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Helton '72 returns to his alma mater

Barry McNamara
Lon Helton didn’t come to Monmouth College in the fall of 1968 to play football for the Fighting Scots, but it’s clear that the longtime host of Country Countdown USA understands gridiron terminology.

“Every day is an audible at the line of scrimmage,” said Helton of the continuous change he’s seen in the music industry, which began at Monmouth College his freshman year.

The 1972 graduate has come a long way from his first radio gig at the college’s station, WFS. How far has he come? From doing a two-hour shift on campus on Friday nights to being named National Broadcast Personality of the Year four times, including 2009 by the Academy of Country Music.

Originally intending to major in chemistry at Monmouth, Helton said he reached a “minor epiphany” when he realized he was more excited about his upcoming 6 – 8 p.m. radio show than he was about the three-hour lab session that came right before it.

That tipping point, in a nutshell, is what makes Monmouth College special, said Helton, who is sharing his expertise with students this week as part of the college’s Alumni Distinguished Visitor program. He also figures to be back in Monmouth a few weeks from now, when his class celebrates its 40th reunion.

“It’s absurd to ask an 18-year-old to pick what they want to do for the rest of their lives,” said Helton, who was inducted into the Country Radio DJ Hall of Fame in 2006. “The great thing about Monmouth is that you’re able to change your focus without having to leave to go to another school. Monmouth had a great reputation in chemistry when I was a student. It was a real powerhouse. But there was quality in the other disciplines, too.”

In fact, he said, one of his biggest regrets from his undergraduate days is not branching out more than he actually did.

“They say youth is wasted on the young,” he said. “There were some world-class people on the faculty then – professors like Sam Thompson and Stafford Weeks. I wish I’d paid more attention to that. I didn’t realize the greatness I was surrounded by.”

He did, however, have lots of exposure to longtime theater professor James De Young, immersing himself in all aspects of the craft.

“Dr. De Young was pretty adventurous,” said Helton of the productions from that era. “I was a soldier in an Ibsen play, and I was a hedgehog in ‘Reynard the Fox.’ In fact, I still have the papier-maché mask. … You could get your hands dirty at Monmouth and get involved. You didn’t have to wait until a slot opened up, or until you were a senior.”

As a sophomore, Helton directed a production of “The Fantasticks.” The cast had only one female role, and it was played “by a freshman girl (Anne Buckhouse) who I’d never met before. … This July, we’ll be married 40 years.”

Helton said he chose Monmouth College due to the influence of Cleo Stephens Fowler ’36, who was one of his teachers at Bloom Township High School in Chicago Heights, Ill.

“She should have been paid as a recruiter by Monmouth,” he said. “Bloom had a huge contingent of students here for the longest time.”

Two of those students matriculated at Monmouth a year before Helton – Gabe Aprati and Heinz Brisske. An overnight stay in their Fulton Hall dorm room convinced Helton that Monmouth was the place for him.

Almost 45 years after that visit, Helton uses Aprati as an example of what life can throw in the way of audibles, and how a Monmouth College education provides “adaptability.”

“Gabe was an English major at Monmouth,” Helton said. “Now he’s the manager of an oil company.”

An example from Helton’s industry is the college’s previous Alumni Distinguished Visitor, Ron Spaulding ’86, a government and philosophy major who is now president of INgrooves/Fontana, an independent music distribution company.

Even after Helton locked on to a career path, which saw him begin at radio stations in Monmouth and Galesburg before his first big break in Denver (he received that break after sending an entry tape to a Billboard Magazine contest), change has still been his constant companion.

“In 1983, I went from being a DJ and a programmer to putting out a trade publication. I was cranking out 2,000 words a week, which is very different from what I’d been doing. We’re back to that word ‘change.’

Today, at Country Aircheck, where Helton is editor and publisher, “We put out an HTML newsletter every day, and a PDF once a week. Electronic delivery allowed me to get into the game. To set up a newspaper and do 100 pages of print every day wouldn’t have been possible.”

He added, “I’ve heard this figure quoted, and I believe it’s true: the amount of change we used to see in 100 years takes place in 10 years now.”

Helton has been recognized as country radio’s best-known star interviewer, but he says the genre is full of “genuine” people, making the term “interview” a bit irrelevant.

“Not all of them are from the Midwest – Keith Urban is from Australia – but they all have that work ethic you associate with the Midwest. They aren’t overnight successes; they’ve worked their way up. They’re very real people.”

Every week, Helton hosts the show with a different star, and he believes that country music is the best genre for such a format.

“When they come in to tape a three-hour show, it takes about 90 minutes of their time. So this really couldn’t work in other formats, where 90 minutes is like gold for those stars. … Nashville is just such a special place. There’s the story of Garth Brooks attending one of the regular Fan Fair events and signing autographs for 24 hours straight. There’s just a great affinity there between the artists and their fans.”

When he’s not sitting down for a chat for with such stars as Urban or Brad Paisley, Helton has served on the board of directors for the Country Music Association and has been its president and chairman. Away from the industry, Helton’s passion is cars, specifically Corvettes.

Change was also a part of Helton’s Monmouth experience, as any person who lived through the tumultuous period of the late 1960s can attest.

“There was incredible change in the country during that amazing time,” said Helton, who had a front row seat for some of that while spending a semester in Washington, D.C., in 1971. “The music we were playing reflected that, too. You went from playing upbeat songs by the Archies and the Beatles, to very dark, heavy stuff by bands like the Doors. You became much more aware of what was going on nationally.”

Helton’s advice for the students four decades behind him at Monmouth is “be prepared and keep learning.” Asked what drove his own success “up the charts,” so to speak, Helton modestly replied, “Pretty much luck. Providence, luck, happenstance, whatever you choose to call it. It really comes down to doing what you love, and then it falls into line. … As it’s happening, you don’t ever realize that you’re being prepared, but all these great professors I had at Monmouth were having that effect on me.”