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In this story from September 1971, the popular talk-show host shares how his brother taught him to pray.
Some boys grow up resenting an outstanding older brother. That isn’t the way it was in my family. My older brother Bob was a star in everything he did and he was my hero. He was my special champion and protector. He still is, though that takes some explaining.
There were three of us: Bob, who was five years older than I, my sister, Helen, two years older; and I was the baby. We were all scrappy, healthy Irish kids growing up on Chicago’s west side during the Depression years, though having no money didn’t seem to have much meaning for us then.
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My father, who worked for the Canadian Pacific railroad, was away from home a lot, which may be one reason why early in the game Bob assigned himself the job of watching over me. I never thought I needed watching over, but he did, and there were times when I was not sorry.
Bob was big and tough and kind and had a wild temper that could work for my advantage or disadvantage. One of my favorite memories is of the day an English bulldog charged at me as I was walking home from school one afternoon.
The dog’s owner was sitting on his porch and I went up and told him he ought to keep his dog on a chain. The man got so mad that he slapped me. Boy, was it exciting when I told Bob! He did some charging of his own.
I can still see him standing on the man’s porch, that terrible temper steaming, the man peering out but refusing, wisely, to come out.
There was another time though when some pals and I were out joy-riding and we dropped into a honky-tonk.
Somebody saw me there and told Bob and the next day Bob got hold of me and shook me and sat me down and told me exactly why I was not to go into such places. And if I ever went again, and he found out, he said, the shaking I had just survived would seem like child’s play. The point was well taken.
Bob was directly responsible for the greatest thrill of my childhood. He was 17 and a basketball star playing with the Question Marks–that’s what they called their team–and I was 12 and sitting admiringly on the sidelines during a big tournament.
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The Question Marks came down to the final minute with a decisive lead when suddenly Bob left the game. He came over to me and shoved me onto the floor in his place. The ball was passed to me, I took aim and scored!
Most kids just dream about things like that but Bob had the touch for making them come true.
We were a sports-mad family and athletics were the biggest thing in my life until the afternoon mom took me downtown to a vaudeville show at the Chicago Theater. That’s the day the show business bug bit. By the time I was in my middle teens I was picking up money on local singing dates.
Before I was out of my teens I was working on an Oklahoma City radio station, WKY, and it was there in Oklahoma that I met Genevieve and we were married. She was a sophomore in high school and I was 19.
The years passed, and though I was only intermittently in Chicago and our life styles were utterly different, Bob and I remained close. He married, fathered five children, worked as a tile salesman.
He came to be an effective and popular member of his community, as I knew he would, and a strong member of his church. I used to look with respect at the way he conducted his life.
On the other hand, like so many other show business people, I spent the years struggling, hoping, angling for the big break. Eventually it came, but not until I was 35.
From 19 to 35 is a lot of years of waiting; that’s a lot of food cooked in hotel rooms and a lot of pants pressed by Gen in cramped backstages. It’s a lot of maneuvering to keep our twin daughters and Gen and me together as a real family, the way Bob’s family was.