Greener cheated death while enjoying life

During the 1980s WAOK was an independent black-owned enterprise on the far right of the AM band, and it was one of the most listened-to radio stations in metro Atlanta.

Although the station had deep historical resonance since 1954, particularly among African Americans, during the 1970s it had been losing sponsors and quietly slipping into irrelevancy. Its renaissance was sparked in large part by a vice president and general manager named Richard Greener, a white New York Jew with overlarge glasses, a balding head and a fatal medical prognosis that he dodged for years.

Greener knew his appearance startled some listeners who may have silently questioned his chops to run an important Southern soul station. He even got prickly once when a WSB reporter asked him straight out why he wasn’t black.

“I looked at him,” Greener told friend and blogger Louis Proyect several years ago, “and said, ‘did you ask the general manager at [Top 40 station] Z-93 why he wasn’t a teenager?’ “

Greener had worked in radio sales since the mid 1960s before getting hired to run WAOK by Ragan Henry, who later made him a partner in the Henry-led Broadcast Enterprises National, Inc., which eventually owned 30 radio stations.

Greener had a virtuosity for assembling sales teams, devising promotions and recruiting celebrities and artists to deliver in-station promos. He was also, by 1980s standards, something of a dinosaur: a radio GM who actually liked music.

By the end, he owned “thousands of records” and was a human repository for musical data ranging from record labels Motown and Stax to Bob Dylan; from R& B, soul and gospel music to Prince and on through to Bruno Mars. He was friends, business partners and an occasional combatant with James Brown whom he once called “the most eccentric and talented person I’ve ever met.”

“The fact is Richie had an encyclopedic knowledge of almost anything,” said Phil Ross, a longtime New York newspaper and magazine writer, and Greener’s brother-in-law. “He was an expert in political science (Greener’s major at Bard College), and wrote about it for the Huffington Post. He could talk in great detail about the Constitution or why an NFL ref blew a particular call. He could tell you what really happened the first Thanksgiving, and it’s nothing that makes the Pilgrims look good.”

If there was one cruel irony for Greener it was that his heart, passionately overflowing with ideas, had been physically eroding for decades. He first started having chest pains when he was 20, then had the first of five heart attacks at 38, shortly before joining WAOK. He later had two bypass surgeries, laser surgery when it was still experimental, thoracic surgery, major abdominal surgery and finally at age 64, a heart transplant.

Barbi MacKinnon (and her father, Richard Greener with a picture of Greener when he ran the Peachtree Road Race in 1981, the year after he had his first heart attack. (RICH ADDICKS/AJC staff)
Photo: RICH ADDICKS/AJC

“He has survived countless serious threats,” said his best friend Jeff Marlin earlier this week. “This will be the third time I’ve flown to Atlanta for Richie’s funeral.”

Greener’s heart finally gave out Christmas Eve at age 78, dying from multiple organ failure related to genetic heart disease. He was cremated and a memorial service is scheduled for 2 p.m. Jan. 12 at The River Lodge-Martin’s Landing Lake Pavilion, 9205 Martin Road in Roswell.

Richard Greener was born in the Bronx Oct. 14, 1941, his richly textured life beginning almost immediately. His father Abraham was a physics professor at Princeton where he and Richard’s mother were, as Richard told Proyect “card carrying members of the Communist Party. Although everybody in the 1940s was a communist—it was like having a Starbucks card.”

“My mother,” he said during the same interview, “used to tell me Einstein bounced me on his knee, although my mother was a notorious liar.”

Abraham died from the same heart condition at 40, when Richard was eight. His mother remarried psychiatrist Ben Gershwin, who became head of psychiatry at Bellevue and famously analyzed George Peter Metesky, “the Mad Bomber,” who terrorized New York City for 16 years beginning in the 1940s.

Greener attended McBurney High School in New York City, known to his generation as alma mater for both J.D. Salinger and his fictional “The Catcher In the Rye” protagonist Holden Caulfield. In 1963 Greener graduated from Bard, where he began a lifelong friendship with Marlin. He went briefly to law school at the University of Pennsylvania where, according to Marlin, he played a lot of pool before dropping out.

He then got into radio sales in New York City, and by 1965 specialized in black radio, or what was then called Negro Program Radio. Radio stations, he once explained, would hire people like him to solicit advertisers in cities all over the country where they couldn’t afford to send their own sales people.

“Black radio stations served a real function in the community that all other radio stations had by then already lost,” he told Proyect. “These stations were independent, privately owned — not big money makers. A local industry.”

Greener would move on to Chicago where he married his wife Maria in 1968. The couple had four children, moving to Roswell in 1974. In the late 1970s, he caught the eye of Henry who needed someone to run WAOK, which badly needed a reboot.

“Even with his heart condition he brought tremendous energy,” said Yvonne Davenport, hired by Greener as a sales manager. “Richard brought in sponsors, national and local. He expanded the gospel programming from Sunday morning to having a gospel hour every morning. He brought gospel acts to the Civic Center and even took acts on the road. We had live remotes with stores and nightclubs when they had grand openings. We communicated directly to the community by bringing in people like Maynard (Jackson) and Andy (Young) and Julian Bond to use the station as a forum.”

Greener retired from WAOK after his second heart attack in 1988. Later, with it becoming risky to travel or even socialize because of his faltering immune system, he spent more time indoors and in bed. He found he could avoid chest pains at night by sitting straight up at his computer and writing.

Long admiring Greener’s narrative gifts, brother-in-law Ross encouraged him to try fiction and even found him an agent. Greener would publish two mystery thrillers “The Knowland Retribution” (the foundation for Fox TV’s “The Finder” series) and “The Lacey Confession.” He also published a short memoir called “Trapped,” detailing the psychological and physical horrors following his Jan. 2006, heart transplant.

After a 2½-year wait on the transplant list Greener had endured a 14-hour surgery followed by six weeks in a coma. He woke up temporarily a quadriplegic, unable to speak or swallow. Marlin said that for most was his life Greener was “rigorously optimistic,” but the 18 months after surgery often left him both paranoid and suicidal.

He not only recovered fully, his daughter Barbi Gearhart said, he lived an almost unheard of 13 years, 11 months and 19 days after the transplant.

“It’s literally a thrill to hear people say you have had heart trouble,” Greener told Proyect. “That puts it in the past tense. Having spent my whole life with heart trouble, this heart transplant is indescribable. It gives you a new life. I have a new life.”

Though Marlin and Greener rarely saw each other in recent years—Marlin lives on Rockaway Beach in Queens—they spoke three to five times a week by phone, a practice that lasted over a half century.

“When we were about 30, he called me one day from Chicago,” Marlin said. “He told me, ‘they just found out I have a serious heart condition. But don’t worry, they say I’ll live until I’m 50.’”

“Back then, we thought 50 was ancient. The point is, we’ve been expecting [his death] for a long time and he kept beating the toughest of odds. And now that it’s finally happened I’m in denial. I keep thinking Richie must be busy and that’s why he hasn’t called me in awhile.”

Greener is survived Maria, his wife of 53 years, his daughter Jennifer Storey (Kevin) Barbi Gearhart (Kevin), April Greener (Eric), Ben Greener (Lauren), 13 grandchildren and four great grandchildren.

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