One of the unique aspects of LSU College of Education professor Pete Soderbergh was that he invariably stood at the door of his classroom ready to greet his students as they filed in. In fact, he told his students that if the day ever came when he wasn’t at the door when they arrived, one of two things had happened: they had shown up for class on the wrong day or he was dead. On Monday, February 16, 1998, he wasn’t at the door and his students knew that something was terribly wrong. In fact, Pete had suffered a stroke the day before and was in a coma in a local hospital. He died on Tuesday, February 17, 1998 at the age of 69.
There are many interesting components that made up the whole of Pete Soderbergh. He was a native of Brooklyn, a decorated Marine who served during the Korean War, a published author of books on diverse subjects, a professor and administrator at a number of universities, and the father of six children including moviemaker Steven Soderbergh. But I want to concentrate on his time as a “disc jockey” at WBRH, a public radio station at Baton Rouge Magnet High School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Pete hosted a three hour program that he called Pete’s Swingin’ Sunday Morning every Sunday between July 3, 1994 and February 15, 1998 – the fateful day of his stroke. The songs were predominantly but not exclusively from the big band era. This was back in the days when turntables were common in radio stations, and CD players were just catching on. That was fine with Pete because he had a huge collection of records – 78s, 45s, and LPs. I should also note that he was a big fan of movies, including musicals. He combined his love for music and movies with a smattering of history to create an absolutely novel radio show. And he had a talent for coming up with dialogs between make-believe people that served as “song cues” for his upcoming numbers. Some of the song cues were funny, such as the one between Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara who was worried about paying the rent on Tara, while others, such as those between Dad and Son, were often poignant. Some of the funniest dialogs took place between Pete and the Old Timer, the crotchety weekend custodian who seemed to hang around the radio station on Sunday mornings just to aggravate Pete. In all cases the voices we heard were those of Pete Soderbergh. Pete enjoyed the dialogs he created and the music that followed. His frequent laughter let us know that he was having a wonderful time.
Pete also greeted his listeners by their first names at intervals throughout each show. In case you aren’t aware, most people enjoy hearing their names mentioned on the radio, so that’s an excellent way to keep them listening. I mentioned above that he greeted his students at the classroom door – something my wife and I never encountered during our many years at universities. Why did he do it? I suspect that he was letting them know that they were important to him. And when you think about it, reading the names of his listeners on his show was probably meant to sent the same message. Pete didn’t miss a trick.
I had the opportunity to join Pete on his show during a number of membership drives. After Pete’s death another LSU professor, Fritz McCameron, took Pete’s place, renaming the show Music on the Sunny Side, and I had the pleasure of occasionally filling in for him. Over the years I did more and more shows, and we added a third person to the lineup, Winston Day, the former Dean of the LSU Law School.
A few months ago Winston told me that he found part of one of Pete’s shows while looking through some old cassette tapes he had recorded man years ago. I asked him for a copy of it, and he gave me a CD from Sunday, December 7, 1997 (the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941) that was about 50 minutes long. The sound quality was so-so, but the music and stories about World War II brought back lots of wonderful memories of Pete’s programs from long ago.
As I listened to that tape I remembered Pete once saying that someone was taping his show for him. I had no idea who that “someone” was or where the tapes were – or even if they still existed – but I knew that his daughter, Mary Soderbergh, who lived in the Baton Rouge area at the time of Pete’s death, would know – if anyone did. But I had no idea how to contact her.
Then I remembered that on Sunday, February 18, 2018 twenty years and a day after Pete’s sudden death, many members of his family contributed in his memory during a membership drive that I hosted. Mary was one of those contributors, so I asked our music director, Rob Payer, if he had a phone number for her. Wonder of wonders, he did. As soon as I got the phone number I contacted her in Los Angeles where she now lives and was astounded to learn that she had Pete’s old tapes – all of them now an average of 25 years old. I approached her about using one or more of the shows for Music on the Sunny Side if the tapes were of sufficient quality, and she sent me a box that contained over 30 complete shows. The shows (all were on high quality Maxell XL II tapes) sounded all right, and after a little tweaking sounded excellent.
My next step was to see if Rob Payer would be interested in rerunning the old shows – perhaps one a month. Rob, who knew Pete and loved his show, was very enthusiastic about doing so. He could not have been more supportive.
I’ve digitized all of the old tapes, and we will rebroadcast parts of two of his old shows this coming Sunday morning, August 15, 2021 from 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. central time. We plan to rebroadcast additional shows on the third Sunday of each month. You can hear the show locally at 90.3 FM or at wbrh.org on the internet. If you have an Amazon Echo device, simply tell it to play WBRH. If you miss the program you can go to wbrh.org, click on “Show Archive,” go down the list of archived programs and click on “Music on the Sunny Side.” There you’ll find past programs featuring Pete, Fritz, Winston, and me.
Both Pete and his show were unique, and I’m delighted that we’re able to welcome him back to WBRH 23 years after his death. That sort of thing doesn’t happen every day.