From the Archives: WBOB
A street in downtown Hartford will be named after the late Bob Steele this week. For those wondering why, here's a story from the Connecticut Magazine archives - March 1978.
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These days it seems that Steele works harder than he has to. After all, at age 66, his position at WTIC is hardly insecure. Nonetheless, he continues to make personal appearances around the region. He is gracious when listeners approach him in public. “When my wife and I go out to a restaurant around here, I’m almost always recognized,” he says. “Often, people will come up and sit down with us. It’s not necessarily a comfortable situation, but we never object to it. How can you? These are the people who put me where I am.”
In a sense, it’s as if Steele has never gotten over his stroke of good fortune back in 1936. He acts as if everything could be taken away in a similar stroke if he doesn’t keep hustling. How else does one explain the astounding fact that in 41 years, he has been late to work exactly once? Or that for 24 years, he did both the morning show and an evening sports show, one that, for 10 years, was aired on both radio and television? As is often the case, the clues to Steele’s zeal and dedication lie in his childhood. He’s been hustling ever since he was in knee pants.
Robert Lee Steele was born July 13, 1911, in Kansas City, Mo., the son of Hampton and Susan Steele. When he was 5, his parents were divorced, his father left, and things got rough. “My mother and I had to battle along together,” Steele remembers. “We never had any money or anything, and it was a tough go. We went through hard times.”
Susan Steele ran a boardinghouse and young Bob got his first job at age 8, working five hours a night, seven nights a week, as a delivery boy for a local pharmacy. He was paid $5 a week, and six years later he’d saved enough to buy a motorcycle. Posing as a 16 year old, he got another delivery route, this one paying $20 a week. By the time he actually was 16, he’d found two new diversions: motorcycle racing and boxing. The racing came easily enough, being not much more than an extension of his job. The boxing, however, was a different story.
“I took a notion to be a prize fighter when I was 16,” Steele remembers fondly. “At the time, I was going out with a girl who had another boyfriend who was 18. He was a tough guy, but I thought the girls liked me a little better. I figured I’d have to box or fight this other guy someday. I knew we’d clash, so I thought I’d be prepared.”
He took three lessons that cost him $5, and became an amateur welterweight. He fought 52 amateur fights and won 30—12 of them by knockout. Then he decided to turn pro. This was not a wise thing to do. He fought 18 bouts, winning but two, losing 15 and drawing one. He looked to something else.
In 1929, Steele bought a 12-seat restaurant for $900. He and his mother lived upstairs. He ran the place and she baked pies for the desserts. But after a year and a half, he sold the place for $750 and left Kansas City, drawn by the lure of California. He went to Los Angeles, and again got a motorcycle delivery route, this time for a group of banks. But misfortune soon struck.
“I wanted to make big money,” Steele confesses. “The L.A. papers were full of ads in those days because so many suckers were out there. You had farmers from Iowa and everyone else. It was like a magnet. And there was always someone to prey on these people.”
The ad that caught Steele’s innocent eye asked him to buy a truck for $950 and then make $150 a week as a hauler of produce from farms east of the city. But the guy was a crook, the truck was hot, and Steele lost both it and the money.
“After that, it was just about a catastrophe for me,” he says. “I had to worry about money all the time again. When you don’t have money, it’s an awful worry. You’d get money for one day and then have to worry about the next. It was an awful struggle, a bad, bad time. When I got that telegram, it was the beginning of life,” he says with a smile.