“After living on a farm for my first 21 years, I got tired of getting up at 5:30 to milk cows. So I went off to school to become a radio announcer. Now I get up at 3:30.”
That is what Orion Samuelson, the “Voice of American Agriculture,” told me some years ago.
People could listen to Samuelson as early as 4:50 a.m. Central time on the radio. Together with his associate, Max Armstrong, they broadcasted 14 daily agri-busness reports Monday through Saturday until 9 p.m. When I lived in Chicago, I heard him several times a day on WGN (“World’s Greatest Newspaper” – the station owned by the Chicago Tribune). This 50,000-watt clear channel station carried Samuelson’s voice to millions of listeners.
Besides radio WGN, Orion’s daily “National Farm Report” is heard on 260 radio stations, and his weekly “Samuelson Sez” is heard on 140 radio stations. In 1975, he started a weekly TV show, “U.S. Farm Report,” which today is carried on 200 television stations as well as the RFD-TV Channel on Dish-TV and DirecTV.
Starting out in a one-room country grade school near Sparta, Wis., Orion developed Leggs-Perthes disease at age 14. This is an ailment in which the bone around the hip joint decays. During the first summer, he was in a body cast, flat on his back. He listened to Chicago Cubs baseball games on WLS and decided to be a radio announcer. After two years of convalescing in a wheel chair and with crutches, he got his public speaking training through FFA.
In high school, Samuelson worked the public address system for basketball games. Then he entered the University of Wisconsin at Madison for radio training. They wanted to make a writer out of him. Orion said, “No, thanks,” and went to Brown Institute in Minneapolis. After six months, he took a job at the Sparta station. He still had to get up at 5:30 and milk cows before going to work. Then he moved to Appleton and Green Bay. Big time – WGN in Chicago – came in 1960 when the station’s regular farm broadcaster joined John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign.
Traveling more than 65,000 miles per year, Samuelson’s advice was sought by the U.S. secretaries of agriculture. In August 1983, he was with John Block as media observer when the U.S./USSR Grain Agreement was signed in Moscow. He has also been in the Far East and Great Britain. He has been master of ceremonies for more than 100 meetings a year, including President Reagan’s 1984 “Hometown Birthday Party” in Dixon, Ill.
Samuelson has received many recognitions and awards during his career. Most recently, in November 2003, he received the highest award in his profession when Paul Harvey presented him for induction into the National Radio Hall of Fame, in which Samuelson joined names like Bob Hope, Red Skelton, Larry King, Harry Carey, Jack Benny and Gene Autrey.
He is also part of the National 4-H, National Corn Growers Association, American Soybean Association, National Association of County Agricultural Agents Association, the National Association of Conservation Districts, The American Farm Bureau Federation, Alpha Gamma Rho and many more. In 2001 he received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from the University of Illinois.
His foreign travels on behalf of agriculture have taken him to 43 countries, including Scotland, England, Hungary, France, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Austria, Canada, Mexico, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Thailand, the People’s Republic of China and Russia.
He has been vice chairman of the board of directors of the Illinois Agricultural Leadership Foundation, a member of the Illinois State Fair Advisory Board, and has been president of the National Association of the Farm Broadcasters Foundation. He has also served as a public director of the Chicago Board of Trade and the FFA Foundation Sponsor Committee. It’s difficult to measure his influence on agriculture except to say it has been outstanding.
Samuel’s interests have not been limited to agriculture. He has been chairman of the board of deacons for Trinity Lutheran Church in Evanston, Ill., and served seven years on the board of governors for the Lutheran General Medical Center in Park Ridge, Ill., when I was teaching there. He currently serves as director of the Cornerstone Foundation of Lutheran Social Services of Illinois and honorary chairman of the Capital Fund Raising Program for Wartburg Seminary in Dubuque.
It was my privilege in 1985 to present him for induction into the Scandinavian-American Hall of Fame at the Norsk Hostfest in Minot, N.D. He represents the best in the Scandinavian heritage.
Next week: The Scandinavians visit America.
ARLAND FISKE, a retired Lutheran minister who previously lived in Laporte and now lives in Texas, is the author of 10 books on Scandinavian themes.