Four decades of memories: Paul Quinn, Signing Off
A personal remembrance of the man behind the voice of KLTC Dickinson.
DICKINSON — If you’ve spent any time listening to KLTC Radio in Dickinson, North Dakota, over the past forty years or so, you’ll have a pretty good idea of who Paul Quinn is. It was one of Paul Quinn’s trademarks to punctuate his on-air stories with a joke so bad it was good.
“Did you hear that a church was broken into by vandals recently? They stole the bell from the little church’s belfry!,” Quinn broadcasted from the KLTC Radio station in Dickinson. “So now they can’t ring the bell on Sunday mornings! There is a somewhat happy ending to this, however. The church won the No-Bell prize!”
Some he made up; some he accumulated, the way a magnet collects metal filings. Some were obviously jokes from the first line; others crept up on you as the telling unfolded, and before you knew it you were suckered.
“How come there are so many vampires?” Quinn asked. “Because as the old saying goes, there's a sucker born every minute!”
It wasn’t PQ’s only gift, this knack for weaving a humorous—or not-so-humorous—pun into a seemingly innocent narrative, but it was a memorable one. And it hid a fact about the man: he took his work seriously. He told me more than once that he considered himself lucky to be doing what he loved. If that’s not the talk of an artist, I don’t know what is.
He really did treat his profession as performance, right down to developing the on-air persona that made so many strangers feel as if they knew him. And God knows his calling required sacrifice, just like any other artistic pursuit I know of. Does that mean that radio announcing is an art? I don’t know, but it was with Paul behind the microphone.
I first met Paul when I started working at KLTC my senior year of high school, but I’d known of him for much longer. You heard it over and over again: “Paul is a local celebrity.” And it was true. I must have been nine or ten years old when my parents took me to a local stage production of Dracula. Part of the excitement was knowing that I was going to be scared (I was already developing into a bona fide horror fan by then), but part of it was the anticipation of seeing local celebrity Paul Quinn play the role of Renfield (his friend and colleague at the time, Dick Hildebrandt, took on the role of the count). I was mesmerized, and all those years later I couldn’t wait to corner Paul at the station and tell him that he had been a major influence on my love of all things creepy and unnerving, all because of that play.
Honestly, he wasn’t thrilled to have me in his way that first evening, when my on-air shift came to an end and he was in a hurry to start his. But all it took to bring him around was mentioning his performance in Dracula. Just like that I had flipped a switch and laid the groundwork for a friendship. Little did I know it was one of his favorite novels. If any further assurance was needed, it came when I mentioned my interest in Bela Lugosi movies. Suddenly he was almost disappointed to have to start his shift instead of continuing to talk about horror books and movies with yours truly.
The interesting thing about a friendship when there’s a significant age difference is that the older friend can become a kind of mentor or guide. This was certainly true with Paul and me. He was able to fill in countless details about the generation of writers, filmmakers, popular musicians, and actors that came before my own. It was the best kind of education. He didn’t just talk about a film like Rosemary’s Baby. His eyes would light up as he rattled off the names of cast and crew and recounted his favorite scenes.
Paul had a way of making his passion for things infectious, in other words. It was one of his most endearing traits. I already had an appreciation for classical music, movie musicals, and old horror films when I started hanging out with him, but he made me feel as though the time spent with these pastimes was precious, not wasted, as some corners of society would have it. Yet he also knew the value of the people in his life, and of course he enjoyed nothing more than getting out in nature to throw a line into the water (bobber-watching, I used to call it, which became a running joke). And don’t even get me started on his love of bicycling. He once biked from Dickinson to Williston, hopped on the train to visit me in Seattle, and then biked his way back to Dickinson from Williston at the other end of the journey. Nothing to it. (You may have guessed that trains were another of Paul’s many passions—and before you know it I was riding the rails myself.)
But how have I made it this far without mentioning Laurel and Hardy? Whew, boy! I’m not sure they weren’t at the top of the heap for Paul. On par with Mozart (his favorite composer) and Christopher Lee (his favorite actor). As far as he was concerned, the antics of Laurel and Hardy were pure genius. I’ve noticed in the years since he turned me on to their rough-and-tumble–but also genuinely human–comedy that many great modern comedians also hold them in high esteem, and it’s easy to see why. I’m sure my introduction to them cleared a path for me to develop a lasting fondness for the silent clowns (Chaplin, Keaton, Bowers, Langdon, Lloyd, etc.), and Paul and I eventually made a die-hard Laurel and Hardy fan out of my daughter as well. He didn’t have any patience for silent comedy himself, by the way. As passionate as he was about the things he loved, he could be equally passionate about the things he didn’t, and bringing him around was sometimes a challenge. Silent film fell into that category. So did westerns and war movies (especially those starring John Wayne, I’m afraid), and coffee. Coffee, for crying out loud! I gave up on that debate a long time ago.
