By Alan Burke
---- — PEABODY — Bob Mehrman was a radio and television announcer from the 1950s to the 1980s. Then, in 1990, he lost his voice box to cancer.
But he never lost his voice.
And that was more than a matter of the electronic device that, held to his throat, allows Mehrman to speak in machine-like tones. Rather, it was a function of his sense of humor and a drive to help others. At 86 he is today a key player in the effort at Brooksby Village to enforce a total ban on smoking, which went into effect Jan. 1.
It’s a role he has played before.
Mehrman began smoking while he was in the Navy, serving from 1945 to ‘47, a time when cigarettes were available to servicemen at cut rates. That was a pattern Mehrman saw again in college, where he abandoned a course in business administration to pursue the career he loved at Emerson. In those days, young women could be seen on the street giving out free packs of cigarettes.
Mehrman, who lived mostly in Beverly, began his broadcasting career at North Shore radio station WESX, where he remembers once proudly announcing the letters as WSEX.
“Nobody called,” he smiles.
His voice soon brought him to Boston media for stints at TV channels 4, 5, 7 and 56, as well as at radio’s WJIB. For a time he did talk radio on WEEI. His voice was hard to miss in Greater Boston. Even though smoking was barred in the studio -- where the residue can build up and foul the equipment -- and the Surgeon General had raised warnings about the dangers of tobacco as early as 1964, Mehrman continued puffing away.
In the mid-1980s he quit smoking altogether. It was too late. Two years later came the symptoms.
“I thought it was laryngitis and I thought in a week it would go away,” he remembers. Doctors saw a lump on his vocal cord. No sooner was it removed than it returned. Tests determined he had cancer, not merely in the lump but in the vocal cords themselves. To save Mehrman’s life, doctors removed his voice box in 1990.
It was a difficult time, he says, but he had lots of support from family, including his late wife, Selma, and son, Barry. “There wasn’t anything I could do about it,” he adds. “So I better do something else.”
Already outside the studio, he was working as executive director of the Massachusetts Broadcasters Association, lobbying for issues relating to TV and radio. Those ties brought him in touch with the Massachusetts Tobacco Control Program, which signed him as a spokesman.
Now, Mehrman spoke to countless school groups using his handheld electrolarynx. Appearing in radio and TV ads, he was even featured nationally in a 2001 Superbowl commercial. While the electronic rasp of his “voice” alone could serve as an indictment of smoking, his approach never leaned on that. Instead, he alerted kids to a factor having a more immediate impact on young minds — the cost of smoking.
A pack-a-day habit can cost $10 a day, he says. “And all you’ve got left at the end of the month is $270 worth of ashes. ... If you don’t want to (quit) for your health, do it for your wealth.”
These days Mehrman laments the cutbacks in funds for the anti-cigarette effort, but he hasn’t cut back himself. His media savvy is key to Brooksby’s anti-smoking campaign. He spends all his spare time in the retirement community’s TV studio and even serves as a speaker.
“Bob did a video,” notes Brooksby spokeswoman Dani Baldasarre. “That’s been a big part of the effort.”
New Brooksby residents, as well as employees, are alerted to the smoke-free status, meaning no smoking inside or out. Longtime residents continue to smoke, but, again, Mehrman and others let them know just how much the habit can cost. (One employee who quit smoking was able to buy a new car with the money she saved, Baldasarre notes.)
Asked why he continued smoking even while his voice was his best asset, Mehrman explains that he and his colleagues believed smoking gave their voices a deeper, richer tone. Today, with a sadly ironic shake of the head, he says through his electrolarynx, “It sure as hell did deepen it.”