You probably know Sam Madonia from his morning radio show on WFMB. Maybe you pour that first cup of coffee in your kitchen as you tune him in to start your day. Or maybe you listen in as he calls the big football games, his high-energy, rapid-fire delivery barking into your car radio on a Friday evening or Saturday afternoon.
No matter how you know him, that's the thing: Everybody knows Sam. It's a pretty good bet that he's the most recognizable guy around town, a true local celebrity. But, long before he ever spoke a word into a radio microphone, Sam had a whole other life. He spent 30 years as a teacher, all at the same school.
Sam, who will be 67 in June, spent those three decades just up the road at Lincoln Community High School. In the fall of 1965, he had come to Lincoln to do his student-teaching. By January 1966, he was offered a full-time position when a teacher unexpectedly departed. Talk about steady: Not only did he stay at one school, but on his last day of teaching, in June 1995, he was still teaching the very same class he'd started with on that first day in 1966.
The course, "American Problems," was for seniors only, and it was already in place when he got there. It covered government, civics, current events - a social studies class. There was no textbook, and he could let things naturally flow, kind of running along without a script. Sounds like pretty good preparation for his current and popular "AM Springfield" radio show.
It also sounds pretty ideal for a teacher to have his ducks lined up nicely year after year. Sam'll tell you that it was a pretty nice setup.
"Teaching was very difficult to walk away from," he says. "For four or five years, I thought about Lincoln High School all the time. Early, I wondered if I'd made a mistake. I still think about it."
Surprise you to hear that the Sam you know from the radio, the guy with the big personality, would spend time looking back, fretting over a decision? But, reflect he did. In the end, it was time.
"Every year you age and the kids stay the same age," he says. "I sure couldn't teach school now."
Aside from the classroom, Sam spent a number of years coaching, too. He was the Railsplitters' head baseball coach from 1980-85 having been an assistant for a couple of different stints. He also coached girls track for three years.
Sam is nothing if not practical, and that way of thinking is what brought him to pursue education in the first place. Before ISU, he'd been in junior college, and when the time came to transfer, he asked himself a simple question.
What would be the fastest way to get a degree once all his credits were transferred?
"And, teaching looked like it was going to be the quickest route," he recalls. "Then I got into it and thought 'this is pretty neat.'"
As he made his way into the profession, carving out the kind of teacher he wanted to be, more pragmatic thinking followed.
"I thought of all the good teachers I'd had and what they did to make it interesting," he says. "And also, (I thought of) all the bad teachers I'd had, too."
What if it hadn't worked out? It may surprise you to hear that law school was a serious consideration. Most folks would tell you the world has plenty of lawyers, but good teachers are hard to find. The teaching was good to Sam.
You've probably heard Sam make mention of Alice, the love of his life. He makes no bones about how they met. She had been a student of the young, fresh-out-of-college teacher. She aced his class and "earned it academically," as he puts it. In 1966, he was voted Lincoln's teacher of the year, but he did so without one particular student's vote. Alice told friends that she didn't vote for him.
Alice graduated from high school on June 4, 1966. Their first date was June 9, 1967. They married on June 7, 1969. Looks like it was smooth sailing all the way around, but Sam remembers some angst.
"I was frightened, paranoid about dating a former student," he says, the seriousness evident in his voice more than 40 years after the fact. "When we went to a game, I had her walk ahead with another couple. And, I would park in the alley behind her parents' house on Fourth Street so nobody would see my car."
But, the heart wants what the heart wants, and the feelings stuck despite those long-ago and real obstacles. Their now grown-up daughters, Stacey and Anne, grew up blessed with loving parents and a loving home.
Another of Sam's great loves, in a different vein, is the Illinois State Fairgrounds. True to his north-end roots - he grew up on Fifth Street across from Lincoln Park - he is proud to have been the public address voice of the Illinois State Fair since 1994. He's also proud to have had a stretch in his life, from age 8-30, where he didn't miss a day of the fair, not one day.
At different points in his life at the fair, he has sold concessions, parked cars and worked the midway.
"I actually did some carnival barking at the fair, the greatest thrill a northender could have," he says. "It's a special place; I love those fairgrounds."
He graduated from Griffin High School in 1961. By 1965, he had graduated from Illinois State University with a bachelor's degree in education, and he completed his master's there in 1970.
His interest in broadcasting began long ago. He used to use a fake microphone and pretend to call sandlot games as a kid. And he liked to listen to a familiar Midwestern voice.
"I heard Harry Caray in the late '40s, and I was mesmerized," he says.
At ISU, he did some play by play in the 1960s. By 1973, he had started doing football and basketball games. For 20 years, he's been heard in some form doing Sacred Heart-Griffin games, starting at Virden's WRVI in 1989.
Safe to say, Sam is a working man. He turns in for the night between 8 and 9 in the evening and is out of bed at 4:30 a.m. He's on the air every morning from 6 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., and then it's off to his full-time job with the Illinois Secretary of State, where he works as a managerial assistant on the issue of traffic safety.
