Eugene “Gene” Pack II, a longtime classical music host on KUER-FM, died Sunday in Salt Lake City. He was 86.
Years before the founding of CPB and NPR, Pack was a young actor and fine-arts graduate who started cultivating a loyal public radio audience from a basement studio with used broadcast gear at the University of Utah.
Even before KUER-FM went on the air in 1960, he started hosting a classical music program for a closed-circuit audience of one. The sole listener was his boss, Keith Engar, founding manager of public station KUED-TV. The station had signed on in 1958.
Engar, who also managed the soon-to-premiere KUER, wanted to make sure the station’s first classical music host was thoroughly prepared for the demands of daily broadcasting. It might also have been that the studio was ready to broadcast but the transmitter was not, since both were cobbled together from donations of used equipment given to the university by Salt Lake’s commercial broadcasters.
Engar need not have worried about his new hire. At age 27, Gene Pack was no stranger to keeping audiences entertained. He starred in a play at age 12, later joined the radio club at his high school and appeared in several stage productions. Whether or not the extensive closed-circuit rehearsals were needed, Engar’s hiring of Pack ended up delighting generations of classical music listeners for more than four decades. Engar later became executive producer of the Pioneer Memorial Theatre and dean of fine arts at the University of Utah.
Pack’s radio audience grew exponentially as the station’s coverage expanded. In 1960, the 350-watt station could be heard only near the University of Utah, but by the 1970s it reached remote communities across the state thanks to what became the nation’s largest network of FM and TV translator stations. That network later served as a foundation of the Utah Education and Telehealth Network.
KUER became a charter member of NPR in 1971. It seems strange now, but at that point Gene Pack was a familiar voice to Utah listeners, while NPR’s flagship All Things Considered was unknown. By his retirement, Pack’s statewide audience numbered in the tens of thousands, including dozens of loyal donors who eagerly pledged to support classical music on the station. Some of them expressed disappointment and anger when the station dropped classical music prior to Pack’s retirement from the University of Utah in 2005.
Their loss became theater’s gain in Utah. In retirement Pack had even more time for his love of the stage. Throughout his career he honed his acting acumen. He enjoyed major roles in dozens of Utah productions. The Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce gave him its Honors in the Arts Award in 1983, and in 2005 he was elected to the Utah Broadcast Hall of Fame.
He is survived by a brother, Dennis; two nephews; two grandnieces; and a grandnephew. At his request, there will be no funeral. A memorial celebration is to be held at a future date.
Rich Finlinson is communication manager at the Utah Education and Telehealth Network. He first worked under Gene Pack’s direction as a student volunteer newscaster at KUER in 1972.