"I didn't saddle up to come in second!" Gary Dee Gilbert lived by that creed, pursuing a career and even private life that might best be described as "performance art". He was the son of sharecroppers born in Hope, Arkansas, then known as "Home of the World's Largest Watermelons". A few years later Hope native former President Bill Clinton would help retire that statement as the town's only claim to fame. Dee's father would later take a job as the fire chief of Exeter, California where Gary and his brothers would grow up in a very strict Baptist household.
Gary Dee was athletic, winning a spot on his high school pole vaulting squad and later as a male cheerleader in college. He initially pursued an accounting degree at the University of California at Berkeley but transferred to the College of Sequoia and then Fresno State where he earned a degree in radio and speech. While in college Dee lived for free at a funeral home in exchange for answering the phone after hours. He also pursued a master's degree in guidance and counseling.
Dee started his radio career as a sportscaster, copywriter and salesman for KNGS in Hanford, California. In 1960 he switched over to KYNO, a rocker in Fresno and then back to KNGS for three years as station manager. Dee left radio for a time to become a school teacher, but was back on the air by 1967 at KGEN in Tulare, California hosting a country - western show as "Big Ben Boulder". The following year he moved to KMAK / Fresno where the Gary Dee personae was born. By his third night on the air Dee had had enough of whiny callers and laid into an elderly woman on the air shocking the audience. General manager Paul Neuhoff heard the exchange, fired Dee at 11 o'clock and allowed him to finish his shift. By midnight Neuhoff had a change of heart and hired Dee back. It would start a long association with the two that would eventually take them all the way to Cleveland.
Dee now billed himself as "The Fresno Flash" and shortened his radio name to Gary Dee when Gilbert wouldn't fit on promotional materials. When Neuhoff headed to Cleveland Dee followed to anchor the highly controversial "People Power" format on WERE. The station had good ratings but the format drew an older audience and there was money to be made with lower demographics in what was then the eighth biggest radio market in the U.S. Following in the style of the late Joe Pyne, Dee replaced Howie Lund and immediately targeted politicians, dead beat dads, welfare cheats and anyone getting headlines. Dee knew how to draw attention hosting controversial "adult" performers, shutting down bridges and even staging his own funeral which was broadcast live on WERE. He drew huge ratings...and even petition drives with politicians demanding the FCC remove him from the airwaves. It wasn't long before Gary Dee was the controversial king of Cleveland radio.
His personal life was often in the headlines as well, with marital strife and even stays in jail getting wide news coverage. WERE switched to an all-news format in June 1975 and Dee moved crosstown to WHK and its country format. He didn't tone down his act one bit and stayed at the top of the ratings well into the early 1980s when he went on to work in Washington and New York City, even getting profiled on CBS' "Sixty Minutes". By the late 1980s Dee was again in Cleveland at WWWE for further battles with the FCC. In the 1990s Dee ended his long career at WERE, the station that gave him his big break in Cleveland. Gary Dee died in November 1995, but his great influence has been cited by a series of controversial talk show hosts in Northeast Ohio and across the country.