By BECKY KISER
He was born and raised in the small Rush County town of La Crosse. Robert E. Schmidt, called Bob by his many friends and associates, lived most of his long life in Hays leaving a legacy in broadcasting and philanthropy that extends far beyond western Kansas.
The chairman of the board of Eagle Communications, Inc. and retired president/CEO, Schmidt, who celebrated his 90th birthday last month, passed away early Tuesday morning at his home in Hays.
“You look down the list of all the accomplishments Bob has, and it starts out as a college radio sportscaster at Fort Hays, and then jumping into management of KAYS Radio and TV and that leadership role, it’s just frankly amazing,” said Gary Shorman, Eagle Communications President/CEO. “What he’s done not only for over-the-air broadcasting and then into cable and broadband, he’s been involved for the full 90 years of his life. He does amazing things in the community and certainly will be missed.”
Schmidt’s illustrious career in broadcasting, which included serving as national chairman for the CBS Television Network Affiliates Association and National Associated Press Broadcasters, and state chairman of the Kansas Association of Broadcasters, began at Fort Hays Kansas State College (now Fort Hays State University) as a radio sportscaster. Schmidt was “the original Voice of the Tigers,” noted Gerard Wellbrock, who has been the play-by-play “Voice of the Tigers” the past 15 years on KAYS Radio.
Upon graduation from FHKSC in 1950 with a degree in business administration, Schmidt was appointed general manager of KAYS 1400 AM Radio, which had signed on the air just two years earlier in 1948. Schmidt purchased the Hays radio station in 1952. He was elected vice president and director of KAYS, Inc. the same year. Schmidt and Hays businessmen Ross Beach organized KAYS-TV Channel 7, which was granted a license Sept. 2, 1958. In 1989 he purchased control of the corporation (now Eagle Communications) and was elected President/CEO.
Mike Cooper was hired by Schmidt in 1967 to work at KAYS Radio and stayed there 43 years.
“He always had a really strong commitment to his people,” Cooper remembered. “When you were working for Bob, you knew you were going to have to do the job and work hard, but you also knew you were going to be treated fairly. I think maybe that’s the bottom line. That’s the reason I stayed as long as I did.”
During Schmidt’s leadership, the company built or purchased 24 radio and television stations and 12 cable systems in Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri and Colorado. In 1989, the company sold its commercial television stations. Schmidt retired as President/CEO of Eagle Communications in 1998, became chairman of the board, and began selling the majority interest in the company to its employees through an Employee Stock Ownership Plan.
“Bob really enjoyed and was behind the people in our company. He said, ‘Let’s do something different and give the company to our employees and let them grow and be a part of the community,’ ” Shorman said. “The advantage is it stays with the community. Everybody who works for that company (Eagle) is an owner, much like he started as an owner of the company (KAYS). While he wasn’t an owner any more, you couldn’t tell that by talking to him. As chairman of the board, he continued to focus on making sure we as employee-owners continued to serve our communities.”
Today, Eagle Employee/Owners wholly own and operate 28 radio stations in Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska and serve 60 communities with broadband service including cable television, internet, video and telephone service in Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado. The company also offers wireless broadband service in many of the rural areas it serves.
“Bob Schmidt was an inspiration to all of us at Eagle. As a leader, he challenged us to be better each day and every year. As a broadcaster, he focused on being connected to our local community. As a friend and mentor, he inspired us to do great things,” Shorman added.
Schmidt was inducted into the Kansas Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 2000. The Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development honored him as Community Leader of the Year for Radio in 2013.
Tony Schmidt remembered his father as “an early pioneer broadcaster.”
“Dad brought TV to Hays so we could watch ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ as kids. He started the cable system here and in Wichita so we could watch ‘Bonanza’ on NBC, and he actually knew William Paley, the founder of CBS Radio & Television,” Tony said.
Tony calls his father “a consummate broadcaster and keeper of the public airwaves.”
