By Cove Currents Resident Donna Miceli
If John and Darlene Schwandke were asked what factors led to their successful careers as owners of two radio stations in John’s hometown of Muscatine Iowa, it’s likely they could give some credit to being in the right place at the right time.
For John, it started when he made the decision to leave the local community college after completing just one semester. “Muscatine was a wonderful place to grow up, but for some reason I just had an unexplainable desire to explore something other than Muscatine, Iowa, so I enlisted in the military,” he explained.
Thinking that he might follow in his father’s footsteps and join the Navy, John went to the post office, where all the recruiters were located. Unfortunately, the Navy recruiter’s office was closed. The Army recruiter spotted John and invited him to wait in his office. While he was waiting, the recruiter suggested John take an aptitude test.
“After I completed the test, the recruiter told me there was an opening in the United States Army Security Agency and, according to the test I took, I was just what they were looking for,” John recalled.
He subsequently joined the Army and was sent to Boston for a year of schooling before being sent to Germany for two years. Part of John’s job in communication intelligence involved operating an array of radio receivers and direction-finding equipment.
“It was fascinating and intriguing,” he said. “That’s where my love of radio started. After I left the service, I became a ham radio operator.”
John’s second experience of being in the right place at the right time occurred on the day after he lost his job working in quality and inventory control for a plastics company. “The next morning, I went to a very busy coffee bar in Walgreens,” he related. “There was just one empty stool and the man I sat next to struck up a conversation.”
“He asked me what I did, and I said I was currently unemployed and told him my story.” As fate would have it, the man was manager of Muscatine’s only local radio station (KWPC). “He invited me to stop by the station the next day, John said. “I did and that’s how I got into radio.”
“One of the beauties of a small-market radio station is that you get to do every job,” John noted. “I was a news reporter, copywriter, DJ, radio talk show host, sales rep—which was what I excelled in—and sales manager at a couple of different radio stations. When I met Darlene, I was living in Washington, Iowa, about 40 miles from Muscatine, where I was general manager of the KCII radio station.”
Like John, much of Darlene’s story involves being in the right place at the right time. A native of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia, she spent 20 years working for a trucking company, starting as a key punch operator and working her way up to assistant to the vice president of data processing.
“At that time, companies were going from the large IBM computers to personal computers.” Darlene remembered. “I learned there was an opening in the computer department and applied for it. Of course, back then, they didn’t hire women, so they didn’t want me, but I was forceful and got the job.”
The company paid for her to take programming and other computer-related courses, which have served her well over the years. Darlene eventually moved on to working for a Real Estate property management company. She was responsible for setting up job costs with the builders for the brokers, and her knowledge of computer technology played an important role.
“The builders had no idea what they were spending on a job, so I would go in and train them on how to put all the information into the computer and it would keep a record of what they were spending,” she explained. While working there, Darlene also started investing her money in property.
When she decided it was time to leave Pottstown, Darlene, who was divorced and had no children, first went to California. She didn’t like it there, so she ended up in Muscatine, Iowa staying with one of her sisters while trying to decide what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. After she had been there for a while, her sister began encouraging her to get out of the house more, so she took a temporary job with a company where John’s daughter, from a previous marriage, just happened to be working.
As John recalled, his daughter called him one day and asked if he was seriously dating anyone. When he said he wasn’t, she said, “Dad, I have a new temp and her name is Darlene. You’ve got to meet her, but I’m warning you, you are really going to like her.” As it turned out, he really did like her and the feeling was mutual.
They started dating in February, were engaged in March and got married in June. This past June they celebrated their 30th anniversary. Shortly after he and Darlene were married, John got a call from the Muscatine radio station where he had started his career. They were in serious financial trouble and were on the verge of having to shut down. They wanted to give him an opportunity to buy the station. The price was right, so given John’s love for radio and his past history with the station, he and Darlene decided to take a chance. As it turned out, they were perfectly suited for the challenge.
“Darlene, with her computer experience, was a real asset because, at that time, stations were just beginning to computerize,” John said. “All my weaknesses were her strengths, and my strengths were things she didn’t know about, so we didn’t step on each other’s toes. We had a lot of fun and the radio station that was failing took off like a rocket.”
KWPC was located in an old farmhouse, so their first challenge was remodeling the station headquarters—with family and friends pitching in to help. Three years later, they started from the ground up to build a second “sister station,” (KWCC) with all the latest equipment, including a digital transmitter.
“We had the distinction of being the first fully digital radio station west of Chicago,” Darlene proudly noted.
John hired the on-air staff and trained the sales staff. He also hosted a popular talk show. Although Darlene’s primary function was to handle the business operations, she also did the introductions to many of the programs. According to John, at that time, her accent from Philadelphia was still fairly heavy and some people thought she was British. Because of the accent, her voice stood out from all the other ‘perfect’ radio voices.
“That was fun,” Darlene recalled. “If we were out somewhere, and people heard me say something, they would recognize my voice and ask if I was Darlene.”
As if managing two radio stations with 30 employees wasn’t enough, the Schwandkes also started a sign company. “Originally, we started it just to supply signs, banners and graphics for our radio stations, but we found out other companies wanted signs too,” John said.
In 2000, after eight years of running two radio stations and a sign company, John and Darlene decided it was time to retire and enjoy the fruits of their labor. Sadly, just six months later, Darlene was diagnosed with lung cancer. She started experiencing some worrisome symptoms so decided to consult doctors at the University of Iowa Hospital.
“It turns out I had a tumor that was wrapped around my aorta,” Darlene revealed. “When they opened me up, they discovered I had a collapsed lung and one of my lymph nodes showed cancer.” After removing her left lung, they found it was worse than they thought. Her doctor put her on palliative care and gave her six months to live.
“The woman who handled my insurance claims didn’t give up on me,” Darlene said. “She had previously worked at the Mayo Clinic and wanted me to call my doctor and have him make an appointment for me to get a second opinion. My doctor did call and made an appointment at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.”
The doctors at Mayo agreed with the diagnosis, but, in a stroke of good luck, they were just beginning a clinical trial for a new experimental drug and were looking for 20 people who were terminal and who had had no radiation treatments. Darlene fit the category and, after three months of treatments, her tumor had regressed and eventually went away.
“Since it had metastasized, it was already in my lymphatic system, so one day it might come back,” Darlene commented. “But that was 22 years ago. I’ve been blessed.” Darlene continues to be checked regularly and, so far, the tests have shown no evidence of cancer.
After retiring and selling their home in Muscatine, John and Darlene split their time between Chicago and Playa del Carmen Mexico before deciding to settle in Florida. Prior to deciding to move to Cypress Cove, they lived in Kelly Greens, where John developed an interest in videography, and Darlene discovered the pleasure of painting with watercolors.
“I think Florida made me want to paint. I love the birds!” Darlene noted. “When I’m painting, I’m in my own world.”
Since moving to Cypress Cove, John and Darlene have been active members of the Yacht Club. In addition, John has kept busy creating videos highlighting the wonders of life at The Harbour and posting them on his YouTube channel (YouTube.com/JohnSchwandke) for residents—and the general public—to enjoy.
Meanwhile, Darlene keeps busy with her watercolor painting. She and John both agree that they are now in the right place at the right time of their lives.