Lee Pete returns home

Jun 5, 2007 4:55 AM

By David Stratton

One of the legendary phrases in Las Vegas lore is "Elvis has left the building."

Now, the city can add, "Lee Pete has left Las Vegas."

Although Lee Pete never gained the celebrity of Elvis, for three decades he ruled the airwaves with his Las Vegas-based sports talk show that reached millions of listeners in nine Western states, Canada and Mexico.

Pete was too modest to ever call himself a pioneer, but he set the standard for sports talk radio geared toward bettors.

At one point he was making $250,000 a year, and football great Jim Brown co-hosted the nightly broadcast that aired from the Stardust sports book.

He ended his radio career in 2002 to care for his ailing wife, Lila, who died in 2005. That was about the time Pete was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS, a disease with no known cure.

About 10 months ago, as his nerve cells and muscles began to atrophy, Pete made a decision he would return to his hometown of Toledo, Ohio.

Toledo was where Pete grew up as a kid; it’s where he was a star quarterback at Libbey High School and the University of Toledo.

Toledo is where he established the reputation as a bon vivant and ladies man who owned several popular nightclubs and restaurants.

Now, Toledo is where Lee Pete has gone to die.

At 82, Pete says he has no complaints over the disease, or "this slight problem I have," which is often called Lou Gehrig’s disease, named for the Hall of Fame ballplayer who succumbed to ALS in the 1930s.

In fact, he says if his "helluva life" has to end, at least it’s from a disease named after a ballplayer.

In speaking to Pete, it’s apparent he hasn’t lost his sharp yet self-deprecating wit. ALS attacks the muscles and nerve cells, but leaves the mind intact.

That’s what his listeners enjoyed most — his honest commentary, punctuated with good-natured fun, without cynicism or arrogance.

Among his famous one-liners was, "My first time making love was like my first time on a boat — I fell out and threw up."

Or when he described the football match-up between East Carolina and Miami, "That’s like me dancing with a 6-4 girl who wants to dip."

Today, Pete says that steroids and drugs are among the most striking changes he’s seen during his lifetime involvement in sports.

"In my generation, the only drug was beer," he says. "We were harmless people, unsophisticated, dedicated and loyal. Not like today’s athletes.

"There’s no loyalty in sports today," he continues. "Dollars took care of that. They don’t play for the team or city anymore. It’s an individual effort. Which is probably why you don’t find any heroes in sports."

Lee Pete was a hero. He was an All-State quarterback at Libbey High School, then later set passing records at the University of Toledo for four years.

After college, Pete was drafted by the Detroit Lions and traded to the Green Bay Packers. In his first season, he ripped up his knee in an exhibition game against the Eagles and was out for the season.

The following year he broke his shoulder in an exhibition game against the Giants. That was the end of his playing career.

"I’m still pretty well wired up," Pete says. "Even today I can’t play golf or bowl."

With his playing career behind him, Pete bought a saloon from a friend in Toledo. He soon tripled the business, expanded it and bought another one. Later he opened a successful restaurant in his hometown.

Pete launched his radio career in 1955 when a friend asked him to do color commentary for the Ohio State football broadcasts. He soon had his own talk show and was getting offers from bigger markets.

"I wasn’t looking to go any place," he says. "I was happy doing what I was doing. I’m really a small town guy."

One of the biggest offers came from NBC sports, which called him from New York. Pete said the vice president offered him $50,000 over the phone.

"Now, remember, this was when I had a 9000-square-foot house out in Lambertville, Michigan, with a 195-yard golf hole in back, a huge pool, six Great Danes and walk-in fireplaces," Pete says. "When he said $50,000, I told him to stop there, that they had the wrong guy. First of all, I’m not thrilled with network, I hate New York and I’m making four times that now."

It wasn’t until the early 1970s that Pete found a reason to leave Toledo.

"I was out in Las Vegas visiting my daughter," Pete says. "Lila must have sensed something because she looked at me and said, ”˜You like it, don’t you?’ It was 105 degrees and I loved it. She said, ”˜That’s good enough for me, I like the slots ”¦ let’s go.’"

Despite all his radio success since then, Pete takes very little credit.

"I’m really kind of corny," he says. "It’s not my nature to know it all, and I’ve never had an ego. I saw myself naked in front of a mirror once ”¦ when you look like this you can’t have an ego.

"I suppose I was good at the small talk," Pete says. "I was never embarrassed or nervous. Basically, I was the same all of the time."

Pete has too many Las Vegas memories to count, but one came to mind.

"A man came up to me after the show. He was gray, fiftyish, a nice guy," Pete recalls. "He told me that he’d listened to me every night for 12 years, that I’d help put him to sleep every night.

"That man was just released from prison in Northern California and was on his way to Baltimore to stay with relatives.

"He told me that the toughest times in jail were at night, when there was no hobbies, no weights to lift, no jobs — only cold, dark silence. He said the radio show helped him and others get through the night. Before he left he thanked me.

"I think things like that made it worthwhile. That was worth it."