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Jim Packard

Longtime Wisconsin Public Radio announcer and producer Jim Packard in 2004.

Jim Packard is heading into retirement, but the other day at Monty's Blue Plate, he appeared more interested in the blueberry pancakes than his legacy.

"Can't come here and not order them," Packard said, even though it was mid-afternoon.

He flagged down a waitress.

Best known on public radio as the longtime sidekick to Michael Feldman, and producer and fill-in host for Larry Meiller, Packard, 70, is leaving both gigs at the end of next month.

But his legacy is more colorful than that, and clearly nothing to consider on an empty stomach.

Packard worked as a Morse code operator in Germany. He has written and published cowboy poetry, and he has impersonated Jimi Hendrix while sharing the Cafe Montmartre stage with Clyde Stubblefield.

He has even walked on Michael Feldman's back.

But — whad'ya know? — it gets better. For two decades, up until five or so years ago, Packard moonlighted as a men's fashion consultant for Burlington Coat Factory.

"You're kidding," I said.

He gave me one of his favorite lines. "You've certainly gotten a lot of wear out of that."

Packard, it might be said, has gotten a lot of wear out of radio. It has been front and center in his life since he was 15 and won a DJ contest at WIBU-AM in Poynette, earning a part-time job at the station.

Born in Madison and raised in Lodi, Packard joined the Army out of high school and did Morse code work in Frankfurt. Back home, he tried the insurance business with his father for a year, but left it to get back into radio.

Packard claims to have gone in the front door and out the back of six different commercial radio chain stations in Madison. That pattern ceased in 1981, when Packard got a job as a morning news reader with Wisconsin Public Radio, eventually becoming statewide host of "Morning Edition."

In 1985, Feldman, having recently swung and missed on WGN-AM in Chicago, brought his unique humor, in the form of the quiz show "Whad'Ya Know?," to Wisconsin Public Radio.

Feldman and Packard had sized each other up while walking their dogs on the opposite side of some railroad tracks on Madison's east side. Feldman wanted Packard as the show's announcer, and Packard wasn't against the idea. How could he have been? "I didn't know what we were going to do," Packard said.

The better question might have been what weren't they going to do? Feldman tried on pantyhose on the show; he changed his baby's diaper; once, after complaining of a bad back, he had Packard walk on it like a masseuse. "He lived," Packard said.

Actually, he prospered. "Whad'Ya Know?" quickly gained popularity, and had to move to a larger studio when a fire marshal saw the crowd and nixed the old one in Vilas Hall. "One of our own engineers turned us in," Packard said.

The show celebrated its 25th anniversary in August. It has spawned CDs, including one on which Packard does his Jimi Hendrix impersonation. Not surprisingly, Feldman was the instigator, after spotting Packard writing down some lyrics to an old Hendrix song. "Why don't you do that on the show?"

Packard was a decade or so into "Whad'Ya Know?" when he also began producing Meiller's late morning call-in show. It, too, has had a great run, and will continue, even as Packard rides into the sunset like a cowboy in one of his poems.

He's been writing poetry for a decade now, and one poem, "The Nightingale," was published in a cowboy poem anthology titled "The Big Roundup."

It's the poetry that offers a hint of something Packard might consider in his retirement. A group called Western Sky Entertainment recently asked Packard to give an after-dinner speech to a group of cattle ranchers.

Packard had been expecting he'd spend time in retirement cooking for his wife, Deb, and taking long walks with their two Boston terriers. But maybe, he said, he'll consider some after-dinner speaking.

Packard could read poems, sing songs — criticize their clothes — and tell stories. He could, but for now, he turned down the cattle ranchers. The date conflicted with his golf league.

Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or dmoe@madison.com. His column appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

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