John Records Landecker can look back on a storied career as a radio broadcaster, entertaining millions of listeners around the U.S. and Canada for more than 50 years.
"I don't remember a time when I was not interested in radio," said Landecker.
His career interests began during his childhood: listening to radio variety shows, westerns, soap operas and crime dramas with his father who was blind, and building his own crystal diode radios from old cigar boxes when he was in the Cub Scouts.
He would later go on to become a disc jockey who would be named Billboard Magazine's "Radio Personality of the Year" in the 1970s while working at WLS in Chicago. In the 1990s, his morning show at WJMK, also in Chicago, was named the best morning show in the city.
And, for those wondering, his middle name isn't just for show — it truly is Records, a name given to him to honor his mother's maiden name.
In recognition of his distinguished career, Landecker was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2017, but that wasn't the only "class" he joined last year. He also became a member of the Laker Class of 2017 — he just didn't know it until earlier this year.
Landecker visited the Allendale Campus February 8 to discuss his life, career and autobiography, Records Truly Is My Middle Name, in front of students, faculty, staff and community members. What he didn't know was that following his talk, he would be presented with a diploma more than 40 years after dropping out of college.
'I'm walking out a graduate.'
Landecker was brought to tears when he received his bachelor's degree from Fred Antczak, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, after his presentation.
While wearing a smile as he accepted his diploma, he said, "I walked in here a college dropout, and I'm walking out a graduate."
Landecker attended Grand Valley from 1965-1967, but because Grand Valley did not have a broadcasting program or radio station then, he transferred to Michigan State University. During his final semester at MSU, he received a job offer from a Philadelphia radio station, which he accepted, and never completed his degree.
Landecker said it was assumed by his family and friends that he would graduate from college, especially considering he grew up in the college town of Ann Arbor, attended University of Michigan High School, and had a U-M sociology professor as a father.
He stated during the presentation and in his autobiography that not finishing college was one of his biggest regrets.
"I was a senior at MSU getting good grades, and out of nowhere comes this huge job offer, but my parents were in Europe because my father was spending a year teaching in Germany," Landecker recalled. "I wrote them a letter telling them that I was dropping out of college. On some level, it felt like I was letting my parents down, although they never did or said anything that made me feel that way."
While working at different radio stations in Chicago, Cleveland and Indiana, Landecker's incomplete education stayed in the back of his mind. Despite earning additional credits at Columbia College in Chicago and exploring course options at Cleveland State University and Ivy Tech Community College, the planets never aligned for him to earn those final credits.
That feeling of disappointment disappeared the second Landecker was handed his diploma.
"It was like an empty space had been filled," said Landecker. "Looking at the diploma was like having my life flash in front of my eyes."
Thanks to Len
Landecker credits Len O'Kelly, assistant professor of multimedia journalism at Grand Valley, for making this milestone a reality.
O'Kelly, a former colleague of Landecker, examined his transcripts in 2017 to discover that Landecker was only a handful of credits shy of earning a bachelor's degree based on the credits he accrued in the past.
"I've heard the story often, 'I was one class away and never finished.' Usually, that's not the case, but this was one where it was," said O'Kelly. "John had gone his whole life thinking that he had missed out on completing his degree. I knew I had to find a way to invite John back home to Grand Valley to finish it."
O'Kelly kept news of the diploma under wraps until pieces of Landecker's transcripts appeared in the PowerPoint presentation that accompanied the duo's Q&A session on February 8.
"When my transcript's suddenly appeared on the screen, I could not figure out where he was going with it, but Len is the reason this happened," Landecker said.
“It was like an empty space had been filled. Looking at the diploma was like having your life flash in front of your eyes.”JOHN RECORDS LANDECKER
The future of radio
So, where did those final credits come from? Landecker has nine Grand Valley students to partially thank for his diploma.
Records Truly Is My Middle Name was published in 2013, but Landecker updated the book in 2017 after his Hall of Fame nomination. During the summer of 2017, Landecker visited Grand Valley to interview nine students about the future of radio, and those interviews were all included in a new chapter in the updated version.
O'Kelly told university administrators about Landecker's interviews with students, and said that project qualified as independent research credits for the fall 2017 semester, which fulfilled Landecker's degree requirements.
"I am blown away by the courses Grand Valley offers, you just don't find this kind of commitment at other colleges," said Landecker. "I knew that GVSU students who were taking these courses were the kind of people I wanted to talk to for a section of my book."
The interview project was mutually beneficial for Landecker and the students, many of whom currently work in the radio industry.
Jeana Gondek, '17, a morning news anchor at WKZO in Kalamazoo, said sitting down with a National Radio Hall of Fame inductee was an incredible opportunity.
"I felt honored to be a part of John's book," said Gondek. "Not only did he ask about our experiences in today's radio field, but I got to ask him about his past experiences, what I should shoot for, and what to look forward to."
Maitlynn Mossolle, a senior multimedia journalism major, said the experience filled her with motivation and fearlessness as she looks toward her career.
"My takeaways from the whole experience were to just keep working toward my goals, to not be afraid to be original, and to shake things up because that can lead to a wonderful career and legacy," said Mossolle, who works part-time for "The Free Beer and Hot Wings Morning Show" in Grand Rapids. "John is an amazing person, not just because of his accomplishments, but because he genuinely sees potential and a future for radio in us."
As a self-proclaimed music and pop culture "geek," Nicole Stoner appreciated the opportunity to hear different perspectives from Landecker and her classmates about the current state of radio and its future.
"A lot has obviously changed in 50 years, but some things haven't, especially, to paraphrase John, you talk into a microphone and know that someone is listening somewhere," said Stoner, '17.
Laker for a Lifetime
If step one of Landecker fulfilling his dream of graduating from college was to earn his diploma, the second step was to actually attend a commencement ceremony.
Landecker did just that when he joined the thousands of Lakers who walked across the commencement stage in April and officially graduated from Grand Valley.
"There really are no words that I can use to express the gratitude that I have for Len and the university," said Landecker. "This goes beyond being inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame. I've never felt anything close to this."
WHAT IS THE FUTURE OF RADIO?
“I knew that GVSU students who were taking these courses were the kind of people I wanted to talk to for a section of my book.”JOHN RECORDS LANDECKER
“The future of radio is bright because although there may be less of us, there are still a lot of passionate radio enthusiasts out there, determined to continue making good radio. Big corporations may try to kill radio, but the passion and creativity will keep it around.”JEANA GONDEK, '17, BACHELOR'S DEGREE IN BROADCASTING
“The future of radio right now is extremely hard to predict. Everyone said that once the iPod came out radio was going to dissolve, and yet it was able to adapt and stick around. I don't see radio going away anytime soon.”LOGAN CHURCH, SENIOR MAJORING IN MULTIMEDIA JOURNALISM
“I feel like it's only going to get more interesting from here! We live in a time where words have so much power, so I think more people will start looking to radio for truth, or for an escape.”MAITLYNN MOSSOLLE, SENIOR MAJORING IN MULTIMEDIA JOURNALISM
“I do believe that radio is a format that will still be around, but like other forms of entertainment and communication, it will evolve. Television and cinema are already doing that with online streaming. I can listen to other radio stations across the country via the Internet, and I know friends who create and share podcasts. I don't know what radio will evolve into years from now, but I can't say that it will be dead anytime soon.”NICOLE STONER, '17, BACHELOR'S DEGREE IN FILM AND VIDEO PRODUCTION