But he was capable of changing his mind on occasion. He didn’t think he liked poetry, for instance, until I asked if I could record him reading one of my poems. I think if he had lived longer I would have made a Shakespeare fan out of him, too. I remember receiving an email from him after he had been less than approving of Bach’s music in a recent phone conversation. He admitted that he had been too harsh and went on to list a number of Bach’s most memorable melodies and how fond of them he was.
He would go on to introduce me to the work of writers like James Herbert, William March and Richard Matheson. He would bring me to a meaningful awareness of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and others (the seeds had been planted already by my sisters, both of whom performed classical works when I was young, but PQ kept the soil watered), though we agreed to disagree on Bach’s ranking among the masters.
Cabaret, The Children’s Hour, My Fair Lady, The Horror of Dracula, Dead Ringer. The list of movies he turned me on to is far too long to include here with any attempt at completeness. Many of them we watched together and discussed ad infinitum, first in his appropriately spooky basement apartment and later in the trailer that would be his home for the rest of his days, though its location changed a couple of times. My daughter Thea even takes her name from a Boris Karloff film called The Black Room—a movie that might have slipped past my notice if Paul hadn’t screened it for me. After I moved away from Dickinson, I continued to seek out many of his recommendations and relied on them to inform my own tastes.
Paul’s book, movie, and music knowledge also had a profound influence on the course of my college career, such as it was. There can be no greater example of this than my abiding admiration for the fiction of Charles Dickens. I had read A Christmas Carol as a child and was a fan of some of the movie versions, but Paul changed my life when he gave me a copy of the book for Christmas in 1994. I’ve read it almost every year since. For several years, my wife bought us tickets to a stage production each winter for my birthday, and I’m pretty sure a Christmas season hasn’t gone by without our viewing one movie version or another. I even dip into a couple of audiobook versions from time to time. More importantly, though, this deeper connection to Dickens led me to his larger novels, and probably to my focus on Victorian literature as an undergraduate lit student. My reading is diverse these days, but the pet fiction genres I turn to again and again are horror and the Victorian novel. Paul played a role in that, plain and simple.
But before we can call any summation of Paul’s life remotely adequate, it has to include mention of his beloved Claudia. No, I’m not referring to a secret love affair; he was a confirmed bachelor for most of the time I knew him. Claudia held a special place in Paul’s heart because she nearly took two of his fingers. Again, long-time KLTC listeners are probably a step ahead of me here, because Paul discussed his brush with amputation by northern pike on the air more than once. He was so excited to land the largest northern of his life that he reached into her gills to bring her ashore. The anglers among you may know that the spiny gill rakers of a northern pike make this an unwise practice. Beyond that, it’s almost not worth telling the story, because only Paul could do it justice. The short version is that the ER team was able to save his digits and Claudia, post-taxidermy, hung from the wall of his trailer to the very end, a proud memorial.
Apologies If this tribute is more for me than for you, by the way. It feels important to get these things down, a brief record of Paul’s impact on my life, as a friend, mentor, and colleague. But maybe it can also serve as background on the man so many have known only as a comforting voice. As much as he enjoyed living and working in the Queen City, incidentally, a certain glint came into his eye whenever he reminisced about his hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota. He always spoke lovingly of many aspects of his upbringing there, and of his brother and his family. I know he’s deeply missed there as well. If I could have my way Paul would get a statue, or at least a huge plaque, but I’m afraid my bronze-casting skills are rusty, so these heartfelt words will have to do for now.
Paul Quinn passed away on Thursday, September 15, 2022, in his home. A connoisseur of everything from fishing to horror films to opera to country music to Latin, he was cast from a singular mold. Many will remember him as the voice of KLTC Radio for more than forty years. I have most of them beat. I was lucky enough to call him friend.
Rest in peace, PQ. You deserve it, and you are missed.