and Peter Sagal, I can hear some of Paul's flare for unveiling a pause for dramatic emphasis, and spinning stories from some of the episodes in life that the news often leaves on the floor.
SIMON: There's really only one way to say goodbye to Paul Harvey, isn't there? Good day.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.