Glenn Beck entered Bellingham's Sehome High School his sophomore year already focused on his future in radio, with a sense of self that some people found obnoxious and others found admirable.
BELLINGHAM — Sehome High School’s most controversial graduate just made the cover of Time magazine.
Glenn Beck — described by Time as “the hottest thing in the political-rant racket, left or right” — visited Mount Vernon on Saturday to receive the key to the city, a decision by Mount Vernon’s mayor that further heightened debate about the conservative radio and TV commentator.
Beck lived in Skagit County when his folks ran a bakery in downtown Mount Vernon, but he spent three years in Bellingham at Sehome High, graduating in 1982.
Beck entered Sehome his sophomore year already focused on his future in radio, with a sense of self that some people found obnoxious and others found admirable.
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“He was motivated and smart and mature,” recalled Larry Young of Blaine, Sehome’s vice principal at the time. “He had a lot of things going for him in high school.”
To Pat Wolken of Bellingham, a classmate and, like Beck, a drama student at Sehome, Beck struck some people as ambitious and standoffish.
“I always felt like he judged people on how useful they were going to be to him,” Wolken said. “That seemed to be his main thing, getting … Glenn Beck moving forward.”
Beck did not respond to two e-mail requests from The Herald seeking comment about his years in Bellingham.
Beck, 45, has written that his fascination with radio began at age 8 when his mother gave him an album set of classic radio programs, including “War of the Worlds.”
He landed a radio gig in Mount Vernon as a 13-year-old contest winner. Later that year, according to Beck, his mother, whom Beck has said abused alcohol and drugs, committed suicide.
However, a recent article at Salon.com says Beck’s mother died two years later, when her son was 15, in a possible boating accident near Tacoma.
Beck’s father, Bill Beck, said he moved the family in 1979 to Bellingham, where he found work as a baker at a local grocery store. By then, the rise of malls had drained the commercial life from his bakery and the rest of downtown Mount Vernon.
It was in Bellingham that Bill Beck met his current wife, Dee. Both are retired in Bellingham.
Glenn Beck was active in school drama and school choir. As a senior, he was student director of Sehome’s public presentation of Molière’s “The Miser.”
“He was a good actor and he was a good student,” said Robert Beath, Beck’s drama teacher at Sehome, now retired in Yakima. “I would have him in my class anytime.”
Beck also made the audition cut to perform in Sehome’s orchestra and jazz choirs.
“Glenn had a good singing voice,” said classmate Dean Ulrich of Bellingham. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, that guy’s certainly a better singer than I am.’ “
Beck’s father said Robert Shelton was Glenn’s best friend at Sehome.
Although Shelton graduated a year before Beck, they were close friends, in part, because of their similar backgrounds. Like Beck, Shelton enrolled at Sehome after attending lower grades elsewhere. And Shelton had a parent, his father, who committed suicide.
“We were both fish out of water,” said Shelton, of Lynden.
Shelton lived with Beck’s family for several months during his senior year so he could finish at Sehome, rather than move away with his mother.
Radio start on KPUG
While just a sophomore, Beck worked part time, nights and weekends, as a disc jockey at KPUG, a Top 40 station then on Sunset Drive. He picked and played records and took requests from listeners, including schoolmates.
“A great voice, a great delivery,” said Keith Shipman, a 1979 Sehome graduate who worked as a DJ at KPUG while on summer breaks from Washington State University. “The argument could be made that he was the most talented guy among the weekenders.”
During his last two years at Sehome, Beck worked weekends as a disc jockey at Seattle’s KUBE, a Top 40 station. Michael O’Shea, now general manager of Cascade Radio Group in Bellingham, was general manager at KUBE when he heard Beck’s audition tape and called to give him the job.
“He was good,” O’Shea said. “He was also willing to work for minimum wage.”
What O’Shea didn’t know was how young his new employee was.
“I had no idea that he was 15,” O’Shea said. “I figured he was a college student. He … had a good, mature sound to him.”
At first too young to drive, Beck took the bus to Seattle to work his weekend shifts at KUBE, sleeping in the station overnight before catching a bus home to Bellingham the next day.
“He reminded me of the exuberance or enthusiasm I had for being a radio disc jockey,” O’Shea said.
Several Sehome classmates described Beck as articulate and opinionated, save for a stretch when his jaw was wired shut for medical reasons.
Shelton said he and Beck read and talked at length about politics during the 1980 presidential race between Republican Ronald Reagan and Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter. Shelton described Beck as opinionated in the sense that Beck was willing to express his views once he made up his mind.
“He wasn’t very wishy-washy,” Shelton said. “Most people go with the trend.”
Several classmates recalled seeing Beck at their 10-year reunion.
“He came across as being really pompous,” Wolken said. “The worst part of his personality that I saw in high school was becoming more prominent.”
That description jibes with Beck’s public acknowledgment that he was saddled with major drinking and drug problems, and with low self-esteem, during his early radio career.
Today, some classmates wonder whether Beck’s populist conservatism is deeply felt, or merely a calculated ticket to money and fame.
“I’m still curious as to whether it’s real or an act,” Ulrich said.
Shelton said Beck, while a student, yearned to make big money in the world of radio. Time cited figures that Beck now averages about $2 million a month in income.
But Shelton, who attended Beck’s 40th-birthday surprise party, said Beck’s faith and family are paramount to his friend now, not money.
Beck has said he stopped drinking in 1994 and was baptized a Mormon five years later. Beck has credited his faith and his second wife, Tania, with helping to save him from self-destruction.
“He got out of his own way,” Shelton said.