Memorial for John O'Leary draws on DJ's wide reach, spins into Oxford fundraiser
Throughout his long career, John O’Leary was both a familiar voice on Motor City rock radio and a kindly presence whether greeting fellow music fans or hobnobbing with storied figures.
In November, friends and colleagues were stunned when he was found dead at 68 in what police described as a slaying.
Days later, the region was rocked by another loss: a deadly shooting at Oxford High School, where O’Leary served as the broadcast voice for its hockey team.
"When that tragedy happened right after his, that was the spark that really lead us to this event tonight," said Doug Podell, a fellow broadcaster who worked with O'Leary at four stations.
Podell was joined by a few hundred people who came to the Token Lounge in Westland on Sunday evening for the memorial that doubled as a commemoration for an airwave legend and a fundraiser to benefit the victims in a shattered community.
Around the time of his death, O’Leary was excited to be working on a new podcast, Podell told the crowd.
“I knew that he felt that he was back on track,” he said. “That’s why tonight we felt it was important that we put an exclamation point on his life. We have lost many radio friends throughout the years. This one felt like it needed a bit of a little extra push.”
Coordinators described the event as a labor of love.
“It gives us a way to help give back,” said co-producer Roger Burghdoff, an entrepreneur and former DJ who knew O’Leary for decades. “I think everyone’s looking forward to make something positive of this event, as much as you can make this positive.”
The memorial drew on O’Leary’s wide reach and connections as well as his history.
He was a former personality on stations such as WWWW-FM, WABX-FM, WLLZ-FM, WIQB-FM and CIMX-FM.
His last gig was at classic-rock outlet WCSX-FM (94.7), where he worked from 2002-13.
A long line-up of friends and radio personalities reflected on O’Leary’s life and career Sunday night. Among them was his childhood friend, Greg Young. The two, born the same month and year, met when they were toddlers living on the same street. They had been inseparable since then, Young said.
"Every July 12th I would call John and wish him a happy birthday," Young said. "On the 15th he would call me and wish me a happy birthday. Instead, that’s not going to happen anymore. He was a wonderful guy. I know he just loved what he did. He was enraptured with the whole scene of radio and rock and roll. It's a terrible loss for us."
O’Leary, who graduated from Redford High School and the Specs Howard School of Broadcast Arts, most recently had done voiceover work.
In a video played during the memorial, one that O'Leary had recorded for a documentary months before his death, he reflected on his career, including how he was interested in becoming a meteorologist or going into radio broadcast. He said the additional education needed for meteorology pushed him toward radio. He said he also liked the mystery of the radio personality at a time where there was no Internet.
"It was always the mystique of hearing that voice and wondering who they were and what they looked like," O'Leary said in the video.
Alisa Zee, a veteran broadcaster and daughter of Specs Howard founder Jerry Liebman, recalled her interactions with O'Leary when he was a student at the school in the 1970s. She worked there as a receptionist.
"John would not just stop and talk to me," Zee said. "John always talked with me. He shared stories that always just dazzled and amazed. He had such a knowledge of the roll and roll industry and music ... Man oh man, I was intimidated by John O’Leary and his encyclopedic knowledge of the music, rock and roll.
"He was so laser focused on what he wanted to do, as we've heard from people speaking tonight. We heard from his own lips, meteorologist or disc jockey. We all say he made the right choice.”
Podell said O'Leary's podcast was going to focus on the history of Detroit rock radio.
“His love and passion for radio — it’s a passion that is waning today, but he was a staunch supporter,” he said. “He was so energized and ready to jump back into it.”
Another love was hockey, a sport O’Leary was known to watch avidly. The DJ parlayed that into a lengthy stint presenting games for Oxford High’s team.
“It gave him a different avenue for using his production skills,” Burghdoff said. “He loved that and being anything to do with John the DJ.”
O’Leary was found slain Nov. 21 in his Highland Park home. Sean William Lamoureux, 38-year-old who lived at the address, has been charged with murder in the case, the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office reported.
Following O’Leary’s death and the shooting at Oxford High that left four students and injured six others as well as a teacher, friends felt it was natural to find a way to aid their recovery.
Burghdoff and Podell set out to map a gathering befitting their radio titan friend who seemed at home on the stage and counted legendary acts as comrades.
The program also featured a “jam session” with surprise appearances, and performances by acts including Mob Opera, The Look and Vinnie Dombrowski from Sponge, organizers said.
There also was an auction featuring signed items from legends Alice Cooper and Ted Nugent as well as mementoes bearing logos of O'Leary's former stations, Podell said.
“He would’ve been really proud to see this event coming together,” he said. “We wanted to make sure that people could come and not only hear from his friends in the radio business but also communicate stories about John and just connect one last time and show their appreciation for a guy who helped break bands like Bob Seger and the J. Geils Band and was ready to do anything for anybody.”
Proceeds from the event are earmarked for efforts to support Oxford, organizers said.
Additional donations may be made in O’Leary name at www.oxfordbank.com/donations.
It joins other fundraisers and benefits for the victims and those affected in the area.
“Oxford Community Schools has received an outpouring of support from our neighbors, people across the state and around the world since tragedy struck our community on Nov. 30, 2021,” said Dani Stublensky, public relations coordinator at Oxford Community Schools. “We are so grateful to those who continue to reach out and dedicate their time and talents to helping our community heal and that includes donations from this Sunday’s memorial for DJ John O'Leary.”