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Calling Roger Daltrey: Finneytown grad tells how he got The Who to come back to Cincinnati

Fred Wittenbaum tells amazing story of perseverance, luck
Posted: 4:36 PM, Dec 07, 2019
Updated: 2019-12-08 09:39:39-05
Roger Daltrey at the PEM Case
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Roger Daltrey at PEM Memorial
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Watch WCPO's documentary, "The Who: The Night That Changed Rock," and read other stories about The Who HERE.

CINCINNATI - If Fred Wittenbaum writes his memoir, he could title one chapter, “How I Drove Roger Daltrey In My SUV With My Teenage Son In The Backseat.”

Another chapter could be called, “How My Mom Helped Me Track Down The Who And Bring One Of The Greatest Rock Bands Ever To Cincinnati.”

It’s an incredible tale, one Wittenbaum is reluctant to tell, lest he appear to hog credit from other Finneytown High School grads who helped create the memorial at the school to three Finneytown students killed outside The Who’s concert in Cincinnati 40 years ago. In all, 11 young people died in a crush on the plaza outside Riverfront Coliseum.

The P.E.M. Memorial Scholarship foundation held its annual alumni band concert Saturday night to raise money for the scholarships it awards in honor of Stephan Preston, Jackie Eckerle and Karen Morrison. The scholarships sprang out of the work of two other grads, Steve Bentz and John Hutchins, to create a memorial bench to the three outside the school’s performing arts center.

That’s when Wittenbaum, class of 1983, got involved and suggested starting a scholarship fund.

How The Who got involved – and why Daltrey visited Finneytown in 2018, why the Who contributed to the memorial at the high school and why they’re coming back to the Cincinnati area to play a concert next year - was all Wittenbaum’s doing.

Never In A Million Years

"Never in a million years did I think Roger Daltrey would ever step foot on the campus of Finneytown," Wittenbaum, a partner in an insurance agency, the S P Agency in Blue Ash, told WCPO last month.

Roger Daltrey at PEM Memorial
Roger Daltrey at the PEM Memorial, July 2018. Courtesy: Jeremy Wittenbaum

Wittenbaum recalled how his idea to bring The Who back to town got rolling. He got the scholarship fund off the ground in 2010 with help from Walt Medlock. He pushed an idea for selling engraved bricks and building a brick plaza around the bench.

"We have about 500 bricks and we're getting ready to add 50 or 60 more," he said.

"We put up a surrounding framing wall with three zinc plaques of the students made in Andy Warhol style from the Rolling Stone cover."

Now it was 2017, a few months before their next memorial event on every first Saturday in December.

"I got to thinking about what we could do to make this better and I went to my mom Barbara. Everyone calls her ‘Bobbie,'" he said.

"She and my father Jay have an organization called Cincinnati Dreams Come True where they grant wishes of children under the age of 18 with potentially life-threatening illness. Just the two of them. They’ve been doing it since 1998. They’ve done close to 1,000 wishes, which is great and extremely sad at the same time.

“She’s dealt with celebrities for years, since that’s how it works. So I asked her, ‘If I wanted to make contact with The Who, how would I do it?'

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Plaques of the three Finneytown students killed outside The Who concert adorn the wall around the brick plaza at PEM Memorial at Finneytown High School in July 2018. Courtesy: Jeremy Wittenbaum

"She went to a friend of hers who has some connections, and the trail started in Cincinnati and bounced all around the country by email till it hit someone in Los Angeles who emailed back: 'Here is The Who's office address, email, phone, and this is who you want to call.'

"I crafted a single-page email with what we were doing and I let it fly. I figured I’d never hear from them again," Wittenbaum said. "And I was right.

“A couple of weeks went by and I said to myself, ‘I usually don’t give up. That’s not in my nature,’ so I called their management office in London. By luck of the draw, I got a wonderful woman who took my call. She heard me out.”

The woman told Wittenbaum to send the email to her.

“She said, "I can't guarantee anything other than I will take your email and put it on the band manager’s desk,'" Wittenbaum said.

The Who To The Rescue

A few hours later, Wittenbaum’s phone rang. It was The Who’s manager, Bill Curbishley.

“He said, 'I have your email. I’ve spoken to Roger and Pete (Townshend) and we’re very interested in what you're doing. We’d like to be involved.'

"He then told me his story of what happened that night (Curbishley stopped officials from canceling the concert), and I was literally beside myself,” Wittenbaum said.

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Roger Daltrey and Fred Wittenbaum at the PEM Memorial, July 2018. Courtesy: Jeremy Wittenbaum

A few days later, Wittenbaum got a call from Tom Kenny. "He does all their lighting. The nicest person on the face of the earth," Wittenbaum said.

“He said, 'I’m going to make sure this gets done. We’re not sure Roger is going to be involved. He’s very emotional about this and it’s difficult for him to talk about. But Pete’s on board. I’ll get back to you.'"

At that point, Wittenbaum was not sure what The Who was planning or committing to do. But a DVD arrived a few days later. It started with the band playing “Who Are You.”

