After making his mark in radio, Wise sets his sights on the future

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 13, 2009

By David Vitrano


LAPLACE—If you’ve ever heard current St. John School Board member Russ Wise speak, you have probably recognized the unique vocal strength and eloquence he possesses.

It is this special gift that has propelled him from the small town of St. Albans, W. Va., on the outskirts of Charleston, to the place of prominence he currently enjoys in the St. John community.

Through his then 13-year-old eyes, it seemed the biggest stars in his small town were the radio disc jockeys, and he wanted a piece of that fame. So, he walked into the local station to try his hand at spinning records. Although he was initially rejected, he must have made an impression on the folks there, as it wasn’t long before he became a local on-air personality.

Eventually, he moved on to Marietta, Ohio, where he continued his work in radio.

During the progression of his broadcast career, he moved from spinning records to more straightforward journalism.

What seemed like a straight shot, however, took a bit of a detour, when he was drafted in to the service during the Vietnam War.

He then spent five years in the military, doing his part, for the most part, far from the front lines.

While a large portion of his military career was spent in Massachusetts, where “with absolutely no background in infantry whatsoever,” he trained young men who, as part of the American Security Administration, would, according to Wise, “never be in the jungle.”

After receiving a direct commission to 2nd Lieutenant, he did make it to Vietnam, where he worked with the armed forces radio network. He started in Chu Lai in the north and eventually made his way to Saigon, where he served assistant news officer.

After that, he returned to the U.S., to a post in Virginia.

When, as Wise put it, “we ran out of war,” he returned to the life of a civilian broadcaster.

Ultimately, he made his way to the Gulf Coast, where he worked for many years as a correspondent for ABC.

During this time, one of his most memorable gigs was covering Mardi Gras on Canal Street every year for 20 years. He would stay on the streets or balconies of the French Quarter from 5 a.m. to midnight, giving updates every 20 minutes or so.

“It’s only been in the last two or three years I’ve been able to spend Mardi Gras with my family,” he admitted.

It was a career Wise speaks of fondly, and it is with a tinge of regret he remembers retiring shortly before Hurricane Katrina. “It would have been the biggest story of my career,” he said.

That phase of his life, however, has given way to a new chapter, that of revered school board member.

When asked what it was that drew him to his work for the school system, he replied, “I was and I still am concerned about the way we’re going about educating our kids.”

His passion for the board is evident to anyone who’s ever attended one of their meetings. He’s clearly one of the most vocal members, although he will downplay the fact, joking that he just likes to hear himself speak. Still, his passion is undeniable.

“You can’t save the world, but you can do something about your little corner of it.”

He sees the problems with the way public schooling has evolved in the parish.

“There’s almost a competition between public and private education, and no one is winning.”

But this is a situation about which he remains hopeful. Furthermore, he nearly bursts with pride over the progress he has seen in the system over the 10 or so years he has been a member of the board.

“We are now looking toward the future and developing a proactive rather than a reactive approach,” he said with just a hint of glee in his eyes.

He is also proud of the sense of unity that exists within the board now. According to Wise, the board recognizes now more than ever the kids are more important than personal difference or politics.

It is a point he believes the public now recognizes as well, a fact made evident in the public’s overwhelming approval of last November’s bond issue. He said generally, when such votes are held, they are done so in July when voter turnout is at it’s lowest, but the St. John School Board intentionally held the vote in conjunction with the presidential election, when voter turnout is highest. He believes this new sense of transparency in school matters is having a positive effect on improving public education in the parish.

Even if you’ve never been to a School Board meeting, chances are you’ve seen Russ Wise in his other incarnation as Santa Claus. With the looks and the voice to match, it is no surprise Za Montz approached him to don the red suit some six or seven years ago. Now, he says, it has grown into a labor of love extending from the week after Thanksgiving all the way to Christmas Day, encompassing more than 30 appearances per year. The places range from schools to hospitals to nursing homes and more.

The only events he is likely to turn down are private parties or professional gigs. Although he once played Santa at Lakeside Mall for a desperate manager, he took no money for the four-day stint, instead making the man promise to donate $500 to the Salvation Army for Wise’s services.

When not playing Santa, Wise can also be found at various Boy Scout functions. It is an organization he has been involve in for quite some time, and although he has seen its numbers decrease in recent years, he remains dedicated to the cause.

“Some of the greatest experiences in my life have been with the scouts.”

He looks with a clear sense of satisfaction to the day when his son T.J., short for Thomas Jefferson, makes Eagle Scout, an event that may happen sooner rather than later.

Of course, even if his son were never to achieve the rank, one gets the feeling that his sense of pride would remain undiminished, for Wise’s family, through it all, is his greatest passion.

He call his wife of 30 years, Connie, his “very best friend in the world” and speaks with admiration about the hardships she has overcome from growing up in the same small West Virginia town to the position she holds as a tax lawyer for Entergy today.

Surely, his love of being with his family has enhanced the love he has for travel, as it is a pastime they can enjoy together.

Wise himself has been to six of the seven continents, with his last trip being a family outing to Antarctica this past winter.

Even when traveling, he tries his best to incorporate some education into the experience.

It seems through travel, he is able to roll many of his passions into one.