January 19, 2020

Remembering Casey Kasem

I met Casey Kasem on January 21, 1988. It was the height of the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation, and shocking images of violence and suffering were  coming out of the Middle East – some things never change.

A group of about 100 Arabs and Jews living in Los Angeles organized into the Middle East Cousins Club, and as part of our call for peace, we decided to plant two olive trees side by side in a public ceremony outside City Hall.

One of our group was the producer Don Bustany, a very kind, avuncular man who created America’s Top 40 along with Casey Kasem.  Both men had grown up together in Detroit’s Lebanese-Arab community, and they remained lifelong friends.

Don arranged for Casey to MC the tree planting, and Kasem, an enthusiastic supporter of Middle East reconciliation, agreed. My job was to write a speech for Casey Kasem to deliver.

We met for the first time in front of the microphones just before the ceremony.  It was almost shocking to hear that voice for the first time—as rich and comforting as on the radio.  Casey looked over my written words, reading out loud as he did so.  Every place he got to a word like “security” or “brotherhood” or “reconciliation,” he used a black pen to cross it out. 

I didn’t understand why.

“Nothing over two syllables,” he told me. “Ever.”

So security became safety, brotherhood became friendship, reconciliation—a major violator—became peace.

A crowd gathered.  TV cameras, a striking red-headed LA Times cub reporter who introduced herself as Jill Stewart,  and of course, plenty of radio news guys.  Casey read flawlessly—but also passionately.  Arabs and Jews were dying and he cared deeply about that— more, I gathered, than he ever cared about who came in at #21.

We planted the trees, side by side.  Cameras clicked and whirled—and the next day, it was all over the papers.  Casey turned to me when it was over and said, “Nice job.” He winked. “ Remember, two syllables.” 

I pass the site of the planting every so often.   The saplings have grown to 10 feet or more—the trees are neglected, shaggy and beautiful.   As a harbinger of peace, they proved worthless.  But at least they conjure good memories, a living testimony to a good-hearted man.

Go in peace, Casey.


Here is the link to Jill's original LA Times article.