Br. George Rueppel, SJ: St. Louis' Little-known Radio Pioneer
By Joe Holleman
Originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
April 30, 2018 — No plaque lauds his work, no building bears his name, but the best choice for “Father of St. Louis Radio” is Brother George E. Rueppel.
Rueppel was a Bavarian librarian and Jesuit brother at Saint Louis University who founded WEW, one of the oldest radio stations in the United States. He was 82 when he died in 1947.
Not only was Rueppel one of the nation’s first radio pioneers, he probably was St. Louis’ first disc jockey.
“Brother Rueppel was just one of those people who could see how you could take technology — I hate using this term, but it’s accurate — to the next level,” said John Waide, a SLU archivist.
“Brother Rueppel always saw the next step,” he said.
And what better day to remember him than April 26, the date in 1921 that WEW received a federal license for broadcasting. (That doesn’t make it the area’s first station, but more on that later.)
Rueppel was born in Bavaria in 1864, but his family moved to the U.S. to flee the anti-Catholic ways of German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, news accounts note.
He joined the Jesuits in 1882 and was trained as a librarian. His first major assignment was at Canisius University in Buffalo, N.Y., where he was a teacher and librarian.
Rueppel also developed a keen interest in sciences, especially meteorology and geophysics, and was director of the Canisius observatory from 1886 to 1894. In his spare time, he became a licensed telegraph operator. Those interests eventually guided him toward his role as a radio pioneer.
He left Buffalo in 1894, worked at two Ohio universities and came to SLU in 1908 as the assistant librarian. It did not take long for Rueppel to immerse himself in the operations of SLU’s meteorology department, Waide said.
“One of the reasons he stayed a brother and never became a priest was so he could continue working on these practical sciences,” Waide said.
A giant in radio
Absher agrees Rueppel was a giant in radio and detailed how Rueppel came to be an important figure.
Br. Rueppel, shown here in 1942, is arguably the father of St. Louis radio, almost single-handedly creating WEW at SLU.
“In 1912, he started sending wireless weather reports in Morse code to train stations and farm bureaus. The telegraph operators would translate it and then read it to farmers who would gather,” Absher said.
The station was known to radio operators as “9YK” and broadcast out of O’Neil Hall, 3625 Lindell Avenue.
After World War I ended in 1919, the public’s interest in wireless communications exploded and sales skyrocketed in the area of transmitters and “crystal sets,” old radios people could build themselves from kits and tune in radio signals.
“That’s why it’s impossible to say what was the first radio station, since people with the right equipment were broadcasting from their basements in 1920,” Absher said.
By 1921, so many broadcasts were in the air that the U.S. Department of Commerce began regulating the medium and started issuing licenses.
That’s where the April 26 date comes from — it’s when WEW became the first station west of the Mississippi River to get an official license.
Complicating the historical documentation of St. Louis radio is the fact that WEW’s only major competitor in 1921 was KSD Radio. It was owned by the Pulitzer Publishing Co., which also owned the Post-Dispatch.
“So KSD got all the publicity in the Post, and it was hard for WEW to even get mentioned,” Absher said, noting that the newspaper would not include WEW in its list of radio stations around the U.S.
“The Post would have the schedules of even out-of-town stations, which could be picked up on those old crystal sets,” Absher said. “But they wouldn’t list WEW.”
Innovator and first area DJ
While the argument remains about which was the first St. Louis station, both Absher and Waide say it is clearer that Rueppel was the first disc jockey in town.
Shortly after licensing began, the federal government required stations to broadcast at least six hours of programming a day, a hard task using nothing but weather and news reports.
Br. Rueppel on the job at WEW.
“So to help fill time, (Rueppel) brought in his own phonograph, rigged a microphone to pick up the sound and then played albums for his listeners,” Absher said.
Reuppel even hosted a food show, playing “Aunt Sammy,” a character who dispensed cooking and nutrition information scripted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (Other stations used women for the show and it was known as “Aunt Sally.”)
Then in 1923, Reuppel engineered a broadcast of a Sunday Mass from St. Francis Xavier (College) Church for Army veterans in the hospital at Jefferson Barracks.
That program eventually turned into the “Sacred Heart Hour,” which eventually was heard worldwide on hundreds of radio stations.
And let’s not forget that while he was providing all that the programming, Rueppel also was a hands-on engineer, repairman and construction worker for the station’s hardware and studios.
As to Rueppel’s personality, Waide said he found only one passage, written after his death. The description diplomatically noted that Rueppel’s “potentially fiery temperament was kept under control by his spirituality.”
But for all the trailblazing, Waide said, he has never seen anything dedicated to Rueppel.
At one time, SLU’s Institute of Geophysical Technology in the 3600 block of Olive Street was called Rueppel Hall. It opened in 1944 but was demolished in the mid-1960s.
“People back in the early days of radio all knew him; he was that important,” Waite said. “But you could mention him now to a hundred people and I doubt anyone would even know his name.”
Reprinted with permission of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, www.stltoday.com.