WJR's longtime voice Frank Beckmann dies at 72

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

As more than 100,000 people at Michigan Stadium stood and cheered Charles Woodson, Jim Brandstatter stood in the cramped radio booth and applauded Frank Beckmann.

It was the kind of moment when legends are made. Wolverines vs. Buckeyes, November 1997, Ohio State on the move. Woodson, a Michigan defensive back in contention for college football's most important award, broke in front of a receiver and intercepted a pass in the end zone.

"I was standing there," Brandstatter said, "and Frank got up out of his seat, he was pointing, he was yelling. It was, 'Clear off the mantelpiece, make a place for the Heisman Trophy!'"

Frank Beckmann

Beckmann, 72, a fixture at WJR-AM (760) for 48 years, died Saturday night of vascular dementia, according to his wife, Karen. He had been living his final days at an assisted living facility in Clarkston. Ailing for much of the 11 months since he retired, he had been in hospice care for several days.

Beckmann began his career at WJR as a reporter in 1973, launched a pioneering sports talk show called Sportswrap eight years later, called play-by-play for UM football, the Detroit Lions and Detroit Tigers, and spent his last 17 years at the station hosting a 9 a.m. weekday talk show.

For Brandstatter, the color commentator alongside Beckmann for three decades of Michigan football games and several years with the Lions, the most vivid memory from it all was that moment in the Big House.

"I just stood back and he was done and the crowd was going, and I started applauding looking right at him," Brandstatter said. "He looked at me like, what are you doing? And I just kept clapping. I'm going, ‘I'm done, man, you just did it all.’"

After a few moments, Brandstatter said, "he understood what I was doing and he smiled and kind of waved his hand at me like, 'Oh, stop it.'"

Michigan radio broadcasters and spring game emcees Jim Brandstatter, left, and Frank Beckmann interview former Michigan head football coach Gary Moeller on April 14, 2012.

Then the whistle blew and Beckmann went back to work.

Inducted into both the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame and Michigan Broadcasting Hall of Fame, Beckmann was well-read, scrupulously prepared and generous, said friends and colleagues. With his microphone as his pulpit and his namesake March of Dimes celebrity golf outing as a primary tool, he helped raise millions of dollars for charities.

A long-hitting golfer until back and neck surgeries slowed his swing, solidly built at 6-foot-3, he accumulated numerous trophies — "dust collectors," said Karen, from their home in Rochester Hills — with his favorite the one he earned in a member-guest event with his son, Jonathan.

Politically conservative and occasionally testy, he could be dismissive with talk show guests on such hot-button subjects as climate change. One memorable morning in May 2011, he sparred on-air with fellow WJR voice Mitch Albom for 30 minutes over Albom's support for Michigan's film tax credits. But he was gentle with amateurs promoting an event or simply dialing in to voice an opinion.

"He knew how to press the professionals so they didn’t dissemble or reflect," said Guy Gordon, the afternoon talk host on WJR. "He would nurse the novices through their nervousness."

Gordon called Beckmann "the Swiss Army knife of broadcasters," with the equanimity to moderate a panel discussion, the focus and spontaneity to handle play-by-play, and the sharpened instincts of a reporter.

Frank Beckmann

Karen, who marked their 49th anniversary on Feb. 2, said her husband was all but born to the job.

Frank Carl Beckmann was 2 years old when his parents emigrated from Germany and settled on the east side of Detroit.

His father worked the line for General Motors, his mother was a secretary. Beckmann made it clear he was an aspiring broadcaster from age 9 or 10, when his parents bought him a tape recorder and he'd sit in front of the television describing baseball and football games.

The family moved to Warren when he was a sophomore, Karen Beckmann said, because Cousino High School offered radio classes and had a campus station. 

The two of them met in a driver's training class. At least as adults, she said, "I was definitely the better driver. Frank had his mind on so many things he wasn't paying attention."

"Numbers, names, he absorbed it all," said Terri Lieb, his producer from 2009-17. “I never met anyone as sharp as Frank. He could multitask like crazy.”

Comfortable with his research, “he was never afraid to ask the hard question,” Lieb said. “He wouldn’t ask softball questions to get someone to like him. He’d say, 'I’m going to ask the questions everyone listening wants to ask.'"

