Denfeld News

August 25, 2011
Duluth News Tribune

Northland broadcasting legend Lew Latto dies
By John Myers

Duluth radio legend Lew Latto, who entered broadcasting as a teenager and stayed there into his 70s, died at his home on Fish Lake Wednesday morning. He was 71.

Mark Fleischer, the operations manager for Midwest Communications, said Latto died while he was getting ready to drive into town for work at WDSM-AM 710, where Latto hosted a morning talk show Monday through Friday.

Jim Heffernan, longtime News Tribune columnist, remembered Lew Latto as the biggest kid in junior high and as the cool kid who was a disc jokey on a radio station when they were still in high school in 1954.

“He was a year behind me at Denfeld but he was already working in radio,” said Heffernan, who remained lifelong friends with Latto. “His voice changed when he was 14 — into that deep, resonant, perfect radio voice — and he walked into WKLK in Cloquet and they gave him a job. … How cool was that to have a high school buddy be a DJ on the radio station we listened to?”

Latto went on to be “Lucky” Lew Latto, working for several Northland radio stations and going on to own six radio stations by 1986, including WAKX and KXTP in Duluth and WEVE in Eveleth. He continued to be an on-air radio personality at WDSM in Duluth even though he lived much of the year in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He is considered the longest-running radio personality in Twin Ports history.

“He was the most precocious kid I ever knew. He was an entrepreneur when he was a teenager and he just had that business sense. He was very smart,” Heffernan said. “He bought a car with his radio money before he was old enough to drive. His friends used to drive him around until he could get his license.”

Latto also was known for his dance and concert promotions business, including the famous Buddy Holly Winter Dance Party concert at the Duluth Armory in 1959, which he also emceed. Latto was just 19 at the time.

“He used to hire his teachers to work the box office for him — that’s how much a businessman he was,” Heffernan said. “He was also very Republican, always was. He was always mixing with and talking about Republicans, the old-school kind. … I don’t think he was ever that passionate about music. Radio was his passion as a business.”

The presence of teenager Bob Dylan at the Buddy Holly show made Latto a regular interview subject as a Dylan “expert” over the years. In May, on the occasion of Dylan’s 70th birthday, he told the News Tribune that he didn’t know Dylan at the time of the Holly concert, but he met him when he went with his ex-wife, Susan Beasy Latto, to her Hibbing High School class reunion.

“He pretty much stayed away from people,” Latto said. “He wasn’t a mingler, so to speak. At my ex-wife’s 10-year reunion, he spent the whole night with her. He didn’t talk to anyone else. That kind of surprised me at the time.”

Latto grew up in Duluth’s West End, now called Lincoln Park, about a half-block from lifelong Duluthian Walt Pietrowski.

“I remember he got a crystal radio set when he was just 6 or 7 and we would sit and listen to that for hours. He was just fascinated by radio,” Pietrowski said. “He would do anything for you if you needed something.”

Latto dabbled in politics as well, including a stint on the Duluth City Council, elected in 1969 and 1971, and a run for the state Senate in 1972. He was soundly defeated in the Senate race by fellow radio personality Ralph Doty, a staunch Democrat.

“We worked at the same station and he ran against me. I was crushed by that,” Doty said. “It took a couple years, but we got back to be very good friends. … We were supposed to have lunch together next week. We were political opposites but we still got along. He was just a great guy. I can’t believe he’s gone.”

Latto’s friends say he appeared to have been in good health recently after recovering from heart valve surgery a few years ago.

Latto was inducted into the Pavek Museum Broadcasting Hall of Fame in 2003. He served as longtime president of the National Radio Broadcasters Association. He graduated from the University of Minnesota Duluth with a degree in political science.

“He’s one of those guys who has basically done everything in this business, from being on air to owning stations,” Fleischer said.

WDSM and KDAL will run a special tribute show this morning and again Friday morning to celebrate Latto’s life and career. Phone lines will be open to share stories and memories of a true Twin Ports radio legend. The tribute will run from 7:06-9 a.m., the station announced.

Latto is survived by a daughter, Caroline, and a son, Aaron; two grandchildren; and his sister, Marilew Barnidge of Duluth. Funeral arrangements had not been announced as of Wednesday afternoon.

Duluth City Councilor Todd Fedora said he was a close friend of Latto’s.

“Both Duluth and I lost a tremendous friend today,” Fedora said. Fedora said his wife, “Lisa, and I enjoyed his company for many, many years. He will be truly missed.”

News Tribune staff member Brandon Stahl contributed to this report.

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