Ron Wil­ner

Ra­dio per­son­al­ity turned to ad­ver­tis­ing and be­came a po­lit­i­cal strate­gist, work­ing of­ten with Repub­li­cans

Baltimore Sun - - OBITUARIES - By Christina Tkacik

A few Bal­ti­more­ans will re­mem­ber Ron Wil­ner’s voice. Those who don’t will still rec­og­nize his words.

Dur­ing the span of his ca­reer, Mr. Wil­ner hosted an AM ra­dio show, helped coin the slo­gan “wild, won­der­ful West Vir­ginia,” named the “MARC” train, and wrote zingers for politi­cians in Mary­land, Vir­ginia and else­where.

“My mem­o­ries of him are of an in­di­vid­ual who had real tal­ent,” said for­mer Bal­ti­more Sun re­porter Edgar Fein­gold, a long­time friend.

“Whether some­one had a 15-minute ex­change with him or a life­time, ev­ery­one came away think­ing, ‘That’s a good man,’ ” said his older daugh­ter, Trudy Wil­ner Stack.

“Ron Wil­ner was one of the best pro­fes­sion­als I ever worked with in pub­lic re­la­tions,” said for­mer Vir­ginia Gov. Jim Gil­more. “He was a warm, friendly per­son and a plea­sure to know as well as to work with.”

Mr. Wil­ner died of cancer Jan. 19 at Gilchrist in Tow­son. He was 87.

Born May 1931 to Joseph L. Wil­ner, a cloth­ing man­u­fac­turer, and Edna Pond­field Wil­ner, a home­maker, Mr. Wil­ner grad­u­ated from Bal­ti­more City Col­lege high school in 1949. He ob­tained a bach­e­lor’s de­gree in eco­nomics from the Uni­ver­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia’s Whar­ton School, where he also di­rected the cam­pus ra­dio sta­tion, WXPN. Af­ter col­lege, he worked as an on-air per­son­al­ity at sta­tion WASA in Havre de Grace be­fore be­ing drafted into the Army.

Sent to Sendai, Ja­pan, he got a job work­ing at the Army ra­dio sta­tion, where he gained mi­nor celebrity sta­tus among mil­i­tary and lo­cal Japanese au­di­ences. Ac­cord­ing to a bi­og­ra­phy pro­vided by his fam­ily, Mr. Wil­ner told friends, “One day you’re wash­ing trucks, then sud­denly you are in­vited to the gen­eral’s home for cock­tails be­cause his daugh­ters want to meet the ‘ra­dio guys.’ ”

Af­ter leav­ing the Army, he joined the now-de­funct AM ra­dio sta­tion WAYE as a morn­ing disc jockey. “He had a tech­nique that he would par­ody char­ac­ters taken from the lo­cal po­lit­i­cal scene or sport scene and con­coct sto­ries about them that were re­ally in­trigu­ing and funny, very funny,” Mr. Fein­gold said. “He was very good at what he did.”

Off-air, Mr. Wil­ner was “a lit­tle shy,” Mr. Fein­gold re­called.

In 1959, Mr. Wil­ner left ra­dio for the ad­ver­tis­ing world, join­ing the Robert Good­man Agency, a fledg­ling com­pany started by his friend. From the agency’s of­fice in a con­verted mill on Falls Road, Mr. Wil­ner wrote copy and slo­gans for ev­ery­one from the Bal­ti­more Ori­oles to Spiro T. Agnew, who was then Bal­ti­more County ex­ec­u­tive mak­ing a bid for gover­nor.

In the era of three-mar­tini lunches, Mr. Wil­ner and his col­leagues lunched daily at the Val­ley Inn on Falls Road. “I think a lot of their cam­paigns came out of those lunches,” said his younger daugh­ter, Kassie Wil­ner.

In 1966, Mr. Wil­ner wrote the slo­gan: “My kind of man (Ted Agnew is),” a par­ody of the song “My kind of town (Chicago is).” It helped the Repub­li­can de­feat Demo­cratic can­di­date Ge­orge Ma­honey, who ran on a seg­re­ga­tion­ist plat­form with the slo­gan: “Your home is your cas­tle. Pro­tect it.”

At the time, few sus­pected the cor­rup­tion al­le­ga­tions that would later be re­vealed against Mr. Agnew, who went on to be­come vice pres­i­dent of the United States. “They had no idea that he was on the take,” Mr. Fein­gold said.

Mr. Agnew’s win helped launch the ad­ver­tis­ing firm into the na­tional sphere for rep­re­sent­ing mainly Repub­li­can po­lit­i­cal can­di­dates — though Mr. Wil­ner’s own po­lit­i­cal views skewed lib­eral. With the Good­man Agency, Mr. Wil­ner worked on win­ning cam­paigns for gov­er­nors of Ken­tucky, Delaware, West Vir­ginia and Vir­ginia as well as the cam­paigns for Sen. Charles “Mac” Mathias and Demo­cratic Gov. Harry Hughes. In 1980, they en­dured de­feat when their can­di­date, Ge­orge H.W. Bush, lost the pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion to Ron­ald Rea­gan.

