Photography

Christine Spindel

July 11, 1924 ~ September 22, 2021 (age 97)

Obituary

Christine Cooper Spindel died in Urbana, Illinois, on September 22, 2021, at the age of 97. She was born in Benton, Arkansas, on July 11, 1924, the daughter of Earl and Helen Cooper. She grew up in a large, loving family in Little Rock, the oldest of ten children, eight of whom lived to adulthood. She graduated from Little Rock High School (later re-named Central) when she was sixteen. After one year of junior college, she moved to Memphis, Tennessee, in the summer of 1942. With many men in the armed forces, her experience on her high school newspaper landed her a job at the Memphis Commercial Appeal. After that, she worked at the Cotton Trade Journal, then at radio station WMPS. In 1947 she was hired to be continuity chief at a new Memphis radio station called WDIA, and when the program director was fired, she became program director at twenty-three. But the station was failing. Bert Ferguson, the station's part-owner and general manager, decided to take a risk and hire Nat D. Williams, a Black high school history and social studies teacher, to host an afternoon program directed at Black listeners. His young program director enthusiastically supported the idea. A year later, WDIA, now a commercial success, became the first radio station in the nation with, as they said then, "all-Negro programming." It was also one of the few integrated workplaces in Memphis and she worked with entertainers including young B.B. King and Rufus Thomas. As program director, she insisted that the station listen to its listeners and provide the kinds of community engagement and public service they wanted and needed. As a result, WDIA became known as "the Goodwill Station." In 1952 she received a national award for a woman broadcasting executive, the McCall's Award for Service to the Community in General, for her work at WDIA, and in particular, for a program called "Workers Wanted." She was program director until 1954 and shepherded WDIA from a dawn-to-dusk station that broadcast only 250 watts to a 50,000 watt radio powerhouse. As a woman program director of a large successful station and the program director of the first station with all-Black programming, she was a double broadcasting pioneer.

She met clothing merchant Murray Spindel in a night class and they married in 1950. He passed away in 1999. She is survived by their two children, Carol (Tom Bassett) of Urbana, Illinois, and Alan of Nashville, Tennessee. She leaves behind four grandchildren she adored: Nick Bassett (Chloé Cirillo) of Houston, Becca Bassett (Nick Allen) of Hampton, New Hampshire, Caroline Spindel, her namesake Chrissy Spindel of Nashville, and one great-grandson, Marlow Bassett of Houston. She is survived by her youngest brother, Howard Cooper (Pat) of Indianapolis and her youngest sister, Ruth Cooper, of Little Rock. Her sisters Jane Tolbert and Eula Ruck and her brothers Adren, Warren, and Quentin Cooper pre-deceased her.

She started sewing at six and could make anything without a pattern. Later in life she learned to cook by watching Julia Child on television and loved to gather her friends and family around her twelve-foot dining table. She disapproved of organized religion and bad coffee (she always made hers in a Chemex). A passionate gardener who especially loved growing ferns, she helped found the Memphis Horticultural Society and Memphis Fern Society. For sharing her knowledge of ferns with other gardeners, she became known as the Fern Lady, and a garden at the Memphis Botanic Garden is dedicated to her. She read and wrote poetry, particularly haiku and other Japanese forms, and published hers under the pen name Sydney Bougy. Her husband Murray created the Spindel Philosophy Conference at the University of Memphis, and she entertained the visiting philosophers each year at a dinner at their house. In 2012 the University of Memphis named her one of its 100 Most Important Women.

In 2017, at the age of 92, she helped found the Nonconnah Conservancy to save undeveloped land along Nonconnah Creek in the heart of Memphis and served as its first president. That year she moved to Clark-Lindsey Village, a retirement community in Urbana, Illinois, where she greatly enjoyed dinner conversations with new friends. When she was 94, she and her daughter self-published her illustrated memoir, The Beginnings of Black Radio: My Years at WDIA Memphis.

She will be deeply missed by her family and many friends. She donated her body to science and the family hopes to hold a celebration of her life at a later date. Memorial contributions can be made to the Nonconnah Conservancy through the TennGreen Land Conservancy, or to the Spindel Philosophy Conference at the University of Memphis Foundation.

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