Ben Pooley: voice of rural radio

Published Nov. 2, 1992|Updated Oct. 12, 2005

Ben Henry Pooley just can't shut up.

In 10 minutes he will go on the air with the latest edition of Ben Henry's News and Views, and the fans in Pace and Pea Ridge and Chumuckla will tune in to hear his outrageous comments. So Pooley sits in front of a microphone in the broadcast booth at WECM-AM, glancing over his notes, deciding which politician he will hammer like a luckless nail.

Meanwhile, the loudspeakers above Pooley's head are blaring a minister's sermonette that ranges from the Book of Ruth to the presidential race.

At the mention of politics, Pooley's head snaps up. The minister drones on, but Pooley starts talking to the other people in the booth about Ross Perot's charge that President Bush tried to smear him.

"He's a loose cannon!" Pooley bellows. "To accuse the president of something like that without one iota of evi . . ."

Just then Peggy Dorsey, who answers the station's telephone, sticks her head into the booth. "They can hear that on the air!" she hisses.

Pooley clams up. After a few minutes, though, he starts talking again. Again Mrs. Dorsey whispers, "They can hear you!"

Pooley simmers down, but not for long. Fortunately, the sermon ends, and it's time for his show to start. He can speak his mind at last.

The man has got to talk. If Pooley ever caught laryngitis it would be a fatal disease.

Actually, that might be the only thing that could do him in. Nothing else has.

Four times somebody has come after Pooley, trying to shut him up permanently, and four times he has survived _ although the bomb that went off near his head 13 years ago did leave him deaf in one ear.

Pooley treats the murder attempts as lightly as if they were crank calls, joking that he has never had trouble getting insurance.

"I'm a good risk," he says. "You can't kill me!"

Then he turns serious. "I never knew that I rubbed on people that bad," he says.

But the fact is he did rub on people, people who disagreed with him over local politics.

In other parts of the country, local politics might be ho-hum. But in rural Santa Rosa County, it can be a matter of life and death. Nobody knows that better than Pooley.

Yet he, too, says he is puzzled about the motives of the man accused of trying to silence him: Clifford Wilson, a former county commissioner who 50 years ago played high school football with Pooley. They were more than just teammates then _ they were best friends.

"It's hard to believe," Pooley said, "that anybody you grew up with would want to kill you."

Bagdad and Harold

Pooley hails from a village called Bagdad, population 500, just outside the county seat of Milton. Bagdad was a lumber town, but Pooley's father worked for the Milton police force, a job Pooley said he got by knowing the chief.

Wilson was born in the piney woods miles from Milton, in a tiny settlement named Harold. His father dug up tree stumps and sold them to a plant that extracted their chemicals. It wasn't much of a living during the Depression, but the family never went hungry.

"The woods was full of 'possums," Wilson said. "We'd eat 'possum and sweet potatoes."

Life was hard and diversions were few. Campaign rallies drew people for miles around, and the candidates, Democrats all, would entertain the audience with stories and wisecracks.

Pooley displayed his talent for talk at Milton High as half of a two-man debate team that placed second statewide. He also played fullback for the football team. Blocking for him was Wilson.

The teammates became fast friends. When they joined the military after graduation, Airman Pooley corresponded with Seaman Wilson _ a couple of country boys comparing notes.

After World War II, Wilson came home to Harold and started his own sawmill, a business he runs to this day. He is perpetually coated with sawdust, from his sweat-stained cap to his cracked work boots.

Pooley, however, went to the University of Florida on the GI Bill. Then he got a job with the county, inspecting dairies and cafes and installing septic tanks _ and making contacts.

After six years, Pooley mounted his first campaign for public office, running for clerk of the court. He won that race but missed re-election by four votes. He never ran again, and even now fumes, "My election, it was stole."

But retired county property appraiser F.M. "Bubba" Fisher snorts at Pooley crying foul over an election. "Son," Fisher says, "he stole as many as was stole from him."

