ST. PAUL -- When Dave Lee was growing up in rural North Dakota, it was expected that he would start working once he was able.
Lee did all sorts of jobs as a teen, including a stint at a sawmill. In his junior year of high school, he and his best friend took a graveyard shift at a potato factory in Grand Forks. (“They made tater tots, which I have not eaten since,” he said.)
One night around 2 a.m., Lee took a break to eat a sandwich in his car. He flipped on the radio for some companionship.
“I was listening to the DJ and he was having so much fun,” Lee said. “I thought I ought to see if I can get a job doing that.”
Friday, April 30, some 60 years after that late night revelation, Lee signed off for the final time as a morning show host on WCCO Radio. Gov. Tim Walz called in for a surprise interview and declared it Dave Lee Day in Minnesota in honor of his “incredible” career.
“Dave is everything you would want a morning show host to be,” said Jimmy Erickson, Lee’s producer at WCCO. “He’s knowledgeable, warm, genuine, and has a wonderful voice and delivery. What you hear on the radio is what Dave Lee is like as a person.”
Lee scored his first radio gig at 18. “It was part-time, a nine-hour shift at a country music station,” Lee said. “But I got to do sports play-by-play three or four times a week, too. The money was terrible, the hours couldn’t be worse, but it was so much fun I stayed in it.”
He did go on to graduate from the University of North Dakota with degrees in history and education, but couldn’t resist the allure of radio. He took a full-time job at KFGO in Fargo, even though his father pleaded, “Seriously, do you think you can make a living in radio?”
During his time at KFGO, Lee applied for a job at WCCO. He didn’t get it, but that was fine as he loved living in Fargo. A few years later, WCCO called back, this time with an offer. “My wife said, ‘I don’t want to hear you 30 years from now wondering if you should have tried it.’”
Lee took her advice and the family moved to the Twin Cities. He started at the station in 1989 and, three years later, landed a gig on the morning show, his home for the past 29 years.
A little of everything
For decades, Lee woke up at 2:45 a.m., left the house half an hour later and headed to downtown Minneapolis. “I’d get ready for the news cycle,” he said. “But news can happen any time and you have to be ready to pivot and call an audible. It helps to know a little about everything and not a lot about anything,” he said with a laugh.
Lee’s job allowed him to befriend everyone from Julie Andrews and Blake Edwards (“she was really nice and Blake was a big radio guy”) to Doc Severinsen (“we became good friends and he’d come on the show when he was in town”) to Walter Mondale (who joined him during a week of broadcasting from the U.S. Embassy in Japan).
One of his most memorable moments, though, took place with his good friend and fellow radio host Mike Lynch, who retired from WCCO last year.
The pair traveled to Mille Lacs Lake for a live Saturday morning broadcast during the fishing opener.
“Mike decides to wrap the broadcast equipment around his waist and parasail,” Lee said. “He was broadcasting live in the air and I was doing play-by-play from the ground. It was really fun and really funny over the air.”
The call from management came Monday morning. “They brought us in and proceeded to let us have it: ‘How dare you potentially wreck radio station equipment?’”
As Lynch recalled: “Never mind that I could go into the drink.”
Lynch has known Lee for his entire run at WCCO.
“He is beyond reproach as far as objectivity goes,” Lynch said. “He’s a very close friend, but I still don’t know his politics. I have no idea. At the same time, he’s just as much an entertainer with a warm and engaging personality. He’s extremely versatile, extremely talented and extremely intelligent. And if you tell him I said that, I’ll kill you.”
Lee, who has three kids and five grandchildren, never let his early morning job hold him back. He did play-by-play for numerous sports and will continue to do so during his retirement.
“There were always a million things to do,” he said. “I went to almost all the traveling musicals in town. If I went to bed at 7 each night, who knows what’s going to happen – a Twins game, a breaking news story, ‘The Lion King.’ I was sleep-deprived for many, many years, but I felt I couldn’t afford to miss anything.”
Indeed, Lee didn’t start thinking about leaving his job until he hosted a trip to Italy in 2019.
“We were gone almost two weeks,” Lee said. “I really liked it. For the first time, I told my wife I wasn’t overly anxious to get back to work. That’s kind of where the idea started about retiring.
“Now, we’ll see if that was a good decision or not.”