Ronald Norvanne Sutton was my good friend.
I loved the way he made the final minutes of an ordinary football game sound like the climax of a mystery novel. My wife, Delois, like many other women, enjoyed the resonance of his deep baritone voice that intimidated and commanded instant attention but at the same time was reassuring.
Ron Sutton, 45, died last week of a heart attack, his fourth in recent years. The robust Sutton, who was married with two sons and a daughter and a stepson, was a native Washingtonian who went to District schools before he served seven years in the Air Force. After he left the service, he immediately earned a reputation as a knowledgable and entertaining radio personality in the dozen or so years he worked on area radio stations. He spent many hours giving of himself to his community and working with the youth of the city.
"He had a natural gift for radio. He grew up here and had a feel for the people," said Frank Bolden, a former teacher, coach and director of Physical Education and Athletics for the D.C. Public Schools. "People had to go to school to learn what came naturally to him. Talk about living color. Ron Sutton was it."
Hundreds of athletes, friends, co-workers and admirers attended the funeral services for Sutton and left feeling as if an important part of their lives had been taken from them.
"I don't cry for many people, but I've known Big Daddy for years and I loved him," said Wil Jones, head basketball coach at the University of the District of Columbia. "He had talent we knew nothing about. He had what most broadcasters will never get -- a voice."
Sutton enjoyed successful stints at several stations before he took over as sports director at WHUR-FM. In addition to his seven years as director, sports announcer and host of a talk show, he also hosted a popular jazz show that earned him the reputation as an expert in that field.
I respected his talent as a sports reporter and listened to his advice. He told me not to be too quick to label athletes as great or to be too harsh to condemn those who were not playing up to their potential. He said it was a good idea to show more patience and compassion with home-town athletes because at some point, they would become the greatest sources of stories and tips in the future. He was right.
Sutton was always comfortable and professional on the radio. He followed closely the progress of the Interhigh League and the careers of the high school athletes. Many of his one-on-one messages were directed at the city youth. To reinforce his messages, Sutton needed only to dial the phone to interview a Julius Erving, a Bobby Dandridge or an Eddie Robinson.
"Ron was a very likable person. You knew you could trust him, and that's something you can't say about everyone," said Dandridge, a former NBA star. "Even if he joked about things, you knew he wouldn't hurt you."
"Ron was on a first-name basis with just about everyone," said Kenny Swift, who worked with Sutton on WHUR. "He was comfortable with important people and street people. Everyone was the same to Ron."
One of Sutton's favorite terms, so eloquently put by WPFW-FM programmer Jerry Washington at the funeral, was "just because you walk to the beat of a different drummer doesn't mean you won't get there first."
Sutton was always trying to come up with new and innovative ideas in broadcasting. He left WHUR in 1981 after a disagreement with management. He worked briefly with WDCU, but health problems ensued, and Sutton spent more than a year and a half in and out of Veterans Administration Hospital.
"When he left WHUR, he went through a real stressful period," said Jim (Bad News) Barnes, a former NBA player and a close friend of Sutton's. "He tried a lot of different things but couldn't get what he wanted. He felt a lot of people who could have assisted him turned their backs on him.
"When I visited him (the day before his death), he was sort of depressed and didn't seem to have much fight in him," Barnes said. "I reminded him he was a former football player and he could always get another 10 yards rather than be stopped at the line of scrimmage. But he said his heart was just worn out and the only thing his friends could do for him now was go out and find him another one."
Sutton touched many lives in the area and will be missed.