"It was fantastic. It was from their concert in Pittsburgh,” Wittenbaum said. “It fades to Roger. Roger’s sitting behind the stage on some equipment, and for a couple of minutes he talks as if you're sitting there listening to him, and he talks about the night and the families, etc. It's very nice. And it goes back into 'Who Are You,' and then it fades to Pete talking.”

That gave the P.E.M Memorial committee a “giant surprise” to show at their third event on Dec. 3, 2017, Wittenbaum said. They filled the school's 750-seat performing arts center. The band’s only stipulation was that the video couldn’t be shown again anywhere.

“Tall order in this day and age,” Wittenbaum said. But the committee – and the crowd – kept that pledge, he said.

"It was a very emotional night. It was very cool. The next day I got a call from Tom and he said, 'How did it go?'" said Wittenbaum.

“I said it was unbelievable. The tears, the emotions, it was the most cathartic thing you could ever imagine."

Painful Memories Relieved

Wittenbaum said it released the awful feelings pent up in the Finneytown grads and community for almost 40 years.

“We didn’t have grief counselors at the school,” Wittenbaum, a freshman in 1979, recalled about his school days following the tragedy. “It’s not like today. We didn’t have a flotilla of people to help the students cope. They told us not to say a word. We couldn’t talk about it. The halls were like a morgue. And these guys carried this for 40 years.

“Wounds heal. Scars fade. They never go away. You’re dealing with a group of people who had their life tragically altered because of this event with literally no outlet, collectively, to deal with it. Ever.

“So Tom says to me, ‘Roger wants to talk to you. He’s going to call you. What’s your number?'”

Wittenbaum said he wasn’t ready to believe that.

“Whatever,” he remembered thinking. “I’ll give you my number, but he’s not going to call.”

Who's Calling???

The next day, Wittenbaum's home phone rang as he was getting ready to take his son to basketball practice.

He said he noticed the call came from California, so he figured it was his sister-in-law and handed the phone to his wife Eve without answering it.

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Fred Wittenbaum greets Roger Daltrey after the rock star landed at a private airport near Dayton in July 2018. Courtesy: Jeremy Wittenbaum

"She said ‘Hello,’ then there was a pause and she said, ‘Can you repeat that?’

“She holds the phone out. Her eyes are this big, and she says, ‘IT'S ROGER DALTREY!’"

“I talked to him for about an hour," Wittenbaum said. "He told me his story, his impressions of that night, things he didn’t understand. Why is it called The Who tragedy’? It’s not The Who tragedy. It happened to be a tragedy that occurred outside the Coliseum while people were waiting to see a concert performed by The Who. But they got blamed for it.

"And then he told about the Teen Cancer America project he's involved with, which is really cool."

You've Got Mail From Roger Daltrey

“He gave me his own personal email, so I’ve been able to stay in contact with him," Wittenbaum said. "He answers it himself. He's as down-to-earth as you can get. If I send him an email – and I don’t abuse the privilege – he answers me right back.

"Now I’m thinking to myself, 'After that, what in the world can we do from here?'"

Wittenbaum and the P.E.M. committee decided to to go to The Who’s concert at the Yum Center in Louisville to meet the band. Wittenbaum called Kelly to let him know they were coming.

“I said, 'We bought tickets. We want to thank you in person," Wittenbaum said.

”Tom said, ‘Great. Go to the ticket office when you get there.'”

“We already had tickets, but when my wife and I went to the ticket office, he had left seven all-access badges for us.

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Roger Daltrey leads Jackie Eckerle's sisters and others in singing "Happy Birthday" on what would have been her 54th birthday at PEM Memorial at Finneytown High School in July 2018. Courtesy: Jeremy Wittenbaum

“Pete’s personal assistant took us to the green room and Pete came in and talked to us. Then we went in and saw the show.

“My first concert, saw Springsteen on the "Born To Run Tour," and it was the greatest show I’d ever seen until that night. That Who concert was absolutely amazing.

“After the show we went backstage with Tom and he introduced us to Roger and Roger talked to us for about an hour. He's such a nice guy. And so is Pete. They’re just two different people.”

Wittenbaum said he and Daltrey kept in touch. He told Daltrey that the committee was gathering photos and personal items of the three students to put in a beautiful, hand-crafted display case in the lobby of the performing arts center.

"We obviously cannot bring the three kids back to Finneytown, but we felt we could humanize them for the current students if we had a display case," Wittenbaum said. "We've always been since Day 1 pretty much in lockstep with our three families. Each family was very pleased and supportive to provide stuff."

The Who then volunteered to pay for the case, Wittenbaum said.

In late 2017, Wittenbaum got another idea.

A Rock Star Comes - Secretly - To Finneytown

"I heard in November that Roger was touring individually. It was really The Who but without Pete. And I heard he was going to be at The Fraze Pavilion," Wittenbaum said, referring to the outdoor amphitheater in Kettering, outside of Dayton.