Beckmann was a generous boss, she said, dipping into his pocket to make sure she had better computers and phones than the radio station provided. Grateful as she was, she’d still check his math when paczki or donuts showed up in the office.

Unfailingly, he’d cut his selection in two pieces and leave one of them in the box. “Frank,” Lieb would ask him later, “how many halves have you had today?”

“I’ve only had six,” he’d respond proudly. But that’s three donuts, she’d say, part producer and part mom.

“He’d say, ‘No, no, no,’” Lieb said. “And he was serious about it.”

He kept better track of numbers with the charity golf outings he hosted for 39 years at Indianwood Golf & Country Club, his home course in Lake Orion.

Adding the take from the one event since Gordon took over as chair, the total raised is about $2 million, said Jamie Mitchell of March of Dimes of Michigan.

“He was always so generous with his time,” Mitchell said. “He attended the monthly meetings with us. We held a lot of them at WJR. He’d get done with a show, pop in and have lunch with the committee.

“He loved the auction. He’d say, ‘Jamie, what am I going to buy this year?’”

Beckmann frequently took his talk show on the road, showcasing Michigan tourism and somehow always alighting at locations with noteworthy golf courses.

He would often bring his clubs on University of Michigan road trips, playing with then-associate athletic director Bruce Madej the day before the game.

“A couple of times, Frank got an RV from a local dealer, and we’d drive that,” Madej said. Even when they flew, “almost every Friday night, I was with him."

Conversations frequently turned topical, Madej said, and they rarely agreed on politics. “But I could say he was nuts, and he could say I was nuts. We could talk. Those were great days.”

Beckmann handled UM play-by-play from 1981 to 2013. His departure was difficult.

A weekly columnist at the time for The Detroit News, he wrote in defense of golfer Sergio Garcia, who had been criticized for a humorless one-liner involving Tiger Woods and fried chicken. In a piece intended as a jab at political correctness, Beckmann said a reference to fried chicken should be taken not as a stereotype but as a compliment to the ingenuity of slaves.

He ultimately apologized, and he issued a statement calling his comments "offensive and inaccurate." The next fall, he was not in the booth.

"It really wounded Frank," Madej said — but he remained loyal to UM.

"In all the conversations he and I had," Gordon said, "I never heard him speak an unkind word about the university or its administration. If there was any bitterness, I never saw it."

Leaving the Tigers job in 1998 was easier. After four years of running an eight-month marathon, Karen said, her husband wanted to be home more with his son and daughter, then 14 and 9.

Still, said his broadcast partner Lary Sorensen, “He loved it. He loved sitting in the booth with that baseball glove, catching foul balls. He caught a bunch.”

He saved the crew from ricochets, Sorensen said, and one night at dinner during spring training, he performed the Heimlich maneuver in a restaurant and saved a woman’s life.

“I learned about journalism from him,” said Sorensen, now living in Orlando, Florida, and commuting to broadcast Wake Forest University sports in North Carolina. “Be accurate with your facts. Be persistent. Look for the whys as much as the whats.”

And: When a moment arises, seize it. Twenty-five years ago, Woodson intercepted, and Beckmann reacted. Clear off the mantelpiece.

"I was watching him," Brandstatter said, "and he was like having an out-of-body experience, pointing down at the field, his voice was going. I just said, 'Wow.’

"It wasn't planned. He hadn't scripted it. That was as good as it gets."

U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, released a statement mourning the loss of Beckmann, calling him a "legend of Michigan broadcasting" and saying he would miss Walleye fishing with his good friend.

“Few could match his unique talent as an interviewer, firm grasp of the issues, and special bond with his audience. Off the air, Frank was just as impactful in his commitment to helping so many worthy causes," Walberg said in the statement. 

Beckmann is survived by Karen, son Jonathan of Rochester Hills, daughter Tori (Andrew) Kughn of Clarkston, and grandchildren Pierson, Brooks and Sawyer Kughn.

There will be no funeral, Karen Beckmann said. A visitation will take place from 1-7 p.m. Thursday at Five Points Community Church in Auburn Hills.

In lieu of flowers, she said, please donate to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which is creating a  Frank Beckmann Center for Journalism. Online memorials can be left through Pixley Funeral Home.


Staff Writer Angelique Chengelis contributed.