By Dr. Mark DePue
Orion Samuelson was the voice of agriculture on Chicago's legendary WGN Radio for well over fifty years. In that role he became a trusted friend for farmers throughout the Midwest and a passionate advocate for their causes. He met presidents and world leaders, and traveled the globe. It was a world and a career he could not have imaged while growing up on a small farm in southwest Wisconsin in the 1940s.
Young Orion was no stranger to daily chores while growing up on the family's dairy farm, and he took it all in stride.
Living in the country meant walking a mile to the one-room schoolhouse, where Orion's teacher held sway over students from grades one through eight. Only when fierce winter winds blew the snow into deep drifts would his father help get the children to school.
One of Orion's clearest memories while growing up was the day in 1948 when the Rural Electric Cooperative hooked up the Samuelson farm with electricity.
But 1948 was also the year that fate intervened and changed fourteen-year-old Orion's life forever. He had grown up knowing he would spend his life as a farmer and was looking forward to playing basketball in high school. But persistent leg pain that summer sent him and his parents to a doctor in Lacrosse. The doctor's prognosis dashed all of Orion's dreams.
Confined to his bed for the next two years with Legg-Perthes disease, Orion had plenty of time to consider what his future would be if farming was no longer an option. The radio next to his bed was a constant companion, an escape from boredom as he listened to Chicago Cubs games, music and ag news. With the encouragement of Robert Gehring, his vocational agriculture teacher, Orion began to envision a life as a radio broadcaster.
By 1960, Orion had achieved his dream and was already an established name in the world of radio, broadcasting from WBAY in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Still, he wondered if he was ready for the big time. That's when fate intervened once again.
That handshake led to over fifty years with WGN Radio, broadcasting at one of the Midwest's flagship stations from the Tribune Tower in downtown Chicago. The job gave Orion opportunities he could never have imagined while confined to his bed in 1948. One especially memorable experience was a trip to China in 1985, a country that was just beginning to open its doors to the rest of the world.
Today, at 86, Orion's deep baritone voice can still be heard occasionally on WGN, a trusted friend to farmers across America's heartland.
Dr. Mark DePue is director of the ALPLM's Oral History Program. You can hear all of Samuelson's extensive interview at www.oralhistory.illinois.gov.