Lee Pete answers the phone, and the voice that spoke to millions of people for thousands of nights sounds familiarly strong and vibrant.
“Hello? Hey, how are you, baby? How’s everything? You good?”
Pete sounds great. Particularly for a guy who is dying.
The man who talked about sports on the radio in the Midwest in 1951 and brought sports talk radio to Las Vegas in 1970 has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — ALS, or what more commonly is known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Pete is 82 years old, and he’s winding down a life that he claims he didn’t deserve to have because he had too much fun living it.
“I have nothing to complain about,” Pete said while lying flat on his back at the Toledo, Ohio, home of Patti Cartlidge, his friend and guardian angel. “I had the greatest (expletive) life anyone could have had. Running saloons. Chasing broads. Talking on the radio. I had so much fun, I feel guilty.
“Life is what you make of it, and I always enjoyed every day. Who had it better than me?”
Who indeed? Whether it was sitting alongside football legend Jim Brown doing “The Stardust Line” radio show or rubbing elbows with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin or fielding phone calls by the pool of his Las Vegas home from Steve Wynn, Pete had become a Las Vegas celebrity.
“Don’t forget all the prisons,” Pete said. “The inmates, they loved me. They couldn’t wait to hear who we gave out over the air.”
Yes, the prisons. The inmates would listen in their cells to see who Dave Cokin or Andy Iskoe or Donnie Bader liked in the Cowboys-Redskins game, or if Brown could offer insight that might sway their opinion.
For 32 years, Pete was Las Vegas sports talk radio. His nightly show on 50,000-watt KDWN-AM (720), which ran from 1970 to 1998, reached millions in 14 western states, as well as Canada and Mexico. When listeners of his show visited from out of town, being in the audience at whatever hotel he was doing his show from and meeting Lee Pete was near the top of their must-do list.
Pete remained on the air at a couple of stations following his 1998 departure from KDWN until 2002, when he decided to devote all his energies to his wife, Lila, the love of his life, who was sick.
‘YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE’
“I never liked my voice,” Pete said. “I think it stinks. I never had a great command of the English language. I wasn’t a great storyteller. But what the hell, you only live once.”
Maybe ALS has affected his thinking because Pete had a wonderful voice and had a great way with words. No one on the air in Las Vegas — before or since — could tell a story the way he could.
“He was homespun and old school,” said Larry Grossman, a longtime friend of Pete’s and a former talk show host. “He would spin yarns about Mickey Mantle, Al Kaline, the Tigers. He was a terrific storyteller.”
By the time he decided to walk away from the microphone late in 2002, things were going haywire. Joe Delaney, one of his closest friends and his on-air partner during their afternoon talk show on KRLV-AM (1230), died in August of that year. Lila was getting progressively worse with her diabetes and was having problems with her heart and lungs.
By early 2005, Pete was dealing with his own health issues; he was diagnosed with diabetes. He started feeling funny. He went to his doctor and got the news: He had ALS.
ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. When the motor neurons from the brain to the spinal cord die, the ability of the brain to initiate and control muscle movement is lost. However, the disease doesn’t affect a person’s mind.
And the disease has no cure.
“It’s an insidious disease,” Pete said. “But the nice thing about this disease is you don’t know what the (expletive) you’re doing.”
He never told Lila because she had issues of her own, and he didn’t want to add to her burden. She was near death.
In fact, few people knew of Pete’s condition. After Lila died in the summer of 2005, he lived alone in Henderson, becoming a recluse.
He was deteriorating so rapidly from ALS that he didn’t want anyone to see him.
As his condition worsened and Pete withdrew further, one old friend still was within reach. He called Cartlidge and told her of his situation. She told him to come home to Toledo, where Pete had been a high school and college football star quarterback. She would look after him.
“I first met him when I was 27,” Cartlidge, now 70, said of Pete. “I had heard so much about him, I had to meet him.”
She went over to his bar, and they hit it off. She had no idea they would become this close in this kind of predicament. But she’s grateful fate brought them together late in life.
“It’s been the greatest experience of my life,” said Cartlidge, who spent 38 years as a special education teacher in Toledo. “I believe in life. I don’t get depressed. I live a positive life. I understand the ballgame. …
“I don’t look at him as someone who is dying. As long as I can see him smile and laugh, everything’s good.”
‘I’M A (EXPLETIVE) TRAIN WRECK’
It took a recent column in his hometown paper, the Toledo Blade, for people in Las Vegas to know what happened to Pete. He might have been able to hide from the telephone, but Pete was no match for the power of the Internet.
“I’ve had eight or nine people call me the last few days,” he said in May. “How they tracked me down, I have no idea. I don’t know anything about computers. But I don’t mind.”
His friends are glad to know he’s alive.
“He’s a brave guy,” said Lem Banker, a local professional gambler who has known Pete since the day he arrived in Las Vegas in 1970. “He’s going out with class.
“Being with him made you feel so good. He treated everyone with respect.”
Cokin, who got his first break on the radio from Pete in 1987 and now co-hosts a sports talk radio show, said Pete was as congenial off the air as he was on the air.
“There was no difference whatsoever,” Cokin said. “The guy who was on the radio was the same guy once he turned off his mike.
“Lee never pretended to be an investigative journalist. He never pretended to know more than he did, but he knew a lot. Listening to Lee was like going to your neighborhood bar and Lee’s your bartender.”
He’s willing to chat on the phone. But Pete doesn’t want to be interviewed in person, nor does he want photographers taking pictures of him.