Man with a megaphone

For all its entertainment value, politics in those days was a rougher sport than high school football.

Pints of whiskey would change hands before the polls opened _ in a dry county, mind you. A winning candidate could pass out jobs and favors afterward.

Shrewd politicians calculated their support according to who was related to whom. "You could pretty well count on your family connections," recalled Wilson, who first won his seat on the county commission in 1956.

But a new era was about to dawn. Clayton Mapoles, owner of WEBY-AM, gave Pooley a radio show. Suddenly, in this society that placed so much emphasis on the gift of gab, one man could talk to every corner of the county.

"He had the megaphone all right," Fisher said.

Pooley made the most of it, employing his acid wit like an early Rush Limbaugh. He would talk about politicians by name, tagging them with labels like "the young gas-guzzling commissioner from Harold."

That, of course, was his old friend Wilson. Pooley implied that "Super Octane" Wilson gassed up his logging trucks from the county's fuel pumps, a bit of innuendo that infuriated Wilson. Mad as he and Pooley's other targets might have been, though, they listened every day to see what this wild man would say next.

"Thirty years ago, everybody who was anybody taped Ben Henry," Fisher said.

One morning deputies arrested Pooley because they found moonshine in his car. Pooley's police officer father saw his son dragged into the courthouse.

"If they'd got me upstairs they'd have really put a good whipping on me," Pooley said. "But Dad cocked his .38 and said, "He's never been upstairs before and he's not going now.'


Set free, Pooley took to the airwaves to blast the people he said framed him. A grand jury refused to indict him.

His legal troubles weren't over. Wilson filed a $50,000 slander suit but lost. Then Wilson and several other politicians complained to the Federal Communications Commission.

But the agency tossed out their complaints because Mapoles had offered everyone a chance to respond to Pooley _ a ruling scholars cite as an important step in developing the Fairness Doctrine.

Fisher, who rarely sided with Pooley, figures the FCC made the right call.

"I'm not a fatalistic person by any stretch of the imagination, but some things have to be," he said. "Sometimes you need a Ben Henry Pooley. He keeps people honest."

Still, Santa Rosa split over the radio show. Fisher remembers going out to campaign and being asked where he stood on Pooley.

Finally, in 1968, the FCC yanked WEBY's license _ not because of what Pooley said, but because Mapoles submitted false evidence defending himself against complaints about Pooley.

So Pooley found a new job, working for the county commissioners he had lambasted. He was hired as mosquito control director on a 3-2 vote. Wilson voted no.

Wilson and others repeatedly attempted to oust him, but Pooley hung on. Then somebody tried to do more than just fire him.

Lights out

The way Pooley describes what happened in 1979 is: "One morning about 2:30 _ BAM! The world exploded."

Eight sticks of dynamite, planted under his mobile home, blew his bathtub sky-high. The glass that held his dentures wound up on the roof of the trailer, with not a drop of water spilled.

Pooley walked away without a scratch, saved by a closet full of coats that muffled the blast. No one was ever charged with the bombing.

Then, one morning in 1984, Pooley heard a knock on his front door. Waiting outside was Don West, a Santa Rosa native who headed up the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's Pensacola office. He told Pooley someone had put out a contract on him.

What followed was an elaborate ruse designed to capture the man who had told an FDLE informant he would pay $10,000 to see Pooley's head blown off. The FDLE even set up a fake crime scene.

FDLE agents took Pooley out into the woods near his home, poured a bottle of ketchup on his head and snapped pictures of him lying on his back, looking dead. Then they spirited him off to a motel in Pensacola.

The deception worked too well. TV and radio reporters picked up rumors of Pooley's death and broadcast them as fact. Santa Rosans reeling from that shock then got another one: Pooley was alive, and the law had arrested Leroy Johnson, a former commissioner and father of state Rep. Bo Johnson.

Johnson swore he was innocent, even though he had stashed close to $10,000 in his car. He said it was for his re-election campaign.

