Commentary: A Tribute to Addie Ottley

I ghostwrote many eulogies for Addie to deliver. I always wondered how I would write his.

He seemed eternal. It is so strange to think that Addie has passed. There was one time when he needed to make a list of his medical conditions for his health insurance. We sat at the news desk, and he started listing things while I typed. After two and a half pages, I stopped and said, “Addie, most of the stuff on this list is enough to kill people. You’ve had like a dozen life-threatening ailments; cancers, transplants, diabetes… This stuff would kill most people. He answered, “But I’m Addie Ottley,” as if that alone was enough to explain his vibrancy.

I came into Addie’s life just after Hurricane Marilyn. I was lying in bed looking up where my roof used to be, and Addie was on the Morning Show, talking with Governor Roy Schneider about the Biblical story of Job. “Job never lost his faith. Job never quit. Job got up again no matter what.”

I sat bolt upright and vowed to be like Job. I went into WSTA the next day and offered to help. The station manager and I were talking about what I might do for WSTA when Addie breezed through the office, saying, “See if he can make something in the newsroom that doesn’t sound like the police blotter.”

I replied, “What if we turn the news on its head and tell people what’s going right instead of what is going wrong.” 

“Yeah, that,” he said and was gone. Good News Headlines was born that day. For the next 20 years, I dutifully climbed up the hill to WSTA to comb through all the announcements, press releases, and news feeds to craft news the way Addie wanted it; positive, upbeat, supportive of people. He wanted everything about WSTA to support the community. I was ready to embrace that vision.

“A little bit better today than yesterday,” he always said.

It wasn’t like WSTA was a channel for the community, in Addie’s world, WSTA WAS the community. How many times there was some issue that was vexing the community, and the people needed to talk it through. Addie would stop the music, hold the commercials and use the channel to let the people talk through the issue. He would apologize to the sponsors who had paid for commercial time, but all of his sponsors knew that supporting Addie and WSTA allowed these discussions to occur, and the community would support Addie’s sponsors because of that.

What an honor to be part of the WSTA community. Where else could a white guy from the states who was one of those odd year-round-snowbirds get a job that was so close to the soul of the community? I came from a world of high technology and computers. I wanted to launch the computer revolution in the islands. No one would ever have listened to Alex Randall try to get Virgin Islanders to try the internet. But I showed Addie how to surf the web and how to work e-mail, and Addie was on the air the next day telling everyone about the power of the internet for our islands. I couldn’t do that. Addie could.

The radio reaches everyone in St. Thomas. In a world where magazines and newspapers are expensive, Addie knew that free radio reached everyone. He wanted his radio station to support the community, to make a difference. He wanted his news to be uplifting, and he knew if folks told us, WSTA could tell everyone.  

Everyone trusted him. If Addie talked about it, then people would listen. He was so much more than a radio show host. Lots of people can spin disks and tell stories. But Addie was the social media of the community. He had innate support for the culture of the community. He carried Virgin Islands culture with him everywhere and made sure it was shared with everyone. What a big heart he had. Big enough to take in all the love and send it back out again. No wonder he survived all those ailments. The love of the whole community supported him.

Addie had no anger in him. In 20 years, I never heard him utter an ill word toward anyone. He never showed a burst of anger, never cursed at someone or spoke ill of others behind their back. There were other people in the radio business who called everyone “jerks and a$$holes,” Not Addie. There were hundreds of mornings when it was just Addie and I in the studio. Him on the air in the main studio and me in the newsroom culling through reams of input to figure out how to deliver the news. We had hundreds of conversations; about news, people, government, the senators, agencies, school news, deaths… Addie always had a positive spin. He could find a gem of good in everyone, and his sense of respect shone in every conversation. What an utterly honorable man.

It is not just that we lost our Morning Show host. It is not just that we lost a local man who climbed the ladder of success, showing the way for others to follow. It is not just that we lost a kind-hearted man. We lost a bit of the soul of the culture.

Addie always wanted a prayer at the end of the eulogies that I wrote for him. They all took this form:  

Lord, we commend his body to the earth – he no longer needs the flesh and bone. Let his body find peace. Lord, please take his eternal soul to a place where he will thrive. Let it be where his parents and siblings will be as thrilled to see him there as they were to greet him here in this world. 

Take him to an island with kind and loving people where he can help stitch the community together with words and music every day. But Lord, oh Lord, please let us keep a part of him. Let us keep his spirit. Let us carry his spirit of goodwill and kindness in our hearts so that all of us can be “A Little bit better today than yesterday.”

— Alexander Randall V lives in Princeton, New Jersey, and is a professor of communications at the University of the Virgin Islands.