Roger Awsumb was just 26 years old when he first rolled into the lives of Twin Cities kids. Today, decades later, he's still remembered as a friend. From 1954 until 1972 he entertained youngsters with cartoons, silly comedy bits, songs, live commercials, birthday greetings, and banter with sidekicks.
For every child with a TV tray and a sandwich, lunch with Casey was the original must see TV. It was one of the first programs to air on channel 11, and the most fondly remembered to this day.
"I was hired as a floor man and as an announcer and a director, but I always wanted to be on TV. So I just sold them on the idea of giving it a try," Awsumb recalled in a 2002 interview.
His first sidekick was Joe the Cook, played by Chris Weddes. But it was Awsumb's partnership with the late Lynn Dwyer, playing Roundhouse Rodney, that pushed the creative envelope for Twin Cities TV.
With no guidelines and no budget, they'd pitch ideas then scrounge for props around the old channel 11 studios at the Calhoun Beach Hotel.
It's been said, Roger Awsumb was born to be Casey Jones, but it's equally true he grew into the role during his childhood in St. Paul at the height of the great depression.
Roger's son Bob Awsumb said, "Because the times were difficult when he was growing up, they had to make their own fun, and I think that's part of what made him who he was."
Before Roger became Casey Jones, he took on the role of G.I. Joe, serving his country in Japan after World War II.
By 1947, Roger was back in St. Paul, studying speech and communications at Macalester College and beginning his broadcasting career at the campus radio station WBOM. This is where he counted Walter Mondale and future kid's TV host John Gallos — the man millions knew as Clancy the Cop — among his closest friends.
Walter Mondale once said, "I think he was ready before television was ready."
People still talk about the episode where Casey and Roundhouse Rodney turned the world upside down. It was a bit of camera magic that nobody else had tried.
"Those were the experimental days of television, there were no books, there were no courses. You just did it." Awsumb said.
At their peak, Casey and Roundhouse were on the air three hours a day. The top rated "Lunch with Casey" plus a morning show called "Wake Up with Casey and Roundhouse," and another hour after school.
One of Casey's most famous skits had him dressed in a red wool union suit, scratching and singing, "Valkin in My Vinter Underwear" to the tune of "Winter Wonderland." The skit was first performed in November of 1967.
The next week, Casey read on the air, a scathing letter from a woman who was offended by the routine. He followed with an apology, but a week later received more than a thousand letters of support.
"He had this kindness, and this appeal, this warmth and the kids bought it up like that," says Allan Lotsberg who played Willie Ketchem on WCCO's "Clancy the Cop."
In the end, it was a ban on commercials by kid's TV hosts that derailed Casey after 18 years on the air.
"I'm really kind of a corny guy and I care about kids," a defeated Awsumb told the Minneapolis Tribune. "I really tried to do a good job and I feel I let the kids down."
Awsumb was a survivor.
"I was really lost there for a while and didn't know what I wanted to do," Awsumb recalled.
He went into and out of the restaurant business and even attempted a comeback on Channel 29.
Then, in 1986, he settled back into radio on KLKS, in Breezy Point Minnesota. He left the Twin Cities for a cabin he built himself on a lake near Brainerd.
Awsumb was later inducted into the Minnesota Broadcasting Hall of Fame.
That same season he appeared as Casey at the Minnesota State Fair — still drawing fans by the hundreds and like a good engineer, he was still waving.
He summed up his life for reporter Boyd Hupert.
"I've made a lot of good friends, I've had a very interesting life, and I've loved my work all my life so I'm a lucky man."
Roger had something that made children feel secure and loved. It was something Casey couldn't fake.
He suffered a stroke in February of 2002. In July that same year, Roger Awsumb died of a heart attack while undergoing treatment for cancer of the esophagus. He'd celebrated his 74th birthday five days earlier. One of his sons says he had suffered seven heart attacks during his lifetime.