Jim Sweenie, WQED host, ‘bon vivant, raconteur and wit,’ 76

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Jim Sweenie, a four-decade staffer at Pittsburgh’s WQED-FM and host of its Saturday Night Requests, died June 4 after complications from surgery the previous day. He was 76.

The station will broadcast a special Saturday Night Requests: Jim Sweenie Tribute on June 18 at 8 p.m. Eastern, with memories and dedications, including condolences from listeners.

Sweenie got into radio in the early 1950s by hanging around WMCK-AM in McKeesport, Pa. The station paid him $10 a week for putting away records and reading a sign-off. As he used to say, he was “fired several times.”

He loved the theater and began his life on stage at age 17 at the local White Barn Theater starring as a French-speaking taxi driver opposite Colleen Dewhurst. Fred Rogers was in the audience to cheer him on.

In 1965, Sweenie joined the floor crew for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood at WQED-TV. He also worked as a booth announcer, writer, director and producer of local and national shows. He worked with composer Aaron Copland and conductor Leonard Bernstein for an episode of Kennedy Center Tonight and served as on-air talent for more than 200 TV and radio pledge drives.

In March 1979 he was the lead reporter from the failing nuclear power station at Three Mile Island when WQED provided network pool coverage for PBS, NBC, ABC and CBS, with just a trench coat to shield him from radioactive gas.

Jim Cunningham, WQED’s senior executive producer, called Sweenie “a bon vivant, raconteur, man about town and wit.” His numerous honors included a Lifetime Achievement Award from the McKeesport Symphony Orchestra in 2005 for four decades of service to the arts community.

Sweenie was born in 1934 in McKeesport to John B. and Mary Goldie Sweenie. After trying his luck on stage in New York City, he returned to Pennsylvania to receive bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. He also taught English and directed plays at the school.

He is survived by his wife of 27 years, Claudia Kirkpatrick; sister Agnes Sweenie Fitzpatrick; and children Jennifer, Christopher and Meghan. He was preceded in death by his sister Rita Sweenie Carson.

Friends and family gathered for a celebration of his life June 8 and 9 at a Pittsburgh funeral home. In lieu of flowers, the family suggested memorial donations to WQED.

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