In 1972, at 17-years-old, I walked into radio station WCBM on North Charles Street in Baltimore to begin an internship that would greatly impact on my life. WCBM was owned by Metromedia, a broadcast company known for its very solid radio news operations. Running the show at WCBM was news director Bob “Smoke” Shilling. Bob died this morning at a hospice in Baltimore at age 75.
Before walking into WCBM, I already knew of Bob. I saw him quite regularly as he covered fires that I started going to in Baltimore right after I got my driver’s license. And there were a lot of very big fires in those days.
Someone was burning down old warehouses that stood on property soon to become part of the redevelopment of the Inner Harbor. These were seven, ten and even 14-alarm fires. It was not unusual to have more than one fire in a night. At each, there would be Bob, in his fire coat with a tape recorder on one shoulder and a two-way radio on the other.
Back at WCBM, there was a lot to learn from the staff of that great news operation. Many of the people hired by Bob went on to long, distinguished careers. But Bob Shilling left the biggest impression.
He was the first person I met who combined a love for news and the fire service. I was lucky enough to later become friends with a few others with that dual passion — like Rich Adams and Hal Bruno — but watching Bob work helped me figure out what I wanted to do in life.
While we crossed paths through the years, other than the internship, I never worked with
Bob during my radio and television career. It was our post-broadcasting work that brought us back together.
After seeing Bob at an AP convention in Ocean City about five years ago, it struck me that Bob was a perfect fit for our media team at the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. Executive Director Ron Siarnicki agreed and brought him aboard.
Bob played a big role in keeping news media throughout the United States informed about NFFF. He helped honor the memory of firefighters who died in the line of duty with his work, each year, leading up to Memorial Weekend.
Bob put in long hours making sure local news media knew these firefighters names were being added to the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Emmitsburg. It was a responsibility Bob took seriously and performed with the same high standards he brought to newsrooms in Baltimore.
My best times with Bob were when we had a moment for some Baltimore stories – whether it was the Orioles, Colts, the fire department or local broadcast lore.
On the fire side, he would tell of the time a Baltimore City firefighter, seeing Bob in his fire gear, tried to order him to the tiller seat to help move a ladder truck during a multi-alarm fire.
Then there was the weekend fire with one of his young boys tagging along. He put his son on the bumper of a fire engine and told him not to move. When Bob came back to check, his son hadn’t moved, despite the rig – and his son – now being enveloped in smoke.
My favorite story was one I didn’t hear until about two-years-ago. It was about his time at WBAL in the 60s. While I knew he shot film for the TV news operation, I didn’t know he also engineered on the radio side.
This story came up during a drive back from an NFFF dinner in Gettysburg when I had some jazz on the radio. Bob asked me how I ended up loving jazz instead of the rock music of my generation. I told him it started with my grandfather who used to put “The Harley Show” on in the car. Bob then told me he was often the engineer on that program.
Harley Brinsfield bought a block of time each evening on WBAL Radio to play his favorite pre-bebop jazz and advertise his string of Harley sandwich shops. Excited about this connection to my youth, I asked what Harley was like. Bob didn’t bury the lead and summed it up in the same voice and direct style I remember from his reports from fires in Baltimore four decades earlier – “The son-of-a-bitch never once brought me a sandwich from any of his shops.”
Thank you, Bob Shilling, for your humor, your friendship and for guiding and teaching me and so many others about news. And thank you for your dedication to firefighters everywhere.
Arrangements for Robert M. Shilling, Jr.
On February 28, 2016 Robert M. “Bob” “Smoke” Shilling, Jr., devoted father of Robert M. Shilling, III and his wife Michelle Meyer Shilling and John-Paul A. Shilling and his fiancée Krystal Henry; loving grandfather of Marc, Lauren and Lexi.
Friends may call at the family owned Ruck Towson Funeral Home, Inc. 1050 York Road (beltway exit 26) on Tuesday from 1 to 3 and 5 to 8 PM and on Wednesday from 9:30 to 10:30 AM at which time a Funeral Service will be held. Interment Parkwood Cemetery. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation; P.O. Drawer 498; Emmitsburg, MD 21727 www.firehero.org.