"I retired (from teaching) in 1995 at 51 and nobody came knocking on the door," he recalls of those uncertain months before he'd lined up new work. But things have a way of working out. His state job started in December of '95, and the radio show began the following year. He's not exactly one to be sitting around the house.
Kevin O'Dea, vice president and general manager for Neuhoff Media Springfield, is Sam's boss, or at least the guy who hired him.
"I don't think anybody is Sam's boss," O'Dea says. "I've known Sam since 1991 or '92; he's very family oriented, more than anyone I know. He's a very caring, very giving guy."
What makes Sam so successful on the radio, O'Dea thinks, is a combination of his local roots, his enthusiasm and the fact that he knows how to promote Springfield.
"He's very, very good at talking about what's going on locally - whether it's something political or the bake sale coming up at St. Joseph's," O'Dea says. "And, he's a good interviewer; he gets some things out of people that others can't."
Sam is also equally adept at talking to senators and the average listener, O'Dea says.
"The callers always come first to Sam, and he never talks down to anyone," O'Dea says. "He's the most relatable guy I've seen. He can't go anywhere without people coming up to talk to him."
Jim Ruppert, sports editor at The State Journal-Register, has known Sam since he was still in the classroom full-time. He's worked a lot of games with him, and he knows Sam's style.
"Sam Madonia exemplifies personality radio. He puts himself into his 'AM Springfield' show every day, and he puts himself into his play-by-play work," Ruppert says. "It's a different style, and Sam always says he's broadcasting the game to the blind guy who can't see what's happening on the field or court."
Ruppert calls it "rat-a-tat broadcasting and non-stop." And the other part, which is Sam's specialty, is that "he doesn't leave any question that he's hometown radio, and when he's on your side, he's the greatest."
Sam enjoys both his jobs, but he finds the "slow, cumbersome" ways of state government to be frustrating. Too many folks with their own agendas, he says, and too much jealousy bogging the whole process down.
"I have tremendous respect for the good, solid, dedicated state employees out there," he says, "But I do feel I owe all my students a letter of apology for what I taught them about state government. The real world's different."
His late parents were hard-working people. His father, Sevet, worked his entire working life at The State Journal-Register, except for the six weeks he took off to go up to the University of Notre Dame to study for the priesthood. He got homesick, and it was back to Springfield and to the paper. His mother, Isabelle, worked at City Water, Light and Power. With family at the core of their existence, his mother saw to it that her children never had to experience a babysitter.
Sevet was a well-known Republican precinct committeeman for 20 years. And, he had a group of about a dozen north-end buddies he liked to meet for a couple of beers each afternoon. Always the same guys, but they moved around a bit, starting at Hood's Tavern and later Franny's. Sam learned something about people from his dad and his pals.
Madonia is a Sicilian name. Sam's grandparents emigrated from Europe. Lithuanian on his mother's side, Isabelle was a Simonavich; in fact, Sam and his parents lived with the Simonaviches until he was 10. Both grandfathers were coal miners. Sam's full name - Sam Charles Madonia - is a tribute to both men.
Sam learned the importance of family from those good people, his parents and grandparents. Even today, Sam and Alice, who are blessed with many friends, prefer the simple company of each other and their own children and grandchildren.
Sam is the oldest of three children. He lost his brother, Tom, in 2002 at age 55 to cancer. His sister, Jeanne, and her husband, Rich, still own the family house on Fifth Street.
Loss has been Sam's greatest foe. Losing his folks and his brother rocked him to the core. The first couple of years after his brother's passing, he would still catch himself wanting to pick up the phone to call Tom. Sam pays homage to them every morning with his signature signoff: "Love you Mom and Dad, love you Tom."
He and Alice are energetic, on the move. They go out a lot, and they like to travel. They take frequent Las Vegas jaunts to see older daughter, Stacey Dilillo, and her husband, Mike, a Lincoln native. And they go down yearly for a visit to the islands, where Sam's sister has a place on St. Croix.
At home in Springfield, they have the company of daughter, Anne Hubbard, and her husband, Eric, and their treasures, the grandkids: Shea, 3, and Sloane, 1.
Sam is a pretty straightforward guy, and you can sum him up in a straightforward way: Family, an admirable work ethic with a heavy dose of sports thrown in. That's a pretty fair measure of any reasonable person.
So, how long does the show go on? That's a hard one to answer.
"Until my wife tells me I've lost it," Sam says, deferring to Alice, calling her his No. 1 listener, critic and consultant. "I won't overstay."
Any success he's had Sam attributes to the good beginning he received from his parents; his life honors their memory, he says.
To use the common vernacular of Sam's Las Vegas, he's feeling pretty lucky about life these days: "I have been so fortunate. I absolutely love it."
Story published Friday, March 5, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 2 )