My cousin, Don Baird, died last week. Don was a radio personality during the heyday of radio at the South’s most prestigious station, WSB in Atlanta. He was also a news anchor at CNN for 15 years when television was new and newsmen were, first and foremost, highly trained and experienced journalists. My favorite memories of Don include trips home to Georgia from college in Kentucky when my sister Joan and I would eagerly scan the radio dial waiting for the moment when we entered the reach of Georgia’s WSB radio station where we could hear Don giving the news in his distinctive, professional voice. Even though we loved to hear our cousin on those trips, it was not until his memorial service that I learned that he was called, “The Voice of the South.”
Four radio celebrities from the golden era of radio spoke at Don’s service and told family and friends things that we didn’t know about Don.
• Mike Kavanagh, a veteran broadcaster in Washington and New York, as well as Atlanta, is a news anchor and winner of numerous journalism awards for investigative reporting and public service awards for his work in the community. An author and financial advisor, he has hosted the popular, award-winning financial advice program, Money Matters, since 1990. Mike described Don as a multi-talented broadcaster who could take information and shape it into a news item in record time. But Mike focused on Don’s ability to make celebrities so comfortable in interviews that they would reveal themselves and provide information previously unknown to the public. Mike described a particularly memorable experience when he accompanied Don to interview Bob Hope. Don established such rapport with Hope that the two journalists were invited to spend the afternoon just hanging around with the famous Bob Hope.
• Don Kennedy was known to generations of children as “Officer Don” on the pioneering WSB-TV children’s show, The Popeye Club. Later, he operated a statewide radio network, but he is best known for the syndicated radio show, Big Band Jump, an “enormously popular” show that highlights big band era music and broadcast history for today’s audience. The minute he speaks, you know this man is a radio personality. What a voice, and what an entertainer! But at my cousin’s memorial service, he spoke of Don Baird’s voice with awe and admiration. He also told us about Don’s creativity and masterful ability to entertain a radio and television audience. He described Don’s 15-year career as a CNN news anchor during a time of journalistic integrity and professionalism.
• Mike McDougald, a member of Georgia’s Broadcaster’s Hall of Fame, told about the thrill of working with Don on WSB’s clear-channel broadcasts during that “golden era” of radio journalism and during the fledgling years of television. Mike emphasized Don’s journalistic integrity and talked about how important it was during that era to “get the story right.”
• Aubrey Morris, a consummate reporter, interviewed every president from Truman through Reagan. “Generations of young reporters learned their craft” from Aubrey; more importantly, he taught them the importance of “enterprise and integrity.” Clearly a professional from the “old school,” The Atlanta Journal said that Aubrey Morris was news director at WSB from 1957 to “almost forever.” His remarks about Don were beautifully crafted and were a highly memorable tribute. He described Don as embodying “quiet competence.” He repeated several times that Don was “highly” competent and always worked with competence and professionalism. Don, he said, could take any story and make it interesting and applicable to the radio or television audience. Don was gifted with the ability, according to Aubrey, to take complexity and make it understandable and “fascinating” to ordinary people.
What was most amazing to me, though, was meeting five people who grew up on the same street with Don in Thomaston, Georgia, a town of only 10,000 people. The street in that small town produced at least five very competent, creative and caring professionals. Among them, Harry Middlebrooks became Don’s partner in writing music. Harry described how he and Don would perform in the back yard as children and the quartet and band they formed in high school. Harry went on to perform as the opening act for Elvis Presley and numerous other well-known performers (Johnny Mathis, Four Freshmen, Jose Feliciano, Neil Diamond, etc). His songs were recorded by Tom Jones, Andy Williams, and others. He expressed his appreciation for Don’s creativity and talent in songwriting and during the lunch after the memorial service, we heard in the background many of the songs that Harry and Don wrote separately and together. One of Don’s most memorable songs was recorded by Willie Nelson.
What was lost in the service, however, was the fact that Don was an only child. After his parents’ deaths years ago, my mother welcomed Don into our family, and he became another son — there for the Christmas dinners and along on the family vacations. Don would entertain the other seven of us siblings with his fascinating stories and sing some of his wonderful songs.
We loved Don because he was Don and because he was so much fun and such an interesting and intriguing personality. In typical Baird fashion, he was self-deprecating and always turned the attention to others. We had to learn from his friends after he was gone about his contributions to the golden age of radio and just how uniquely talented and famous he was in that very special circle of professional broadcasters and newsmen.