A Life's Story
October 02, 2021
Big voice signs off
Radio legend Donn Kirton livened up the airwaves for more than half-century
By: Geoff Kirbyson
Donn Kirton may have been a Winnipeg radio legend when he was on the air but he wasn’t always the best guy to have working behind the scenes.
Long-time Winnipeg Blue Bombers play-by-play announcer Bob Irving remembers doing a sportscast on CJOB in the 1970s with a script detailing a home run by Philadelphia Phillies third baseman Mike Schmidt. Kirton was behind the glass producing the show that day. But when the words came out of Irving’s mouth, the dinger had been hit by "Mike Shit."
"There was a window between us. I made the mistake of looking up to see if he had noticed," Irving says with a laugh. "He had noticed alright. He was killing himself laughing. His whole body shook. It was all I could do to get through the rest of the sportscast without bursting into laughter myself. He had a way of always seeing the bright side of anything and making a joke to make you feel better."
Kirton, whose radio career spanned a half-century, died in July after a short illness at the age of 87. He was predeceased by his wife of 60 years, Norine, in 2015. He is survived by his children, Noralee, Kathy (Brian), Carol (Roger) and Bruce (Linda); grandchildren, Mike (Megan), Kyle (Kelsey), Jason (Jess), Vanessa, Thomas (Amrit) and Gen; great-grandchildren, Gavin, Logan, Mason, Bella and William; and his best pal, TC (The Cat).
Irving remembers Kirton as having a "big voice" whenever he was behind the mic either in the studio or at a sporting event.
‘He was relaxed and comfortable," he says.
Kirton was also well known for his unique sense of humour. Peter Verbin, whose on-air handle was "Peter Grant" for 35 years on CJOB, remembers benefitting directly from Kirton’s funny bone.
"I was doing a fundraiser for the Gimli Glider museum and I had written some airline jokes but I needed a big one. Ten minutes after we hung up, he emailed me three jokes. At the fundraiser, my jokes got chuckles, his got belly-laughs," he says.
"He had a very positive view on life. Nothing was ever bad, it was what you made of it. No matter what went wrong, there was always a funny side for Donn. He was the easiest guy in the world to get along with. Nothing ever went wrong in his mind, even when things were going all to hell. There would be the odd bit of dead air and he made it seem OK. He’d say, ‘you don’t have to panic if there’s dead air,’" he says.
Kirton cracked his first mic in Port Arthur, Ont. in 1951. Following a short stint in Kenora, he was on his way back to Winnipeg where he joined "Cactus" Jack Wells to run the No. 1 morning show in the city, "Cactus" Jack’s Rumpus Room.
John Wells, who followed his father’s sizable footsteps into broadcasting and might be best known as a longtime TV host on TSN, was just a kid when Kirton would arrive at the family house for regular visits.
"He was a great friend of my father’s and he was a wonderful person to be around. Everybody really enjoyed his personality and what he was able to achieve in broadcasting," he says.
When he turned 20, the young Wells worked along side Kirton at CKY radio.
"He was always helpful to me as I was learning about the business. He enjoyed life to the fullest. He always had a big smile and he was a wonderful person in so many ways," he says.
It was in the Manitoba capital that Kirton met the love of his life, Norine, and married her in 1955.
His success at CKY led to an opportunity to run a new station owned by CJOB in Fort Frances, Ont. That’s where the Kirtons welcomed their first two children, Noralee and Kathy. Their third child, Carol, was born while Kirton worked in Iowa.
Despite loving what he was doing, Kirton was homesick and he returned to work at CKY in 1960. Son Bruce joined the family shortly after.
He jumped around a little more to Calgary and Saint John but by 1970 he was back in Winnipeg to stay. In 1973, he joined CJOB as the producer for Peter Warren’s show. He remained at the station until his retirement.
Kirton’s never-ending versatility amazed Verbin. A very "wholesome" guy, he was equally adept at addressing an all-male crowd in "their language" and talking to kids on the radio for a weekend "beefs and bouquets" segment.
"I filled in for him one Saturday. I couldn’t do what he did. Donn talked to five-year-olds like they were 25. They felt grown up and they loved how he treated them," he says.
Even if you’re of a certain age and didn’t listen to the radio, you probably knew Kirton’s pipes well anyway. He was the arena announcer for the original Winnipeg Jets, the field announcer for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, the ringmaster at the annual Shrine Circus, an announcer for professional boxing matches and a master of ceremonies for countless dinners and events.
Verbin remembers Kirton believing he could "turn a dollar" no matter what city he worked in.
‘There was always extra work that he seemed to accumulate because of his positivity. When he came back to Winnipeg (from Montreal) and worked for ‘OB, the next thing you know, he’s doing remotes, the Bombers, Jets and a whole pile of other stuff. I don’t know if he was ever home," he says.
Long after he had established himself as a broadcaster, Kirton and his wife started hosting cruises with Carlson Wagonlit. They travelled all over the world for about 25 years.
"He had 100 people who would come with him religiously," Irving remembers. "It was almost like a cult following. ‘Donn’s hosting a cruise, we better go!’ People loved being around him. He was the ultimate host. He always had a kind word and he was always laughing. When you saw him, you were drawn to him."
After losing touch for a few years in retirement, Verbin and Kirton reconnected in the spring of 2016. Kirton would drive in regularly from his home in Twin Beaches to go for lunch with Verbin and other radio friends.
"We remained in touch every day by email and on the phone once or twice a week. I miss emailing him and talking to him on the phone," he says.