Legendary sportscaster Ken Squier of Waterbury has died
On the final lap of the 1979 Daytona 500, the two leading cars crashed into each other. While another car zoomed into first place, the drivers got out and began fighting each other.
“We’ve been delighted to bring you flag-to-flag coverage of perhaps the most amazing, astonishing Daytona 500 in history,” said the sportscaster as he signed off.
But it was that sportscaster, not the drivers, that made this race a historic televised success.
His name was Ken Squier.
Squier was an icon of broadcasting who helped make NASCAR a national phenomenon. In his home state of Vermont, he built Thunder Road and shepherded one of the last bastions of true community radio into the 21st century. He died on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023 at 88 years old.
Squier was born on April 10, 1935, into the infancy of car racing and the golden age of radio.
He grew up in Waterbury, where his father owned the local radio station, WDEV. When most other kids were learning to read, Squier was learning how to talk into a microphone.
He started announcing car races at a young age, too.
“The story at least is that he put himself on the back of a flatbed truck in Morrisville when he was 14, and announced a race there,” said his daughter, Ashley.
A young kid in the early 1940s, Squier saw car racing at county fairs and quickly became enchanted.
“When dad was a boy,” Ashley said, “racing was incredibly dangerous and cars were new. So it was the technology of the time, and these guys pushing that technology to its very edge.”
Ken Squier always said the appeal of racing was that it was common people doing uncommon deeds.
But Squier himself was anything but common.
“He was a jokester, he was a miscreant of the first order,” said Brian Harwood, who has known Squier since high school. “He was not above doing things that wouldn't be considered to be generally acceptable, and I can't list any of those. But he was, you know, he was so many things, Ken was.”
Squier was a silver-tongued raconteur, charismatic and irreverent, persistent and creative, with a big ego and hearty sense of humor.
He loved classical music, jazz, and dogs. He was always one for a good fart joke, and was well-read with an excellent memory.
Once, Squier and Brian Harwood were walking down the street in Boston, “and he began reciting something from Shakespeare. Just you know, stanza after stanza. It was that kind of a mind,” Harwood recalled.
But above anything else, it was always cars and radios for Ken Squier. One of Ashley's strongest memories of her dad is being a little kid, sitting next to him in the front seat of his blue Pontiac, singing the song "American Pie."
After studying communications at Boston University, Squier returned to Vermont and found investors to build the racetrack that became Thunder Road in Barre. It opened in 1960, when he was just 25 years old.
He got married, had two kids, and worked at WDEV.
Then, in the 1970s, his national career as a sportscaster began to take off. He anchored CBS and TBS broadcasts, worked his way into NASCAR, and was a founding father of the Motor Racing Network.
In 1979, he helped convince CBS to air the entirety of the Daytona 500. Up until that point, races weren’t broadcast flag to flag — they were edited down into highlight reels.
Squier announced the televised race with his rollicking vocabulary, and it was a smashing success. Which is exactly what he thought would happen, as he explained inan interview with Vermont PBS in 2006.
“There was a whole sense that this was the American pastime, and it had been overlooked," he said. “What happened was that Middle America finally had a chance to vote. The overnight ratings were always controlled commercially, and television by New York, Chicago, LA, Philadelphia, Baltimore. And when Middle America voted, places like Iowa and Indiana and Illinois and Vermont, they voted for racing.”
NASCAR went on to become the second-most watched televised sport in America.
Squier spent decades as a lap-by-lap commentator, and helped bring in-car cameras to televised races.
Ashley says when she was a kid, her dad was gone 40 weekends a year, calling races. But he always came home to Vermont.
In 1979, when Squier's father died, he took over WDEV, and later formed the Radio Vermont Group. He believed in what he called “relevant radio” — that what went on air should be of a place and in service to a community.
When Waterbury flooded during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, WDEV stayed on air all night.
Bill Shepeluk was the town manager at the time, and every hour or so, he called into the station to tell people what was going on — where there were power outages, what neighborhoods were being evacuated.
“It was just a place that I could call and provide information and know that they would broadcast that. And knowing how the community turned to WDEV when they needed information, I knew that people would be hearing what I was telling them,” Shepeluk said.
It wasn’t a national station, or even a statewide one. Ken Squier made sure it continued to be of and for the place it was in.
“It started as a 15-minute broadcast on Saturday mornings, the time when people would be going to the dump,” Brian Harwood said. “But then he would play all these ridiculous pieces of music. And then, you know, recount all these tales, people would send in mail, and so forth.”
The show is now an hour long, and still runs on Saturday mornings.
“He was a jokester, he was a miscreant of the first order. He was not above doing things that wouldn't be considered to be generally acceptable, and I can't list any of those. But he was, you know, he was so many things, Ken was.”Brian Harwood, who has known Ken Squier since high school
Squier left other legacies. He was a mentor to many in racing, radio, news, and politics, including Secretary of Agriculture Anson Tebbetts and Gov. Phil Scott. He was a longtime supporter of Vermont Symphony Orchestra. He received multiple Emmy nominations for his broadcasting, and has been inducted into numerous halls of fame.
Races continue at Thunder Road under new ownership.
In 2016, Ken Squier went to his last Daytona 500. His daughter Ashley was there in the pits with him, watching him talk to people, entirely in his element. At one point he turned to her and said: "There’s not one better place in the world."
“And I said, ‘Than the pits at a racetrack?’" Ashley said. "And he said, ‘Than with these people. It doesn't matter — nothing else matters, you know, who the president is, not all the wrongs in the world. Because what everybody's here to do this, this thing with each other.'”
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