Arnold Dean: A Kinder, Gentler Era Of Sports Talk

Cacophony Of Today's Radio Doesn't Lend Itself To Gentlemen Like Him

Arnold Dean, a legendary broadcaster for WTIC Radio, died Saturday.

Arnold Dean never called himself the "Dean of Sports." It was radio hucksterism, it was presumptuous, and he knew it. If the three-word brainchild of a station producer was to be his legacy, well, it would be an orphan from his lips.

Mr. Dean was the "Gentleman of Sports."

In an age when radio and television sports talk has become nothing short of full-armor battle and call-in sports show discussions burn with rage and insolence, his open-armed approach seemed as anachronistic as holding a door for a lady or following a please with a simple thank you.

Every night for years and years on WTIC, he invited us in, allowed us to sit at his table and never screamed abusive words or nonnegotiable absolutes at us. We could throw up our feet on his 50,000-watt front porch any time we wanted.

Mr. Dean's unexpected passing Saturday at 82 was a sad day for Connecticut sports and for the Connecticut sports media. It was a sad day, too, for grace and civility.

"Because his personality was so gentle, so natural, people would ask me, 'Is Arnold really that nice off the air?'" said Joe D'Ambrosio, the voice of UConn athletics and an heir to Dean's WTIC "Sports Talk." "I'd say, 'No. He's even nicer.'"

He pulled into Hartford from upstate New York in 1965 as Arnold D'Angelo, the son of an Italian immigrant who named him after British historian Arnold Toynbee. He retired but he never totally retired, popping up on WTIC from time to time, an old friend returning home. He leaves us as one of Connecticut's most beloved media figures.

Mr. Dean did sports shows. He did big band shows. He did morning shows. He did a cooking show. He did Whalers games. He traded witticisms with Colin McEnroe. He even did the first basketball game ever on ESPN. His interviews with so many jazz immortals have been requested by the Library of Congress. His favorite interview? Guess every sports figure in the past 100 years and you'd still be guessing. Dean, an all-state clarinet player, always said it was Artie Shaw, the great jazz clarinetist from New Haven.

Yet it would be an interview late in 1999 at Madison Square Garden as part of the 20st century Sports Illustrated celebration that Bob Joyce felt encapsulated Mr. Dean's ability to take even the prickly and intimidating and get them to open up.

"We had Dean Smith, Richard Petty, members of the 1980 Olympic hockey team, but the best interview was Jim Brown," said Joyce, who worked the board for Dean's shows and would become the voice of UConn women's basketball. "It was a little harsh at the beginning; you didn't know what to expect. But then Arnold brought up his college days — they're both Syracuse guys from the same era — and Jim Brown just melted. Arnold brought the best of out of Jim Brown that day. I just watched in awe."

D'Ambrosio remembered another interview, the first he heard Mr. Dean do with Carlton Fisk.

"As a Yankee fan growing up and loving Thurman Munson, I'm thinking no way I'm going to like this conversation," D'Ambrosio said. "He was great with Fisk, and Fisk was great him. Arnold could change your opinion about people listening them talk to him."

He listened to callers. He talked with guests, not at them. Disarming, with his sure, soothing voice, Mr. Dean had the damnedest idea of all. He'd be respectful.

D'Ambrosio introduced himself to Mr. Dean at the 1979 Sammy Davis Jr.-Greater Hartford Open at Wethersfield Country Club. Joyce met him at a Tip-A-Whaler dinner in 1988. They both call Mr. Dean a mentor and a friend. Joyce's dad died when he was 22. He said Mr. Dean would also be a father figure.

How was he to work the board with in the heat of call-ins?

"Patient," Joyce said. "Extremely patient."

"He'd tell me, 'Take your time. Slow down a little bit. Be patient,' as far as on-air stuff," D'Ambrosio said. "He mentored me off air just by the way he was. I saw how gentle he was, how good he was people, how willing he was to talk to anybody who approached him."

I knew Mr. Dean for 27 years. I consider him a friend. I also admit there were times when I lived in fear of turning on the radio dial shortly after 6 p.m. His weekly guests over the years included Emile Francis, Brian Burke, Geno Auriemma, Jim Calhoun. There were times after a contentious piece I had written when he asked the appropriate question of one of those weekly guests and my ears burned. Geno went on an all-time diatribe after the Nykesha Sales basket in 1997. I'm still peeling myself off the walls.

Yet when the moment cooled, I was more thankful than angry if he hadn't stuck up more for my point of view. He was able to evoke an honest response. Fairness is a two-way street, and he gave me my say more than once. Mr. Dean was such a gentleman he allowed others not to be as gentlemanly. After he had done everything in radio, I always thought he still had a future in international relations.

"Arnold was a facilitator of conversation," D'Ambrosio said. "He had a gift for making people comfortable anytime they came on the air. He had the ability to make them relax and understand they weren't going to be grilled. That's not to say he wouldn't ask a tough question. I bristled at the criticism that he didn't, or that he didn't know everything. That's crap. It's a skill to admit that if you don't know something, you're looking for the answer."

"Some people said Arnold never took a stand on anything," Joyce said. "He did. He just didn't do it in the way we hear sports talk shows do it today. It was subtle."

If Mr. Dean taught us anything, it's that we need more subtle and less scream.

The last time D'Ambrosio and Joyce saw him, the last time I saw him, was at the Cincinnati-UConn football game Dec. 1. He looked good. Mr. Dean stepped down to the press row to say hi to Desmond Conner and me. He left us with, "See you guys later."

Sadly, there will be no later.

"Arnold was heartbroken last year when Helen [his wife of 56 years] passed away," D'Ambrosio said. "The last few times I saw him, though, I thought he looked great. I thought I'd see him at the station holiday party this week.

"To be honest, I don't know what it's going to be like to walk into the building Monday and know he'll never be back there again."

Joyce was at the high school football championships Saturday when his son called with the news. D'Ambrosio soon called. Joyce, in turn, called Chuck Kaiton, the voice of the Whalers and Carolina Hurricanes. They shared their pain.

"Arnold was one of the most self-effacing yet professional people I've ever worked with in my career," Kaiton said. "A true gentleman."

The first time Kaiton was on the air with Mr. Dean was 1979 at the Big E before the Whalers' exhibition game in Springfield. The most memorable was when he did color with Kaiton at Game 7 in Montreal in 1986 when Claude Lemieux scored in overtime.

"We talked about a month and a half ago," said Kaiton, who last saw Mr. Dean at his induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2004. "He really wanted to come to a Duke basketball and a Hurricanes game. I regret that [he never did]."

D'Ambrosio had a regret, too. Mr. Dean wanted to go with him to do the football coach's show with Paul Pasqualoni one Thursday. The two were at Syracuse at different times in their lives. The man who met everybody never met Pasqualoni.

"I'm sad we never got to do that," Joe D. said.

Mr. Dean did everything else. He traveled the world. He made a world of friends. From the night of Oct. 11, 1976, when he signed on with "Sports Talk," he interviewed half the planet's great athletes. Yet he never called himself the "Dean of Sports." Others would do that for him. For me, he was Mr. Dean. A man who gave so much respect deserved that much in return.

"I think there's always a place for a perfect gentleman hosting a radio show, especially a sports talk show," D'Ambrosio said. "But the nature of it has changed so much I don't know if anybody in management would give that kind of person a chance today. And I think that's the saddest thing of all."

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