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Longtime WXRT DJ dead of ovarian cancer at 63

Longtime WXRT DJ Leslie Witt died Sunday at age 63. | File photo

Leslie Witt, a DJ with encyclopedic music knowledge whose long career at WXRT (93.1 FM) started in the late 1970s, is being mourned by listeners and fellow broadcasters.

Ms. Witt, 63, died Sunday of ovarian cancer.

Next to Terri Hemmert, she was WXRT’s longest-serving DJ, said fellow DJ Lin Brehmer, who said he’ll always recall “how excited she got over discovering a new artist.”

Hemmert, who has battled cancer herself, praised Ms. Witt in an online remembrance as “my hero” and “a woman of hope, strength and love.”

Longtime XRT DJ Leslie Witt Passes Away

The Chicago native’s easy on-air personality, which earned her the nickname “the overnight angel,” reflected a gracious, kind spirit, friends said.

“She gave everybody the benefit of the doubt,” Brehmer said. “Whatever I wound up doing that involved Leslie, there was going to be no drama or stress. She was going to have a big smile on her face, and dispense compliments from the heart, not the head, and she was going to make everybody feel good.”

WXRT DJ Leslie Witt has died at age 63. | WXRT photo
WXRT DJ Leslie Witt has died at age 63. | WXRT photo

Despite failing health, she was determined to attend concerts. “That’s what she liked to do,” said her husband, Chuck Reichenbach. It was a struggle, but she made it to the June 18 Paul Simon show at Ravinia and a May performance at the Riviera by Tom Petty and Mudcrutch.

“What a fighter she was,” WXRT DJ Mary Dixon said. “She was living out every moment.”

“She had planned on seeing Alabama Shakes this week and Lolla next week,” said WXRT music director Kelly Ransford. “Such an inspiration and one of the most positive persons I’ll ever know.”

Her death is hitting the station hard because so many staffers have been there for years, Dixon said: “We haven’t had to mourn someone.”

When Ms. Witt started out, “There weren’t a lot of women in radio,” especially rock radio, her husband said. After graduating from Deerfield High School and earning a communications degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she worked at WIBA-FM in Madison and WGRG-AM in Pittsfield, Massachusetts before WXRT.

In a blog post, Ms. Witt said she had always loved music, “be it Big Band jazz on my dad’s solid state RCA, Top-40 AM on a transistor, FM rock on enormous stereo equipment, or podcasts on iPods. I’ve spent untold amounts of cash on concert tickets, fanzines, 45s, LPs, CDs, downloads and audio gear. Given my life-long fascination with all of the above, it’s a good thing I have been able to be a weekend DJ at WXRT for all but a year or two since 1978 . . . yes, that long!”

Mostly, she worked weekend morning slots. “She carried a lot of influence and provided a lot of joy in a small amount of time on the radio,” Brehmer said.

“She knew music and how to put it together,” her husband said. Her taste ranged from classical to roots. Ms. Witt studied ballet for much of her life and was a subscriber to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. She enjoyed the blues, Dylan, Los Lobos, Lyle Lovett and Little Feat.

“She and I bonded over the very fragile singer-songwriter genre,” said Brehmer, who recently supplied her with CDs from Joe Pug and Robbie Fulks.

Some of her favorite live shows included Genesis performing the “Foxtrot” album in London; Bruce Springsteen on the Born to Run tour; Bob Marley and the Wailers at the Uptown theater; Stevie Ray Vaughan at ChicagoFest; a Chicago performance by Macy Gray and Prince; Iggy Pop at Lollapalooza; Eric Clapton’s star-studded Crossroads Guitar Festival in 2007, and Adele at the Riviera in 2011.

Leslie Witt | WXRT photo.
Leslie Witt | WXRT photo.

In the 1980s, while doing weekends at WXRT, Ms. Witt also worked weekdays as a WBEZ news reporter until the 1987 birth of her daughter, Kay, Dixon said. At WBEZ, Ms. Witt reported stories that were featured nationally, her husband said, including one on “Mr. Taps,” a dancer who performed in a subway station that magnified the sound of his tap shoes.

WXRT’s Jason Thomas and Bill Artlip posted stories of her mentoring and encouragement. “It was a regular and much-welcomed occurrence to receive an email from Leslie, commenting on something she liked on-air or on the website, going out of her way to show support,” said another DJ, Emma Mac.

Even if hosts weren’t happy with a show, “She always had an encouraging word,” WXRT’s Frank E. Lee said.

Matt Spiegel of 670 The Score once worked overnights at WXRT. On Facebook, he posted: “I was ablaze at midnight, engaged with my late night peeps until 3 or so, then fighting for sanity until my relief arrived at 5: Leslie Witt. She was ALWAYS: sweet, kind, excited to do her gig, curious about my band(s), ready to take over, and super prepared. . . . She sent me off into the early morning drive home with a smile, and usually a hug. Meant way more to me than she ever knew.”

Ms. Witt, who lived most recently in Riverwoods, is also survived by a son, Kurt. A memorial is being planned, her husband said.

Standing: Frank E. Lee, Norm Winer, Leslie Witt. Sitting: Patty Martin and Sting. The photo is from an ‘XRT Concert for the Kids series, an annual Toys for Tots drive at various concerts every December. | WXRT photo
Standing: Frank E. Lee, Norm Winer, Leslie Witt. Sitting: Patty Martin and Sting. The photo is from an ‘XRT Concert for the Kids series, an annual Toys for Tots drive at various concerts every December. | WXRT photo