By Kirby Neumann-Rea • Of the News-Register • 

Back, and Forth: The night a fine fellow did a favor with fervor

I saw him only twice, but I considered Bill Schonely my friend.

We met under unique circumstances, allowing me to see the beloved Voice of Blazer Nation for the showman and gentleman he was. His Jan. 21 passing is a cause for mourning, but also a time to remember with gratitude his many gifts.

In 2010, I got in touch with Bill via the Trailblazer offices, asking to speak with the renowned broadcaster, now Blazer ambassador, to seek a personal favor. The next day, I got a call, and that iconic voice was on the other end of the line.

I was living in Hood River at the time, serving the local program of Start Making A Reader Today, which pairs volunteers with students in grades kindergarten through third once a week for some reading time and companionship, and new books for the kids to take home.

(Yamhil County also has a SMART program, and I remain involved. I am happy to talk anytime about volunteering or other ways to support the program.)

I asked Bill if he would keynote an event, the first-ever Tongue Twister Tournament we were planning for a couple months away.

I was prepared for Bill to graciously decline, as it was a lot to ask of one of most famous voices in the western U.S. But after a schedule check he immediately agreed to be the star of our fundraiser.

Say this three times fast: This fine fellow did the favor with fervor. As I recall, his words were, “If this is a community event that helps kids, I’m in.”

The tournament involved local community leaders standing at the mic performing tongue twisters, in an elimination tournament similar to a spelling bee.

All the contestants, and the judges (including one man who really was a Circuit Court judge) were well-known in the community. But Schonely was the main attraction, and he was delightful.

Bill’s voice was always the same voice. That is, he spoke one-on-one the same way he spoke on the radio: luxurious yet personable, authoritative yet approachable.

His was vocal genius. But he was also a kind and humble man whose eyes had a sparkle to match the molasses of his voice.

To explain the tournament and talk logistics, I suggested coming to Portland to meet Bill. I truly looked forward to meeting this man and my son, Delaney, then 15, joined us.

In Bill’s usual booth at Stanford’s, then located next to Lloyd Center, he bought us lunch. We talked about SMART and got acquainted.

The plan was for Bill to come to Hood River, enjoy a pre-event meal, and give a talk and do tongue-twisters to start the tournament. The whole idea of getting The Voice to do some tongue-twisters was high concept and it paid off.

He sort of laughed when I asked if he wanted me to supply him with a few tongue twisters. “Oh, I have quite a few right up here,” he said, pointing to his head.

I asked him to do a few classics, just for the pleasure of hearing familiar tricky words spoken in this singular voice, and to take it from there as only The Schonz can.

On tournament night we met Bill at the restaurant, where a friend served as driver to and from the auditorium. Bill declined even payment for gas to and from his home in Charbonneau.

Eight people had purchased premium tickets for the honor of dining with Bill. Another friend, and chef, donated the meal in his restaurant and a group of us got to dine while Bill held court.

We all had questions for him – how I wish I had made notes or even recorded the conversation — and he folded us all into his gently gregarious sphere for an hour. Then it was off to the historic 1927 auditorium at Hood River Middle School for the tournament.

After welcomes and preliminaries, we turned the mic over to Bill. He regaled us with stories of his formative years in radio, and how tongue twisters helped him train for going on the air. Not only did he flawlessly reel off classic tongue-twisters such as “She sells sea shells …” he recounted ones he learned from his grandfather, and others he regularly practiced in his early career.

He delighted the crowd with a rapid rendition of his personal favorite, “Theophilus Thistle, the successful thistle-sifter, while sifting a sieve full of un-sifted thistles …” (you can look up the rest).

Bill gave a master class in tongue-twister acrobatics, some of them well-known, some rare delights he had in memory from the 1950s. Again, how is it we have no recording of this event?

I thanked Bill after the show and sent him a note a few days later, and we spoke once on the phone. That was the last contact I had with him, but the memory of the event is indelible.

We were truly honored that Bill gave the way he did. My original idea was involving the Blazers as an organization, perhaps a few Blazer alumni players, but somehow the better idea emerged of getting Bill involved.

While his Blazers’ TV and radio renown added to the appeal, Bill came to us as Citizen Schonely, giving of his time and reputation in the service of literacy. He told me he wanted to help because he had benefited greatly as a child from family and mentors who read with him, exposed him to the written and spoken word, and how that had enriched his life.

Bill enriched millions of lives with his voice, his Blazer bonhomie, and his love of community on so many levels, and I had a front-row seat those 13 years ago for The Schonz showing added compassion for children, and for literacy.

Yes, we will all cherish “Bingo Bango Bongo” and his other phrases, most famously “You’ve GOT to make your free throws,” and, of course, “Rrrip City!” But I will be ever grateful for the night the sweet and stentorian Bill Schonely stood at the microphone and told us all of Theophilus Thistle sending “three thousand thistles through the thick of my thumb.”

Rip City, forever, Schonz.

Contact News-Register Managing Editor Kirby Neumann-Rea at or 503-687-1291.


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