Tom Magliozzi who, along with his brother Ray, hosted NPR’s hit comedy show Car Talk for the last 37 years, died Monday morning from complications of Alzheimer’s Disease. “Turns out he wasn’t kidding,” said Ray. “He really couldn’t remember last week’s puzzler.”
Tom Magliozzi was born June 28, 1937, in an East Cambridge, Massachusetts neighborhood filled with other Italian immigrant families. It was there that he and his younger brother Ray picked up the uniquely Boston-Italian style of expressing affection through friendly insults and teasing. That style was at the heart of their banter with each other, and their listeners, on the radio show that made them beloved guests in millions of homes every Saturday morning.
Tom was the first in his family to attend college, enrolling at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned a degree in Chemical Engineering. He applied that degree to research and consulting jobs until, in his late 20s, he was making his tedious 45-minute commute in traffic one morning, had a near miss with another car, and had a revelation that he was wasting his life. Upon arriving at work, he walked into his boss’ office and quit on the spot. He hated putting on a suit and working in the 9-to-5 world.
“He actually hated working in any world,” says his brother Ray. “Later on, when we were doing Car Talk, he would come in late and leave early. We used to warn him that if he left work any earlier, he’d pass himself coming in.”
As Tom once described his own attitude to his listeners, “Don’t be afraid of work. Make work afraid of you. I did such a fabulous job of making work afraid of me that it has avoided me my whole life so far.”
After a period spent happily as a Harvard Square bum, a house painter, an inventor, a successful Ph.D. student, and an auto mechanic, Car Talk became his focus, and Tom spent the rest of his working life doing what he was born to do. “Making friends, philosophizing, thinking out loud, solving people’s problems, and laughing his butt off,” says Ray.
The radio show began as a fluke. Someone from Boston’s local public radio station, WBUR, booked an on-air panel of six car mechanics from the area. Tom was the only one who showed up. “I was a panel of one,” he later said. He was impressive enough to be asked back the following week, when he brought along his fellow mechanic and kid brother, Ray, and Car Talk was born.
Over the 10 years the brothers did the show locally, on a volunteer basis, they slowly injected more and more humor and off-topic diversions into their discussions of carburetors and wheel bearings—following their natural curiosity and pushing the limits for what was then a typically decorous public radio station. “Since we weren’t making any money, we figured we might as well have fun,” said Tom.
The brothers’ unique combination of hilarious, self-deprecating banter and trustworthy advice was picked up by NPR in 1987, and Car Talk soon became the network’s most popular entertainment program ever, reaching audiences of more than four-million people a week. The program has continued to be a top-rated show on NPR stations in syndication, even after the guys stopped recording new shows in 2012.
Along with the solid car advice he dispensed on the radio show with his brother, Tom often took on the additional roles of philosopher king, life advisor, moral scold, and family counselor.
“He’d always ask guys who were in a dispute with their wives or girlfriends one question: ‘Would you rather be right, or would you rather be happy?’” said Ray. “In his own personal life, Tom always chose ‘right,’ hence he leaves behind two wives, and a passel of children and grandchildren.” He is survived by his first wife Julia Magliozzi; second wife, Joanne Magliozzi; his children, Lydia Icke, Alex, and Anna Magliozzi; his brother Ray Magliozzi; his sister Lucille Magliozzi; five grandchildren; and his close companion of recent years, Sylvia Soderberg. He was predeceased by his parents, Elizabeth and Louis Magliozzi.
“He and his brother changed public broadcasting forever,” said Doug Berman, the brothers’ longtime producer. “Before Car Talk, NPR was formal, polite, cautious….even stiff. By being entirely themselves, without pretense, Tom and Ray single-handedly changed that, and showed that real people are far more interesting than canned radio announcers. And every interesting show that has come after them owes them a debt of gratitude.
“I think the body of work he leaves will definitely be held up with great American humorists like the Marx Brothers and Mark Twain,” said Berman. “He was a genius. And he happened to use that genius to make other people feel good and laugh. I suspect, generations from now, people will be listening to Car Talk and feeling good and laughing.
The family asks that in lieu flowers, or rotten fruit, fans of Tom make a donation in his memory to either their local NPR station or the Alzheimer’s Association.
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