He was born in Ohio but grew up and lived all around Ukiah. As a Talmage youngster he rolled brakeless Soapbox Derby-style cars down Knob Hill Road into oncoming traffic, crashing through vineyards waiting below.
At Ukiah High variety shows he was an Elvis impersonator long before there was such a thing.
He was Lee Stophlet, and he died August 13 at age 77. He was a local racing legend who piloted stock cars at the Ukiah Speedway through the 60s and 70s, and was the voice of the Speedway in the 80s and 90s. He played baseball and softball until his bad back made him quit. He was a friend to many and the father of three.
But he was also Chuck Savage, a personality he invented as a disc-spinning KUKI radio jockey. He brought his love for rock ‘n’ roll to local listeners with “Blast From the Past” weekend shows that ran three hours each and rolled out the widest range of early rock that any station ever dared play. His shows were listened to and talked about.
For a time he was the king of local radio, or maybe not. For Chuck, Elvis was always and forever The King, and he played enough of his music to make his point.
And then he shifted gears in the 1980s and began to play old time Country Western music. The program was called “Back in the Saddle” and featured Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Sons of the Pioneers, Webb Pierce, Hank Snow and dozens of other favorites. He signed off every program with the fitting and poignant “Happy Trails to You” by Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.
His gift was gab and his friends were everywhere. Life’s cruel irony at least had the decency to strike late: one sudden day, two years ago, his gift was taken and he spoke almost no more. A stroke left Chuck Savage unable to verbalize what was still rolling merrily along in his mind. His wit remained quick, but his tongue betrayed him.
Lee Stophlet as Chuck Savage — or perhaps it was the other way around — was recognizable all around town, and could have run for mayor. But he was never quite comfortable in social settings. Crowds made him nervous; parties invariably caused him to leave early. His departing line to the host, always and forever, was a soft-spoken “I’ll be right back” before slipping silently out the nearest door. And that was the last you’d see of him.
Chuck was a loyal friend and he had plenty of friends to be loyal to. He was a guy who would cherish a stray kindness and ignore an intended slight. He didn’t like petty hassles or the people who stirred them up.
He worked numerous odd jobs, and his presence inevitably made them odder. Chuck was a salesman at MacNab’s Menswear, delivered mail for the Post Office, was a longtime clerk at Shop ‘n’ Wash, and was known to sell and use things that weren’t strictly legal.
But where Lee Stophlet may have made his biggest impact was at the racetrack. Ukiah Speedway drivers say he won well over 100 races in his prime, which began in the late 1960s. His primary track weapon was an early 60s Studebaker Lark, an unlikely choice in a field dominated at the time by Chevys. Fords, Mercs and Chrysler products. Lee’s Lark was orange, and all his cars were emblazoned with No. 7.
As a youngster he was tough and scrappy. In his more mature years he was a hard worker and a dedicated ladies’ man, perhaps not in that order. When he grew older he reminisced about the good old days.
He loved all the long-gone stuff, the things that he felt had proven their merit if only via longevity. He liked old movies, old music and old cars. He would have been happy if “progress” had halted around 1965, although he would have made exceptions for George Thorogood, Chris Isaak, the Stray Cats, and other newish bands that sounded like old rockhound rockers.
But he was allergic to most of the late 20th century and all of the 21st. If he ever tweeted or texted or played Angry Birds on the cell phone he didn’t own, there is no one alive who witnessed it.
He loved a good joke, especially if it was on him. So how about this one, Chuck:
You’ll be right back.