"I started emailing Roger in December. I said, 'I hear you're going to be at The Fraze Pavilion in July. It’s only 30 minutes from Finneytown High School. You’re never going to be closer. Would you consider coming to visit the memorial?'"

"And he said, 'Well, you know, it's tour. We've we got a million things ... '

"We went back and forth: 'No. No. No. Yes!'

"So I got a call then from his personal assistant and he said, 'What do you guys want?'

"And I said, 'We’d like him to perform,'" Wittenbaum said.

"'We have a 750-seat performing arts center and we’ll fill it. He could do 1-2-3 quick songs – a capella, with our alumni band, whatever you want.'

"He said, 'Sure, whatever you want.'

"I said, 'WOW!' " Wittenbaum said.

But wait a minute.

"Got a call from their tour manager the next day. 'Here’s what we’ll let him do. No singing. You come and pick him up at the private airport just south of Dayton off the Austin Road exit. He'll get off his private jet. You drive him down to Finneytown. He’ll stay there for an hour. He wants to see the memorial. He wants to meet the three families. And he would like to meet some of the scholarship winners.'"

No singing? OK, no problem, Wittenbaum thought. He was still feeling very lucky. And amazed.

"You think of 60s bands - Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin are the most well-known bands in the world and Roger is the most well-known lead singer in the world, and you want some unknown dude to come pick him up at the airport with no security?

"So I said, 'Sure!'" Wittenbaum said.

Driving Mr. Daltrey

"I cleaned out my car. He wanted to be in an SUV. I cleaned it out within an inch of its life. Put my son Jeremy in the car, who was 16 at the time, and gave him a video camera and said, 'Video everything.'

"I get there and they say, 'Pull your car out on the tarmac.'

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Roger Daltrey shakes hands with victims' families and friends upon arriving at PEM Memorial at Finneytown High School in July 2018. Courtesy: Jeremy Wittenbaum

"Planes lands. He gets out. Shook his hand. He gets in the passenger seat. Gordon, his assistant, sits behind him. Jeremy sits behind me."

"It was World Cup time, so Roger was watching the World Cup while we were driving. We talked a little bit – extremely, extremely nice individual. A down-to-earth, easy-to-talk-to gentleman.”

No media had been alerted about Daltrey's visit. It was July, so school was out. Only a few people knew Daltrey was coming – the P.E.M. committee, members of the three families and three scholarship winners.

"Roger couldn't have been more gracious," Wittenbaum said. "'Whatever you want signed, I’ll sign. You want to take a picture, I’ll take a picture.'

"They said no singing, but you can catch at end of video – I didn't know this, but it was Jackie’s 54th birthday, and he says, spontaneously, let’s sing 'Happy Birthday,' so we got an unsolicited song with him."

WATCH the video of Daltrey’s visit below.

The committee had also invited two other Finneytown grads. Mike Simkin and Matt Werbers had barely survived the death trap on the Coliseum plaza and had helped create and install the memorial bench. Werbers was out of the country, though.

"We wanted Mike to have a chance to talk to Roger," Wittenbaum said. "To me, the most poignant parts of the video were the part where Roger was standing at the case looking at their photos and he says, 'They're all so young,' and the part where Mike is talking to him and Mike says, 'We never blamed the band.' Because I think, for all those years, Roger wanted to hear that from somebody.

"It was just a wonderful day," Wittenbaum said.

Watch The WCPO Documentary

Two months ago, Daltrey talked about his visit to Finneytown in a one-of-a-kind interview with WCPO Anchor Tanya O'Rourke.

"I went to Finneytown last year and I’m really glad I did," Daltrey said. "I saw the wonderful work they’ve done with the scholarships for the people they lost at that school. And you know, you have to go forward and it released a lot for me. Going to the school and meeting the parents was incredibly rewarding ... It lifted a load."

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Roger Daltrey with the PEM Memorial Committee (clockwise from top left): Steve Bentz, Fred Wittenbaum, Walt Medlock, Brad Rubin, John Hutchins, Toni Hutchins. Courtesy: Jeremy Wittenbaum

The band made it clear that they agreed to do their first Cincinnati-area concert since 1979 because of Wittenbaum and the P.E.M. Memorial. The concert will be held April 23 at BB&T Arena at Northern Kentucky University. Part of the proceeds will go to the memorial.

"For many years we have been in contact and supported the Finneytown High School memorial foundation in memory of the three students they lost,” Daltrey said in a statement this week. “After seeing the good work the scholarships provided by the foundation achieve, we have decided that a concert to raise funds for them will allow these to continue and create something positive in their memory way into the future."

It was through Wittenbaum that O’Rourke, a Finneytown grad herself, arranged for exclusive, face-to-face interviews with Daltrey, Townshend and Curbishley last October. Those interviews, and others with victims’ family members and survivors, formed the basis for O’Rourke's historic documentary, “The Who: The Night That Changed Rock,” that aired on WCPO on Dec. 3.

You can watch the extended online version of the documentary here on WCPO.com and on the WCPO app on streaming devices.

Also, read more WCPO.com stories about The Who HERE.