Paul Harvey and the Dog That Stole Christmas
(An article originally published in more than a dozen newspapers in South Dakota, Nebraska and elsewhere on the occasion of Paul Harvey’s death in February, 2009.)
One of the rare, iconic masters is gone. News of radio giant Paul Harvey’s recent passing was not shockingly unexpected, but sad just the same.
I keep expecting to turn on the radio and hear that it’s all been a mistake, and that the incomparable Mr. Harvey was simply away on vacation somewhere, thinking up new ways to hold his audience spellbound. Or maybe, he was just taking a well-earned nap on one of those perfect mattresses he sold so well.
Or maybe, I just wish.
He was too good to lose, no matter why or how soon. For me, last week’s announcement brought not only sadness, but revisited memories of radio dreams, and a winter day nearly a decade ago when the larger-than-life, maestro of the airwaves gave me one of the proudest moments of my professional life.
The year was 1999 and Paul Harvey, living radio legend, could be heard four times a day on the small town Nebraska station where I worked. Like many a young broadcaster, I had more than a passing admiration for the man who wrote the book on radio news and then rewrote it again and again in ways that left his fellow craftsmen humbled and awestruck.
Decades before embarking on my own fledgling career, Paul Harvey was much more than just a voice in the box. To me, and so many others, his distinctive daily visits provided the narrative of childhood.
Predictable. Friendly. Witty and warm. Between lines of news copy seamlessly melded with pitches for stereos and work gloves, chocolate milk and locking pliers, his familiar dulcet tones were the soundtrack of weekend family picnics and trips to the lake; an outdoor accompaniment for pulled weeds and painted houses, and lawns, raked and mowed.
His broadcasts were a parental preference that became a son’s acquired taste.
As with most of the hallowed few belonging in the pantheon reserved for truly original Americana, Paul Harvey’s style is beyond imitation. From his minimalist brilliance with the scripted word to his inimitable delivery brimming with melodrama and wry humor, the Chicago master’s methodology is a rare case where flattery and emulation must never meet.
With apologies to Elvis Presley, there are no waiting hordes of Harvey impressionists. There would be no point. For a broadcast journalist, simply landing a piece of radio copy in a Paul Harvey newscast would be a career highlight to cherish. Thanks to a little white dog named Conrad, it’s a highlight I’ll never forget.
It all began with a shopping spree that couldn’t wait. A few days before Christmas, despite a thermometer registering in the teens below zero (wind chill not included) my wife and I ventured downtown for that year’s edition of the single, habitually overlooked item to complete our holiday gift roster.
Unwilling to leave our months-old Bichon-Frise’ puppy home alone against a defenseless expanse of pristine carpet, we parked our trusty S.U.V. curbside, determined to leave the engine running and the heater blasting to keep both blanketed dog and idling vehicle from freezing solid.
The car was warm. The pooch was warmer. We’d be back in a flash. What could go wrong?
We would soon find out.
After 10 minutes in the requisite store, my wife and I hustled for the car, gift sacks clutched in freezing hands, anticipating the cozy interior of the waiting vehicle and eager to find our snuggly fuzzball, safe and sound. Steps away from the goal we saw a white-fur blur of puppy exuberance, wriggling and wiggling in the front seat with the excitement of our return.
He jumped. He danced. He hopped and flopped. He perched on the armrest. He pounced.
And then we heard it.
Conrad had locked the doors.
The electric clunk of the locking mechanism stopped us cold as we shared a look that instantly conveyed what we both knew. In a town where few people locked their houses at night, and fewer still their cars in broad daylight, our only set of keys was in the ignition of the running car.
Since there were only two things to do, and only one that wouldn’t include a service bill on Christmas week, we spent the next 30 minutes playing a comical game of puppy pantomime, trying to coax “Conrad-the-amazing-security-dog,” back onto the same toggle switch that had caused the mess. No such luck.
Even a carefully reenacted exit from the store failed to reproduce the fateful paw print of moments before. Not even close.
With frozen fingers and a heavy heart, I dialed the cell phone and reached for my wallet.
The next day, $30 the poorer, I wrote a radio retelling of the puppy ordeal and delivered my bamboozled dose of deprecating idiocy to the hometown folk. As an afterthought, I sent a copy to the Omaha bureau of the Associated Press.
And now, the rest of the story …
On an afternoon, two days after hitting send on the fax machine, the station’s chief engineer burst into my office, gesturing like a madman. He motioned wildly at the portable radio behind my desk with a frenetic urgency previously reserved for reports of natural disasters and newly minted world wars.
“On! On! On!” he stammered. “Turn it ON!”
I complied with startled quickness and listened as the radio came to life with the final lines of a familiar dog story serving as a segment-ender for the master behind the microphone.
“When they returned, the doggone dog had locked the doors.”
“For half-an-hour, they tried to get the dog to step again on the switch …”
“… pretended they were pawing and pawing.”
“Finally, they called a locksmith.”
And then, after a quavering dramatic pause had stretched across the miles of radio silence, traveling to childhood memory and back again, the legend spoke the closing line with an effortless grandfatherly charm that turned mere words on a page into trademark radio magic:
“The pooch is in the doghouse.”
“Paul Harvey. Good-DAY!”