On Friday I will do one of the hardest things I have ever had to do: I will say a final good bye to an old friend. Charles Alan Farr, affectionately known far and wide as “Big Al” or “Al Gator,” will be laid to rest.
Big Al was a true character in every way possible. He had a zest for life, and he had never met a stranger. He was one of the friendliest people I have ever known and also probably the most creative.
Big Al was a dreamer. From the time I met him we shared a common dream: a love for radio.
The first time I met Big Al I was a young DJ at KJLS Radio in Hays. I had just been promoted from working part-time overnights to full-time middays. One of the sales guys approached me and asked if I would be willing to work with a client who wanted to come in and voice his own commercial. “This guy is a little picky and a little hard to work with,” I was told. “No problem,” I said. I was a little intimidated, though, when this larger than life, loud guy walked into the studio to voice a commercial for “Big Al’s Bar & Grill.” He must have voiced it at least a dozen times. To me, it sounded the same every time. But not to him. Finally, after another take, I said, “Let me play around a little bit with it.” I invited him to hang out in the studio with me. I added a little reverb here, a little echo there and had him recut the final line doing what we called “human reverb.” No machines or special effects were needed, just him saying “bbbbbbb-be-there!” He absolutely loved the commercial and invited me down to his bar for a beer. A friendship was born that would last nearly 30 years.
“Big Al’s Bar & Grill” didn’t last long, like a lot of Al’s ventures. I also remember the short-lived “Big Al’s Lawn Service & Snow Removal.” He came over and cut my grass once. And who could forget “Big Al’s Rentals,” where a disgruntled tenant moved out in the middle of the winter, left all of the windows open, turned up the heat, left all of the faucets running, and used the carpet in the middle of the living room for a toilet.
Al was also a DJ. He spun the tunes at various clubs in Hays and had his own DJ business “Big Al’s Toons.” At the time he had a state of the art sound system, which he called the “gig-meister.” Al brought the “gig-meister” to my wedding and boomed out the music as my beautiful wife Shana walked down the aisle. Al and the “gig-meister” also provided the entertainment at my brother Dennis’s wedding dance.
As I said, Al was a dreamer. And the one dream he never gave up on was radio. He took communication and radio / tv classes at Fort Hays State University. He took a lot of classes, but I don’t think he ever graduated. I used to tease him, stealing a line from a classic movie. I’d say, “Dang it, Big Al. Seven years of college down the drain!”
Al eventually ended up getting a part-time job at KJLS and would come and hang out all the time. He was still working at the radio station when I left, heading west to a great radio adventure in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
When Shana and I made the move, Al volunteered to drive the moving truck. Boy, was that an adventure. The first night we all slept in the same hotel room. After eating at a Chinese restaurant, which I’m sure Al picked out, Shana became violently ill overnight. Al got up, dressed only in his white BVDs, to check on her.
Though we were then several hundred miles apart, we still stayed in touch. When I was on the air, Al was a frequent caller on the toll free line. This was before the time of cell phones and the internet.
I always knew it was Al calling. As soon as I answered, he would say “Tad, Big Al here, calling with an update live from the radio ranch in Hays, America.” For some reason he always called me “Tad” or “Pitt-Man,” and his house in Hays was known as the “radio ranch.”
We created a couple of different characters, which he voiced of course. Nothing was ever pre-written or scripted; we did it all on the fly. He voiced a character we called “The Big Boss Man,” who we said was calling the studio from “down the hall in the executive office” and complimenting me on “doing a great job” on things like how well I cleaned the toilets or scraped gum off the floor. Another Al creation, who we called “Poetry Man,” was also a recurring character.
Al also voiced multiple fun, goofy, liners for me.
Over the years, we began to fall out of touch. Life got in the way. Shana and I moved from Cheyenne to Salina. We started a family and a more “normal” life.
Al did eventually realize his dream of signing his own radio station on the air. KFIX radio in Hays was Al’s baby. He did all of the research and legal work with the FCC to get the call letters and frequency. Al only had the station for a very short time before he had to make a deal with the company that currently owns and runs the station.
But it wasn’t Al’s last radio station. For the last decade or so he had his own online station KMAYX.
I knew that Al’s health was not good, but I didn’t realize how bad it was. He never let on how bad it was. Though we stayed in touch via social media, I can’t remember the last time I talked to Big Al. And I regret that. I should have paid him a visit at the “radio ranch.” I should have been a better friend.
I was out eating in Salina this week with Shana when we learned of Al’s passing. We both became a little emotional. She had known Al since she was a teenager. He used to pal around with her brother Chance from time to time. As we started to share some memories, Shana concluded that Big Al was an icon in Hays. She is right. But he was more than that. Big Al was also an icon to anyone who ever met him.
Big Al left this world far too early. He was only 54-years-old.