“Trust me, you don’t want to see me. I’m a (expletive) train wreck,” he said. “I’m flat on my (expletive) back. I tried to grab a glass of orange juice with my left hand, and I couldn’t feel my fingers. I had to use my right hand.”
‘NOTHING SCARES ME’
Pete was born in Toledo, and he plans to die in Toledo. He knows it’s going to be sooner than later. Maybe the next couple of months. But his plans for the afterlife are set.
“I’m going to be cremated, and Patti’s going to keep the ashes,” Pete said matter-of-factly. “Her family has a crypt here, and, when she goes, they’ll place my urn inside the coffin with her, and we’ll be together.”
Pete insists he’s not bitter about his situation.
“I’m not afraid to die,” Pete said. “I’ve been married twice. Nothing scares me.”
He might not be doing well, but his self-deprecating humor remains intact. He recalled the time Michael Jordan came by the Stardust in 1986 to be on the show. Jordan said to Pete on the air, “When this show goes south, you can be my driver.” Pete responded, “Here’s my home telephone number.”
“We had a lot of good times — a lot of fun,” Pete said of his years on the air. “I never took myself seriously. It was never about me. We were just trying to tell a few stories, have a few laughs, get people through whatever they were going through.”
Pete was more conversationalist than conventional talk show host. He was and remains a great storyteller. The highlight of his radio run was the night in the early 1980s when he had Joe Namath appear on “The Stardust Line” along with Brown. But how he got Namath to come on the show is a story.
“We’re at Caesars Palace, and they just put in these new $5 slot machines,” he said. “My wife wanted to play the slots, so we go over there, and I know everyone. So I’m sitting at the bar with (former Caesars president) Harry Wald and a couple of others, and one of the waitresses says to me, ‘Hey, Lee, there’s Joe Namath.’
“I look over, and there’s Joe and his lawyer sitting at a table, and their heads are laying on the table. They’re wasted. I go over there, tap the lawyer on the shoulder — nothing. He’s out cold. So I go to Namath, tap him on the shoulder and say, ‘Joe, can you hear me?’ He looks up with those bloodshot eyes, and I tell him who I am and ask him to come on the show.
“So I got him to come to the Stardust. He was staying at the Hilton, and I go on the air, and I tell the audience — we usually had about 600, 700 people there to watch the show — that we’re going to have a special guest, Joe Namath. Now, I don’t know if he’s going to show up or not, but Jim (Brown) told me he would. But wouldn’t you know within a half hour, they had over 1,000 people in the sports book? They were sitting in the aisles. They were blocking the exits. The fire marshal came by, and he went nuts. But that was the best night we ever had.”
‘THE WORLD BYPASSED ME’
In his 32-year Las Vegas run, Pete worked at 11 hotels. He bought his time on KDWN rather than work as an employee of the station.
“It was better that way,” he said. “In 28 years at that station, I wasn’t there more than 300 nights. I was always doing the show from the hotels.”
Pete remembered when he started doing shows on KDWN, and the original studio at the Plaza Hotel downtown on Main Street was by the pool.
“I offered to do some afternoon shifts, and it was hard to concentrate with all the broads out at the pool,” he said with a laugh. “Then we went upstairs to the second floor, and it wasn’t quite as distracting.
“Let me tell you something: Radio studios are a pain in the ass. People are sniping at each other. There’s all the politics. Who needs that? That’s why I loved the hotels. You come in, you do the show, you mingle for a bit, maybe grab a bite, and you’re done.”
Pete said he got out at the right time. Today’s local sports talk radio, much of it based on the hosts’ lives, sometimes emanating from strip clubs, isn’t much about sports.
“The world bypassed me,” Pete said. “I got out at the perfect time. The hotels had changed. The town had grown so big. It took an hour to go from one hotel to another.”
Pete said his low-key style was just him being himself.
“I wasn’t trying to impress anybody or go for ratings,” he said. “Hell, they never bought the (Arbitron ratings) book (at KDWN). They were too cheap. But we knew what we had. I was just being me, and that was good enough.”
Pete said he hasn’t listened to the radio in a couple of years. He could not care less that folks in Toledo want to hang Detroit Lions president Matt Millen for ruining the franchise. He isn’t concerned about the Tigers nearly winning the World Series last year, or the postseason efforts of the Pistons and Red Wings.
“When you get to your 80s, why worry about the Lions?” he said. “What’s the purpose? I don’t want to hear all the complaining. Who needs that?”
‘I SMOKE 20 CIGARS A DAY’
To pass the time, Pete reads, chats on the phone and watches television.
“I read the paper every morning to see who died and make sure my picture’s not in there with the rest of them,” he said. “I watch a lot of old movies on TV, and I smoke 20 cigars a day.”
Do his doctors know Pete is puffing away?
“Does it matter?” he said. “I got (expletive) ALS. I haven’t been to the doctor in three months. What’s he going to do for me? Unless they came up with a cure, and I haven’t heard about it, what’s the difference how many (expletive) cigars I smoke?
“If you don’t go out on your terms, you’re crazy.”
That’s why Pete refuses assisted living. He feels better off under Cartlidge’s care than in a nursing home.
But Pete knows it’s only a matter of time before his obituary is written. He has the lead paragraph in his mind.
“Lee Pete looked up, saw it was fourth-and-long, and he decided it was time to punt,” he said of how he would like his obit to read.
As the angels line up in punt formation, Pete said he plans to go out with a cigar in his mouth and a smile on his face.
“A perfect end to a perfect life,” he said.