Even af­ter his re­tire­ment in 1992, Mr. Wil­ner con­tin­ued to con­sult on po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns, such as the re-elec­tion cam­paign for Sen. John Warner of Vir­ginia and the Gov. Jim Gil­more’s 1997 cam­paign.

Mr. Wil­ner “was able to cre­ate mem­o­rable lines that helped the pub­lic know ex­actly what you were try­ing to com­mu­ni­cate,” Gover­nor Gil­more said. “He was a real star, be­lieve me.”

No mat­ter his ac­com­plish­ments, Mr. Wil­ner re­tained an aura of warmth and hu­mil­ity, friends say. “He wasn’t bom­bas­tic,” Mr. Fein­gold said.

Amid his po­lit­i­cal work, Mr. Wil­ner worked on com­mer­cial ad­ver­tis­ing ac­counts, win­ning a “Gold Cam­era” first-place award for a fundrais­ing doc­u­men­tary pro­duced for the U.S. Holo­caust Me­mo­rial Mu­seum. He in­vented the “wild, won­der­ful West Vir­ginia” slo­gan for that state’s tourism board, and coined the ti­tle “MARC” for Mary­land’s com­muter rail ser­vice, ac­cord­ing to his fam­ily’s bi­og­ra­phy.

In 2010, he as­sisted David Cordish’s team on a suc­cess­ful bal­lot is­sue in Anne Arun­del County that al­lowed the Mary­land Live casino to be built at Arun­del Mills.

Af­ter his mar­riage to the poet and MacArthur Fel­low Eleanor Wil­ner ended in di­vorce, Mr. Wil­ner met Syd­ney Dine, who was work­ing as a staffer for Rep. Robert Taft Jr., then a can­di­date for the U.S. Sen­ate. They mar­ried in 1971 and had one daugh­ter.

“I thought that he was very good look­ing. He had a very sweet man­ner about him. He was en­gag­ing. He had a won­der­ful smile. He was hon­est. He was gen­uine. He was re­li­able. He was just very lov­ing,” Mrs. Wil­ner said. “We had 47 won­der­ful years of mar­riage.”

The fam­ily lived in Bal­ti­more’s Home­land neigh­bor­hood dur­ing the week and spent week­ends near An­napo­lis, where Mr. Wil­ner en­joyed sail­ing on the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay.

Mr. Wil­ner read broadly and vo­ra­ciously, from travel nov­els to his­tor­i­cal works, said Ms. Wil­ner. He sub­scribed to The New Repub­lic and The Bal­ti­more Sun. Ad­di­tion­ally, he loved mu­si­cals and played show tunes on the pi­ano for his fam­ily. He also served 22 years as a trustee for Bal­ti­more’s Cen­ter Stage.

“He was the melody in our fam­ily that we fol­lowed,” said Ms. Wil­ner Stack.

A life­long Ori­oles fan and long­time Colts fan, “it took him a lit­tle while to come around to the Ravens,” Ms. Wil­ner said.

Ser­vices were Jan. 24 at Sol Levin­son & Bros., Reis­ter­stown Road.

In ad­di­tion to his wife and two daugh­ters, he is sur­vived by his sis­ter, Mar­i­lyn Frie­man of St. Peters­burg, Fla., as well as two grand­chil­dren.

Ms. Wil­ner said she thinks of her father ev­ery time she sees a MARC train or a West Vir­ginia li­cense plate: “Wild, won­der­ful.” showed up at Cal­tech. The dean said, ‘Let me pull your file.’ I said there was no file. I was so naive I thought you could go to col­lege wher­ever you wanted.

“I was told that I could take an en­trance exam in a month. ... By some mir­a­cle, I passed the exam and be­came a stu­dent at Cal­tech.” He de­vel­oped a new pas­sion for the sea. Shortly be­fore World War II, he be­came a grad­u­ate stu­dent at the Scripps In­sti­tu­tion of Oceanog­ra­phy, where he be­gan study­ing surf fore­cast­ing. He was soon work­ing for the Navy at a re­search lab on Point Loma in San Diego, study­ing anti-sub­ma­rine war­fare and wave pre­dic­tion.

Al­lied forces widely used his work in World War II to put troops ashore. Mr. Munk's work later helped other sci­en­tists do such things as find­ing bet­ter ways to guide ships in the open sea and telling week­end surfers where the waves will break.

While the na­tion's at­ten­tion turned to the space pro­gram in the 1960s, Mr. Munk looked to the sea. He was de­ter­mined to rally sci­en­tists around the idea of drilling into the Earth's man­tle so that they could bet­ter un­der­stand its com­po­si­tion, evo­lu­tion and role.

On the whole, that ef­fort failed. But a test drilling was per­formed in the early 1960s and sci­en­tists learned that they could use acous­tic sig­nals from the seafloor to po­si­tion sur­face plat­forms.

That and other work earned him a Na­tional Medal of Sci­ence.

He and his wife vis­ited Paris last sum­mer, where he was awarded the French Le­gion of Honor with the rank of che­va­lier (knight) for his con­tri­bu­tions to oceanog­ra­phy.

Ron Wil­ner gave Spiro Agnew a slo­gan and the MARC trains their name.

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