COMMERCE - The month was November. The year was 1982… or ’83… and Dr. W.R. “Bill” Ogden had tuned into 88.9 FM KETR to listen to the Bluegrass Express with Dave Heath.
But instead, he was greeted by classical music. So Bill waited a week, only to get the same result. This prompted a call to then Station Manager Bill Ollerman.
“I said ‘where’s Dave?’ And he said, ‘Dave got mad because he was preempted one too many times by a football game, followed by A Prairie Home Companion. He packed up his records and he’s gone.’ Like a fool I said, ‘Well, I’ve got some bluegrass records. I can fill in a week or two if you’re looking for someone.'”
28 or 29 years later (Bill doesn’t know for sure) the dedicated volunteer is preparing to say goodbye to The Bluegrass Special. His final show is Sunday, August 26, beginning at 7 p.m.
“I don’t believe I ever thought [this would be a long term thing.] I think it was always from now until I get tired of it. And in essence I never got tired of it,” Ogden chuckled.
The engaging, colorful host has been a student of music most of his life. And when not in the studio Sunday nights, he was spending a majority of his time instructing students at Texas A&M University-Commerce in the Department of Secondary and Higher Education. Upon retirement in 2008, Ogden was honored as a Professor Emeritus of Educational Leadership.
He said the blend of teaching and hosting was good for him.
“I don’t enjoy sitting down and doing nothing. I use to tell people it keeps me off the streets and out of bars. In essence, that’s what music does. That’s my hobby, that’s my avocation and this is part of it.”
Ogden grew up in New York. He says he started on the ukulele in the fifth grade, and then moved to guitar, five string banjo, bass, mandolin, and then back on bass.
“Every time I got in a new group there was someone on my old instrument who was better than I was. And if I wanted to be in a group I had to adapt.”
To this day, Ogden plays in Bonham every first Friday and every fourth Saturday. He also sings in the church choir.
"Primarily I’m a singer. I would rather sing that pick.”
But bluegrass music wasn’t on his radar until shortly after Ogden achieved tenure at A&M-Commerce; when he met Stuart Anderson from the math department, who “dragged him kicking” into the genre.
As host of the Bluegrass Special, “Railroad Bill” became his on-air name, and playing CD’s brought from home became his game.
A dedicated volunteer, Ogden not only hosted three hours each Sunday night, but also took some time each week to plan what he was going to play and information he planned to share with his audience about the song, artist, events and bluegrass in general. Simply put, the music drives his motivation.
“So it’s a service to the community, so what? I live here. So why shouldn’t I do something?” Always one to speak his mind, Ogden added with a grin, “I don’t like to do a lot of other things. People have asked me to be on committees for the church, committees for this, committees for that. And I say no. I sing in the choir and I do the bluegrass show. So leave me alone.”
Bill can recall one winter when KETR was still operating out of the Performing Arts Building on the A&M-Commerce campus when he fell on the ice and knocked himself out for a brief while, waking up only to go in and actually complete the show.
“I remember lying out there waking up and saying, ‘where am I? Oh yeah, I’ve got to do the radio show.’”
Recently, Ogden started thinking to himself it’s been long enough.
“Let the station do whatever else it wants to do. I’ve done my thing. I don’t know if there’s anything extra I can bring to this or not. I’ve had my run.”
Coincidentally, KETR’s long serving weekend host and engineer of the Bluegrass Special, Michael Ridley, will finish his career with the station Sunday as well.
“Michael has lasted 11 or 12 years and that’s been fun – getting to know the new kids.”
Ogden added, “Commerce has been a very good place to raise kids, a very good place to work. And I’ve been a winner.”