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Fond Remembrances of Jeff Holtz

Tributes are pouring in for former Tri States Public Radio Music Director Jeff Holtz. He passed away at his home in Macomb on Thursday, August 19. He was 79.

UPDATE: Memorial services will be held Saturday, August 28, 2021, 10:30 a.m. at Trinity Lutheran Church. More details can be found here

"He's been more than a voice for this station. He's been the godfather for this little station," said current Music Director Ken Zahnle.

“In 1987 we had the lucky triumvirate come in the door of Jeff Holtz as music director, Bill Wheelhouse as news director, and Dorie Vallillo coming in as permanent station manager. That really set the tone for this station for the decades since.”

Zahnle said the trio led the charge in turning TSPR (known at the time simply by its call letters, WIUM) into a station that sounds like it is from a larger market.

Zahnle said Holtz had a deep knowledge of a wide range of musical genres, and that he was comfortable with people from a wide range of backgrounds.

Zahnle also said people should know how proud Holtz was of his sons.

“One (Tom) became a tubist in the president’s own, the U.S. Marine Band, and served out an entire career in the Marine Corps. His other son (Matt) has done very well in broadcasting after learning the craft at Western Illinois University and going on to work for ESPN,” he said.

Holtz hired Zahnle as his first student employee, and Zahnle said that opportunity led to his career in public radio.

At the Beginning

Holtz came to Macomb from WVIK-FM in Rock Island. TSPR hired Bill Wheelhouse at about the same time. Wheelhouse called Holtz a constant companion for many. “He truly became part of the fabric of Macomb and Tri States Public Radio.”

Wheelhouse, who was TSPR’s news director from 1987-1995, said the two enjoyed pulling practical jokes on one another.

“He took a couple of news award plaques off my wall. I noticed they had been kidnapped, but figured I would get a ransom note or something,” Wheelhouse said.

“I went weeks without hearing anything, but he was always my suspect. Then I was at Tom's Cafe one evening sharing drinks with some of the staff and looked over on the wall and they were hanging in the Café, mixed among license plates and other unique posters and memorabilia.”

Wheelhouse left Macomb to work in Springfield, including a lengthy stint as the statehouse bureau chief for Illinois Public Radio. He is now retired.

Dorie Vallillo and Jeff Holtz outside TSPR's Performance Studio, which is named in honor of them.

Vallillo is also retired after more than two decades as TSPR’s general manager. She and Holtz were colleagues and friends for decades.

“He was dear to those that he worked with and of course all his listeners and his buddies down at the VFW,” Vallillo said.

“And no one could tell a story like Jeff, and no one could fundraise on the radio like Jeff Holtz could. I used to love doing his program with him. He would say things and he would have to cut my mic because I’d be crying I was laughing so hard.”

Vallillo said Holtz knew a lot about a lot of different things. She said he will be sorely missed by the community.

“He was a dear, dear, interesting person, really a renaissance man.”

More on the Holtz Legacy

Alex Heuer, who is an executive producer at St. Louis Public Radio, worked at TSPR in 2007 and 2008 when he was a history student at WIU. For his honors thesis he researched and wrote, “Seizing the Airwaves: A Comprehensive History of Tri States Public Radio.”

Heuer said Holtz left an indelible legacy at Tri States Public Radio.

“His on-air and behind-the-scenes contributions were heard for 34 years — more than half of the station’s 65 years on the air. He is every bit as important to the station’s history as co-founder William K. Shake, station managers Tug Haddock and Dorie Vallillo, and others,” he said.  

Heuer said it didn’t take long for Holtz to make his mark. He said just a couple years after arriving at TSPR, Holtz and musician Chris Vallillo hatched a plan for what became the nationally-syndicated show Rural Route 3. At its height, about 65 stations throughout the country carried the program, including Chicago, St. Louis, Seattle, and Boston. 

Heuer said it wasn’t easy to get Rural Route 3 up and running. He said Holtz was quoted on the subject in Augustana College Magazine in 1992:

“We were unable to reserve a theater, or a lounge area, or a dining room, or even standing-around space anywhere on campus. Possibly no one wanted to be involved even indirectly with a first-time radio project that had every chance of going down in flames.”

The show eventually found a permanent home at the university’s television studio in Memorial Hall, which is where the station was located at the time. The show lasted more than five years before ending production.

One other notable event came out of Rural Route 3 – a marriage. Chris Vallillo and Dorie Vallillo (at the time Dorie Gain) tied the knot several years after meeting during production of the program.

Holtz retired from TSPR in 2008 but continued to host Jazz After Hours for three hours every Saturday night during retirement and up to the time of his death.

In honor of Holtz, Ken Zahnle featured Holtz’s favorite selections during the Saturday, August 21, Jazz After Hours program. Also that evening, the George Turner Quartet paid tribute to Holtz at The Wine Sellers in Macomb by playing "Lullaby of Birdland" by George Shearing, which was one of the songs on the "Jeff's Choices" CD they recorded with Vicki Mayo a few years ago.

Filling the Void

Current General Manager Heather Norman called Holtz a fixture at TSPR.

“Jeff's absence will be felt deeply by the station he helped shape,” she said.

“The last email he sent me had the subject line, ‘The Talking Furniture.’ He was referring to himself in his self-deprecating way.  We will all miss him.”

Norman said the fall fund drive will include some sort of special tribute to Holtz. She said he missed just one drive during all his years in public radio. She said plans for any other tributes will wait until she can speak with his family.

Norman said the short-term plan is for Ken Zahnle to host Jazz After Hours on Saturdays from 8:00 p.m. – 10:00 p.m.  The 10:00 hour will be filled by Night Lights

Tri States Public Radio produced this story.  TSPR relies on financial support from our readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.

Rich is TSPR's News Director.