Schmidt and his wife, Pat, who passed away in August 2015, were well-known for their philanthropy through their Robert E. and Pat Schmidt Foundation, which was chaired by Bob. The Schmidt name is visible throughout Hays, most notably at the FHSU Beach-Schmidt Performing Arts Center and the Schmidt-Bickle Training Facility, the Dreiling-Schmidt Cancer Center at HaysMed and the city-owned Bickle-Schmidt Sports Complex.
“He cost me a lot of money,” joked Schmidt’s longtime friend Don Bickle Sr., the two names tied together on several Hays facilities funded by their financial donations. Bickle is the owner of S & W Supply in Hays.
The two local businessmen started their lives in humble circumstances.
“There was nobody poorer than the Schmidts and the Bickles,” Don Bickle declared.
He remembered how the two friends first met. Bickle was on the Hoisington High School track team and Schmidt ran track for La Crosse High School. Both schools were to participate in a regional tournament at Fort Hays.
“Our school bus went through La Crosse on the way to Hays, and we saw Bob hitchhiking his way to Hays, so we picked him up,” Bickle recalled. They went their separate ways to college, Schmidt to Fort Hays and Bickle to Kansas State, reconnecting in Hays after graduation.
The Schmidts were generous donors to many local and area non-profit organizations supporting the arts, culture and education.
“We’ve been blessed with an awful lot and we respond by giving back,” Schmidt said in an interview shortly after his wife passed away. “My wife and I believe it’s obligatory, in all aspects.
For the 2015 United Way of Ellis County campaign fundraiser video, Schmidt talked about why he and some other businessmen in Hays decided it was important to establish the organization many years ago.
“We just felt something was needed and we did it,” Schmidt said matter-of-factly. “Those needs don’t go away.”
He also believed it was important for Eagle Communications and its employees to be involved in the United Way.
“I’ve always felt the Eagle radio stations and our cable systems needed to be leaders in the community,” Schmidt emphasized. “We were granted some privileges. Those privileges need to be met. If we provided the leadership for any of the United Way endeavors, it would also be beneficial to us.”
And then, there was that voice, perfect for a broadcaster. Bob Schmidt had a sonorous deep bass voice that was unmistakable when heard in person or over the air.
“Boy, that was recognizable. It didn’t take two words,” Cooper chuckled. “People would always ask Bob to voice their commercials or their public service announcements.”
“I heard him on the radio not that long ago doing a promotion about veterans,” Shorman said. “Bob was a World War II navy veteran. Every time that voice would come on, you’d just stop and think, ‘Wow, how cool is that?’ ”
Schmidt was also managing partner of Eagle Farm & Ranch, supervising the management of Sweetwater Ranch near Hays, and actively involved in numerous business projects including real estate, stocks/bonds, and oil and gas development.
He served as chair of the Kansas State Chamber of Commerce and was honored locally by the Hays Chamber of Commerce as “Outstanding Young Man of the Year Award” in 1956. In 2003, he was inducted into the Hays Chamber’s Hall of Fame and also was named the city’s “Most Valuable Citizen” in 1989.
“He was a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful person,” Bickle added, reflecting on his years-long relationship with Schmidt. “He believed in God and country. It’s just been a wonderful, wonderful trip with him.”
U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., who previously lived in Hays issued a statement Tuesday saying “Robba and I are deeply saddened by the news of Bob Schmidt’s passing. Bob was among a few of our hometown’s most significant citizens – no one has made more of a difference in the well-being of our part of the state than Bob. From his service in the Navy to his time at Fort Hays State University to his work growing KAYS Radio into Eagle Communications, his natural leadership and generous spirit were clear to all who knew him. I’m grateful for our many years of friendship, and my family’s thoughts and prayers are with Bob’s loved ones today. We will miss him greatly.”
“I’m so happy I got to spend time with him in recent weeks, ” said his son Tony, who lives in Lawrence. “He’s with my Mom now, who left us two years ago. He loved his family and he loved the people of western Kansas.”
Schmidt’s funeral will be Sat., Aug. 12. Hays Memorial Chapel is in charge of the arrangements.