Lee Pete was a one-man Chamber of Commerce for Las Vegas.
Millions of radio listeners heard his voice throughout the West during the 1970s and well into the ’90s. When Pete encouraged listeners in California or Arizona to drive to Las Vegas for a cheap room, cheap food and a good time, many took him up on the offer.
Pete, one of the pioneers of sports-talk radio, died Thursday in his hometown of Toledo, Ohio, after a lengthy battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He was 85.
“When you listened to Lee, you thought you were listening to a friend,” said Dave Cokin, who co-hosted Pete’s show in Las Vegas in the late 1980s and is now a co-host on ESPN 1100. “We would be in a hotel doing a show and people would come up to him to talk during the breaks, and he made them feel like he was their best friend. That always stuck with me.
“He was the most genuine friendly guy I’ve ever met.”
Larry Grossman, a longtime close friend of Pete, said: “Lee was the godfather of sports-talk radio. He was a direct link to the past that seems so far away. He was loved by his peers and his listeners. His manner and wide-eyed innocence were something that will be missed.”
Lem Banker, a well-known professional gambler and one of Pete’s closest friends, said: “He was the Perry Como of broadcasting. He was so smooth. He made everyone feel good. He treated everyone with respect.”
Born in Toledo on Nov. 14, 1924, Pete attended Libby High School and later served as an Army Air Force pilot during World War II. Upon his return from overseas in 1945, he became a star quarterback at the University of Toledo and had unsuccessful tryouts with the NFL’s Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers. Pete opened a saloon in Toledo, and in 1951, at the suggestion of friends, he went on radio in his hometown to talk about sports.
A career was born.
With his trademark cigar in the corner of his mouth and a silky-smooth baritone voice, Pete eventually made his way to Las Vegas in 1970. He did his show on KDWN, a 50,000-watt clear channel AM station, from a rotation of 11 hotels, including a stint at the Stardust in the early 1980s with Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown as his co-host.
Their “Stardust Line” show, originating from the hotel’s race and sports book, played to live audiences of hundreds. The show reached millions of listeners as football fans and bettors — sharps and squares alike — tuned in for analysis and selections of that week’s college and NFL games.
In between his colorful stories, Pete always sold Las Vegas. KDWN’s reach into 11 western states as well as Canada and Mexico gave him a broad audience. And he believed in the hotels and the opportunities for customers they provided.
“It’s funny, but he never was a hard-sell kind of guy,” Cokin said. “He wasn’t as slick as the LVCVA, but he may have been just as effective because he was so genuine in promoting Las Vegas. He truly loved it here, and I think the listeners realized that.”
Pete also befriended virtual nobodies and turned them into celebrities. Donnie Bader, Pete’s sidekick for many years, was a sports nut from Wisconsin. He was a quirky character with a high-pitched voice. Pete took a liking to him and he became a regular on the show, giving out football picks and doing movie reviews.
When Cokin came to Las Vegas from Providence, R.I., in 1987, he befriended Pete and eventually joined him on KDWN.
“I owe everything I have to Lee,” Cokin said.
Pete stuck with his show on KDWN until 1998. He later did an afternoon show for two years on KRLV-AM with the late Joe Delaney, with the two old friends waxing nostalgic. Pete also served as the original host in 1978 of the “Proline” television show, which featured national handicappers giving out picks during the college and pro football season.
Pete’s health began to go downhill in 2002 as he dealt with diabetes and circulation issues. His wife at the time, Lila, was also ill, and Pete devoted himself to her care until her death in 2002.
In 2005, with his health deteriorating from ALS, Pete reacquainted with a friend from his youth, Patti Cartlidge. She convinced him to return to Toledo, they were married on Sept. 8, 2007, and she cared for him until his death. Pete was bedridden for the last two years.
“I’m not afraid to die,” Pete told the Review-Journal in 2007. “I’ve been married twice. Nothing scares me.”
In addition to wife Patti, Pete is survived by former wife Jackie Perenchio of Las Vegas, sons Robin Thaxton, Lee Thaxton and Jeff Caufman and daughter Cindy Fink, all of Las Vegas. Pete is also survived by grandsons Cash Thaxton, Matthew Fink, Joshua Fink, Chad Caufman and granddaughters Evan Thaxton and Chelsea Caufman, all of Las Vegas, nieces Jill Hunter and Joan McLaughlin and nephews Tom Cole, Tim Cole and Terry Cole of Ohio.
According to his wife, Pete is to be cremated and a visitation and memorial party will be held next week in Toledo.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made in Pete’s name to the ALS Association of America.
Contact reporter Steve Carp at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2913.