Johnson never went to trial. Six days after his arrest, he died of a heart attack. Public sympathy turned against Pooley. Some people whispered that Johnson was framed.

What didn't come out at the time was that the FDLE suspected someone else of supplying the cash. Agents had trailed Johnson to Wilson's sawmill before they arrested him. Johnson didn't have the money before he went there, West said, but he did after he left. They had Johnson on tape saying his backer had told him, "I want the lights put out on that m-----f-----."

But they couldn't prove it was Wilson.

Three years passed. Suddenly, somebody was out to get Pooley again. This time the FDLE arrested William Chester Cole. An escaped felon named Curtis "Boo" Adams said Cole asked him to kill Pooley for a man named Wilson. In exchange, Adams said, he would get $7,000, and Cole would get enough lumber to finish his house.

A jury convicted Cole and sent him to prison for 35 years. But again the FDLE couldn't make a case against Wilson.

Finally, in 1988, the FDLE arrested Wilson. Agents said he had tried yet again to hire someone to kill his boyhood friend.

A gritty old thing

Fisher never believed Wilson wanted Pooley dead _ at least, not at the hands of a hit man.

"If he'd wanted to kill Ben Henry, he would've done it himself," Fisher said. "He's a gutty thing, a gritty old thing."

But taped conversations between Wilson and a Pace logger named Charles Faulk seemed to indicate otherwise _ that not only was Wilson willing to pay Faulk $8,000 to kill Pooley, but that he was behind the previous murder attempts as well.

In person, though, Wilson denied everything and blamed his arrest on politics. "They all was in cahoots against me _ the judge, the prosecutor, the whole bunch," he said.

He spent $60,000 to fight the charges. In the end, a jury agreed he was innocent.

"I can't understand how he walked," West said. "It was an overwhelming case. If it had been tried in any of the other 66 counties in Florida, the verdict would've been different."

But to Pooley it makes perfect sense. Faulk had a lengthy arrest record, so nobody believed him. Wilson was a respected businessman and former commissioner.

For his part, Wilson still denies he ever tried to kill Pooley."I never solicited nobody," he says. "They solicited me."

About a year ago, Wilson spotted Pooley in the parking lot at Hardee's and called him over.

"We agreed my problem wasn't with him and his problem wasn't with me," Wilson said. "We shook hands and buried the hatchet."

Somebody loves you

Instead, Wilson said, his problem was with West, the now-retired FDLE agent. Both Wilson and West mounted campaigns for sheriff this fall and all Wilson's campaigning was aimed at defeating West. He warned voters they didn't want a sheriff who would deceive people about whether someone was dead. West lost and although Wilson didn't win, he was happy.

"I guess he satisfied that vengeance in his heart," West said.

Wilson is 67 now and Pooley 69. They won't ever be as close as they were in high school, but at least they're on speaking terms again.

"I think it's behind us," Pooley said.

Almost all the people Pooley battled long ago are dead or retired. But he's got a new crop of politicians to pick on, because last year he went back on the radio again for the first time in 25 years.

His drive to the station each day carries him past a graveyard, but he doesn't worry about winding up there. Shortly after he left the air in the '60s, Pooley was ordained as a Baptist minister, and he says he won't die until God is ready for him to stop preaching.

Although Pooley has popped up on national TV as recently as last week talking about his flamboyant career, he is no longer the celebrity he used to be in his hometown. Thousands of new people have moved into Santa Rosa in recent years, turning farm towns into suburban enclaves.

"If you were to walk into some of the more recently developed subdivisions in Pace and call the name of Ben Henry Pooley and Clifford Wilson, the common person wouldn't know who you were talking about," West said.

Still, as Pooley rambles through his 25-minute program, he fields several phone calls from admiring fans, old-timers like himself. At the close of the show he ends with his trademark slogan: "What you don't know WILL hurt you!"

Just then Mrs. Dorsey pokes her head through the door one last time. "A lady called and said to tell you she loves you," she says.

Ben Henry pushes back from the microphone and mutters, "I'm glad to hear somebody does."