Jim Zabel may have bled black and gold, but journalism was also in his blood and love filled his heart.
In a 2009 interview, Jim Zabel told Andy Fales, “I’ve just had a ball. I’ve had a great time, and if I’ve entertained some people along the way, I certainly hope so.”
Zabel grew up in Davenport. Some of his first memories were of his father taking him to University of Iowa football games. Zabel later attended the U of I and was the Editor in Chief of the school’s newspaper, The Daily Iowan, at the time of Nile Kinnick’s death.
He grew up listening to Ronald Reagan, and in 1944, he replaced Reagan as Sport’s Director at WHO-Radio. Years later, he interviewed Reagan in the Whitehouse.
This is how he remembered it decades later, “They set me up in the Lincoln room, which was right next to the East room and I had the WHO logo and he leaned in and said, ‘How ’bout those Hawkeyes.’”
Zabel eventually moved from radio to television. He worked at WHO-TV for more than two decades, hosting the weekly shows “Let’s Go Bowling” and “Beat The Bear.” He was also a regular on the market’s inaugural, five o’clock newscast.
“We started “Live At Five” and Jim was the announcer,” says former co-anchor, John Bachman. “He would introduce the program. He would interject his personality into the show. It was terrific.”
Co-workers say Zabel’s energy and wit were endless.
“Jim had a million one-liners,” says Bachman. “You’d never hear the same one twice. I remember he came up to me one day and he said, ‘What’s the difference between an evening gown and a nightgown?’ And I said, well I don’t know jim, and he said, ‘if you’re lucky about 15 minutes.’”
“He was enthusiastic to a fault, never had a down day,” says Ed Wilson. “Even in the last year or so, he was still in a wheelchair, he wasn’t doing so well physically, but there was zero slip in that voice. He was still broadcasting a 100-percent.”
There was no mistaking that voice. The closer the game, the more fevered the pitch, and some say, the greater the imagination.
“Honestly at times, I’d be in that booth with him and the play he described was not the play I was watching,” remembers fellow sport’s announcer, Randy Duncan. “He made it sound a lot better than what it was.”
In 1996, the University of Iowa replaced Zabel, ending his 49-year stint in the press box. But Zabel remained loyal to his alma mater. As recently as 2011, at the age of 90, he followed his team to the Insight Bowl. His body showed wear, but his mind was as sharp as ever.
“My doctor says I have a thousand lives,” Zabel said. “I’ve only lived nine.”
Jim Zabel lived life large, right to the very end. He was preparing for his Sunday evening radio show, when his wife says, he passed peacefully.
“They’ll cart me out and I’ll still have the microphone,” Zabel said in 2009. “That’ll be the last thing I hold on to, that’ll be the microphone.”
We’ll hold on to his trademark slogan, “I love it, I love it, I love it!”
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