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Moment of Indiana History

Jean Shepard

Jerry Seinfeld cites him as an influence, and named his third son after him. In his seminal text, Understanding Media , Marshall McLuhan tagged his work as innovative in its use of the medium of radio. But outside the context of the now-classic holiday flick A Christmas Story , the name Jean Shepherd may go unrecognized. The narrator of that 1983 feature was also the author of the stories upon which the film was based. By the time of the film’s release, however, Hoosier native Jean Shepherd had long since made his mark on the media landscape.

Born in 1921 in Hammond, Indiana—which appears as Hohman in his prose and the film—Shepherd grew up in a bungalow that still stands on Cleveland Street, and attended Warren G. Harding Elementary School. After a stint in the service and a brief matriculation at Indiana University, “Shep” embarked on a radio career. He worked on the Cincinnati and Philadelphia airwaves before landing the graveyard shift on New York’s WOR in 1956, where he spent the following two decades spinning tales instead of records, and rarely breaking for commercials. Skirting direct commentary on politics and religion, Shepherd’s montages of memories from his Hoosier past and observations of everyday life were punctuated with novelty songs, kazoo solos, and literary recitations (favoring the work of Robert Service and fellow Hoosier George Ade).

Shepherd became known for such guerilla tactics as urging his listeners to place their radio on the window sill in time for him to deliver such lines as, “You filthy pragmatists, I’m going to get you!” The deejay’s fans were so devoted, he managed to corral them into a whispering campaign, of sorts, in which they besieged local booksellers with requests for an apocryphal title by a non-existent author. When Ballantine subsequently published I, Libertine , it shot to the top of The New York Times bestseller list.

Readers of Playboy became familiar with Shepherd’s byline over the years. Stories first published there were later consolidated into such books as Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories and In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash . Once considered for Jack Paar’s spot on The Tonight Show , television was another regular milieu for Shepherd, who launched a number of productions of his own, including Rear Bumper , Jean Shepherd’s America and Shepherd’s Pie . Throughout his career, the raconteur brought his act to nightclubs and college campuses around the country, performing at Princeton for the last time just three years before his death in Florida in 1999.

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