Ray Szmanda worked in radio and television in northern Wisconsin, was the father of seven children, owned a radio broadcasting school in Wausau and even had a role in the “Alpha Incident,” a science fiction movie released in 1978 about a microorganism from Mars that is brought to Earth by a space probe and terrorizes passengers in a railroad office.
But for most people, Szmanda will be remembered as the “Menards Guy.”
For over two decades, beginning in 1976, Szmanda was a regular presence on television as he touted the latest deals on lumber, cordless drills, patio furniture, paint, mulch and hundreds of other products sold by the Eau Claire-based hardware store giant.
Szmanda, a longtime Antigo resident, died Sunday after a bout with pneumonia, heart problems and a fall. He was 91.
“He was the best. He was always on your side and was great at giving advice,” said Joan Burmeister, 58, his youngest daughter. “He was one who thought through everything and looked at the whole picture. He was the most motivating person you could ever meet.”
A blue shirt or sweater, white hair, big grin and large, black-rimmed glasses made Szmanda one of the most recognizable people on television in the Midwest, and to this day his likeness is still used in advertising images for Menards. The company was founded in 1958, and Szmanda was the face of its stores as the retailer mushroomed into one of the largest home improvement store chains in the country with over 300 locations in 14 states. In 2017, Forbes estimated the company had annual sales of $9.5 billion.
“Ray’s friendly, enthusiastic and fun-loving personality have made a lasting impression on our customers and all of us at Menards,” the company said in a statement Monday.
Szmanda was born in Milwaukee, graduated from Bayview High School in 1944 and entered the Navy, serving in the South Pacific during World War II, according to his obituary. Following his military service, he attended Brown Institute in Minneapolis to study radio. He worked as an insurance broker for Guardian Life, Northwestern Mutual and Prudential life insurance companies but had a long career in radio and television including stints in Calumet, Michigan; Merrill; Antigo; Wausau; and Milwaukee.
In 1969, Szmanda founded Transamerican School of Broadcasting in downtown Wausau where his students learned the art of radio announcing, spinning records and writing and reading news copy. Ken Clark was a 1977 graduate of the school and taught at the school in the early 1980s where he worked alongside Szmanda. Clark has had a more than 40-year radio career in Wausau and credits Szmanda with his start.
“It seemed like he was inexhaustible,” said Clark, brand manager for WRIG-AM (1390), a Wausau sports station. “At the time, his work was viewed by some as old-fashioned, and perhaps even rather corny. But over the years that’s been replaced by tremendous respect for a man who made himself an icon, and who gave so much of himself for our industry. Ray was truly one of a kind.”
Szmanda sold the school in 1986, and its new owner moved the school to Madison in 1988 where it changed its name to Madison Media Institute.
In a 1998 profile in the Wisconsin State Journal, Szmanda said he was often approached in restaurants and asked for autographs, which he usually signed. He called himself an “average do-it-yourselfer” but admitted he was “pretty good” with a caulk gun. When Menards started advertising on television, it wanted someone similar to Pat Summerall, a former professional football player who turned to broadcasting and ultimately became a spokesman for True Value Hardware.
“I have a genuine enthusiasm for everything I do,” Szmanda told the State Journal. “I don’t bother with things I can’t feel positive about. I’m just a real up kind of person.”
Szmanda collected antique cars, did freelance announcing, played the drums and was a ham radio operator, according to his website, www.themenardsguy.com. He also was hired to narrate an audio recording of the King James version of the Bible, according to his obituary.
Szmanda was preceded in death by his wife of nearly 51 years, Maxine, in 2000, and their son, Dr. Raymond “Jack” Szmanda, who was killed in a car crash in 2002.
The funeral mass for Ray Szmanda will be held Saturday at 10:30 a.m. at St John Catholic Church in Antigo. Entombment will take place in Queen of Peace Mausoleum.