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A lifetime of service

Lew Martin, left, talks with Joan Wimme at his 100th birthday party at the Superior Senior Center on Thursday afternoon. Jed Carlson /

Growing up in Superior, Lew Martin remembers seeing his first president when he was still a child.

President Calvin Coolidge was standing on the stairs of the former Central High School — the summer White House of 1928. Martin was across the street as the nation's 30th president held a fishing pole that someone had given him.

That summer, Herbert Hoover, the nation's 31st president came to visit too, Martin remembered.

Now 100, Martin said it wasn't that moment that inspired the media pioneer to go into radio — and later television — before returning to the airwaves nearly 20 years ago as the newsman on Radio Superior on 91.3 KUWS-FM. The program captured the history of the Twin Ports in stories, newscasts, advertising and music of an era when radio was broadcast's king; a history Martin has lived over the last 100 years.

Born Feb. 16, 1917, Martin said his inspiration was an old crystal set he had as a child. He would set up the crystals, run a wire to his bed, which would allow him to pick up radio waves that could be heard through an earphone.

Martin, who attended McCaskill School on the campus of Superior Teachers College through ninth grade, went on to graduate from the former Central High School before returning to the college as a student on the campus.

"I never graduated because I was working in the Telegram building (today's Badger Building) at WEBC," Martin said.

He said when they moved to Duluth, he went back to school, but he got a job at a station in Eau Claire, Wis.

"That's just what I wanted," Martin said. "I went down there on a train in those days. You could walk from the train to where the radio station was — it was only five or six blocks."

From Eau Claire, Martin went to work for a St. Paul, Minn., station, but during one of his monthly visits home, he saw a big story in the Telegram about an attorney, James Conroy, launching a new station in Superior.

"So I went to see him; he was in the Board of Trade building," Martin said. At the time, WDSM didn't have a tower or a studio, but he was invited to come back three months later.

The station went on the air in 1939 from the basement of the Board of Trade building below Braman's Music. It was the third station in the Twin Ports.

"No one would have imagined there would be so many radio stations right here in this market," Martin said.

Martin remembers a challenge from his former boss; Conroy promised Martin a hat if he could get WDSM notoriety when the Dionne quintuplets left Canada for the first time to christen five Victory ships in 1943 at the Butler Shipyard in a Superior. The national media camped out for the event. Martin was successful in getting right in the middle of the action and "pretty soon, East Coast papers and West Coast papers are coming in with WDSM," Martin said.

"Superior had four or five men's clothing stores at the time, and this was Brandser's and they had Barsalino hats, so I got that. My boss, Conroy, used to say 'look at that. He works for me and he's got a better hat than I have.'"

During his long tenure, Martin remembers riding the train with Harry Truman from Spooner to Superior.

"You had to be thank that it was a kinder, gentler time," Martin said of arriving at the depot in Superior with the nation's 33rd president. "There was a big crowd down there ... he said 'it's nice to be in Superior' and he introduced his wife, Bess Truman."

Martin said when the train stopped, people were within 10 feet of the sitting president, which doesn't happen anymore.

Then came television.

Martin made the shift from radio to TV, when his first television broadcast came from the two-car garage that served as a makeshift studio beneath the transmitter.

That broadcast launched WDSM Channel 6 — just minutes before Channel 3 went on the air for the first time.

"In those days, broadcasters were mostly newspaper people," said Martin, who was already a veteran broadcaster when he made the move to television.

He said in those early days "hardly anyone had a television."

But as televisions became more prevalent and broadcasting companies started broadcasting in color, Martin's voice continued to fill the airwaves.

When U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy was running for president, Martin said he had the opportunity to meet the future president and his family including wife, Jackie Kennedy, brothers, Bobby and Ted Kennedy, Mrs. Sargent Shriver, Mrs. Peter Lawler — the senator's sisters Eunice and Patricia, respectively — and their mother, Rose Kennedy were all in Superior.

His assignment was to cover the Kennedy family as they visited the Kiwanis and Rotary clubs among other stops while they were in Superior for three days before Wisconsin's early primary in 1960.

He later reported on then-President Kennedy during a visit to Duluth, two months before Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.

When Martin retired at age 60; however, he turned his attention to serving in government — as a longtime member of the Douglas County Board. Martin remembers back and forth rivalries — first with Lee Andresen, then Bruce Ciskie — for the seat he held on and off for decades.

"For a long time, I couldn't do it because I did the news at 10 o'clock," Martin said. "When I could, I ran for the County Board."

Martin relinquished the seat in 2012 at the end of his term, at age 95, but he hasn't given up the driver's seat. Last week, he said he got his license renewed, and joked the last time he did that, he thought it would be his last.

"It's hard to walk," Martin said. "Everything else is pretty good."