In the world of agriculture, Orion Samuelson is a rock star, and to Orion tonight we say, “Happy Birthday!”
Orion has been on WGN Radio for more than 53 of his 80 years, so WGN’s Steve Sanders has the story of Orion at 80.
“This is Chicago’s very own, 720 WGN. Some negative performers on Wall Street today.” Only one broadcaster, Vin Scully of the Brooklyn now L.A. Dodgers has been on the air longer with the same organization than Orion Samuelson. “Welcome back to “This Week in Agri-business.”
For almost four decades, Max Armstrong has been by the side of “The Big O.” “It’s the knowledge of the industry, and the understanding of what farmers want to know. But also what they want to have said about them.”
Farmers like Will McNeill and Pete Tekampe of Grayslake. “He’s done more for agriculture than any one person far as I’m concerned in the world,” says McNeill, who is the director of the Lake County Farm Bureau Board. Past director Pete had this to say about Orion. “He’s the news commentator that’s always had the farmers back. He’s told our side of the story, better than we ever could have thought.”
“Farmers and ranchers really feel they don’t have a voice in national affairs and activities today,” says Orion. “I think they see me as a voice that they don’t have.” Orion is Norwegian, and grew up on a dairy farm in Ontario, Wisconsin, abouit 250 miles northwest of Chicago. He says it was a loving, yet hard and primitive life. “There are some dates in your life you never forget. April 11, 1947, the REA hooked up the Samuelson farm to electricity. When I’m asked today biggest change in technology, I say the arrival of electricity on the farm.” Orion has had three major health scares; the first as an 8th grader when he contracted a bone disease and couldn’t walk for two years. He had a lot of time to listen to the radio.
“We’re from WLS. Hello everybody hello.” By his senior year, Orion was back on his feet and joined public speaking competitions. He graduated high school and turned down a scholarship at the University of Wisconsin to go to announcers school in Minnesota. He made headlines when he was hired at a radio station, 17 miles from the farm. “I was a polka disc jockey in Sparta, Wisconsin. A polka disc jockey oh golly ya. I can name ‘em all 6 Mad Dutchmen, Romey Gos and the Gosling…Cousin Fuzzy and the cousins.”
He was working in Green Bay, Wisconsin when his big break came in September of 1960. WGN Radio in Chicago wanted Orion to be their farm services director. “I thought, boy. I’m in Green Bay. I’m a big fish in a little pond. And then on the other hand I said, if you get WGN on your resume you can go anywhere.” In his 53 plus years at WGN, Orion has survived a serious car crash, a business venture called, “Channel Earth” that went bankrupt, and more recently a life threatening throat disease.
Orion has interviewed Presidents and foreign dignitaries. And at one time was on a short list to be the nation’s agriculture secretary. “Who would have thought that a dairy farm kid from Wisconsin would have a street in Chicago?” “Are we ready? I think we are.” These days, Orion and Max mix speaking engagements with taping their syndicated television program, seen on 150 small market stations across the country. “The compliment I get the most is thank you for what you have done to keep agriculture in the news in a positive way. I would like to be remembered as a good broadcaster. And just a likeable guy.” Orion’s farmer fans, Pete and Will had these birthday wishes for Orion.
“For the guy to be there for 60 years and to be able to tell the story and continue to tell that story, says a lot for him, that a lot of people trust him, not just agricultural community. Happy Birthday, you deserve it.” “Orion I hope you appreciate we’re standing out here in subzero weather to wish you a happy birthday.”(a cow sniffs the camera lens) “They’re wishing Happy Birthday to Orion.” (big laughs)
Did you know Orion introduced Phil Donahue to Marlo Thomas in the WGN cafeteria? You can click on the exclusive web extra above. And the links below will get you to much more information on Orion and Max, as well as Orion’s book which tells his full story. Also, please remember to share this story with friends and family.
Producer Pam Grimes and Photojournalist Steve Scheuer also contributed to this report.