It’s been almost five years since that day my phone rang and the gravelly voice on the other end said, “Hi, Bill. This is Dave Astor calling.”

I recognized the name — long after his final “For Teenagers Only” show aired on WCSH in 1971, Astor remained a legend throughout a community that for 15 years considered his Saturday afternoon song-and-dance extravaganzas must-see local TV.

But I’d never met the man. So when he asked if we might get together for coffee — “I’ve got something I want to show you,” he said — I jumped at the chance.

Astor, then 87, hadn’t summoned me to talk about his years on local television — although we’d certainly get to that.

Rather, he wanted to talk about the World War II Battle of Okinawa, in which he fought as a young Marine.

The 62nd anniversary of the battle’s end was fast approaching and, knowing that I’d just returned from a visit with Maine soldiers serving in Iraq, Astor handpicked me as the guy to remind people of another war, another era, a simpler time.

“You’ll be perfect,” he said, ever the director, as he pushed aside his paper coffee cup to make room for his box of war memorabilia. “People need to remember what these kids did over there.”

Much to my pleasant surprise, Astor threw me a curveball that day.

Somewhere between the yellowed news clips tallying the 12,000 Americans lost on Okinawa and former Capt. Astor’s own memory of the young Marine who died in his arms, the talk turned to Iraq and a new crop of Americans, many still in their teens, waking up every morning to find themselves at death’s door.

“I’ve spent a lot of time thinking to myself about what’s going on in the world,” Astor confided. But with the Iraq war entering its fifth year, he said, “my patience is gone.”

Meaning?

“I think we should just declare victory and get out of there.”

And how might he define victory?

“Easy,” Astor replied. “Just get the hell out of there.”

It would take another get-together for coffee and an occasional visit to OceanView in Falmouth, where he spent his final years, to fully understand what drove Astor to speak so forcefully and so publicly against a war that at long last is ending much as he predicted it would.

Dave Astor cared deeply about young people. Whether they wore bobby socks and varsity sweaters or desert camouflage and body armor, it didn’t matter.

“They’re our future!” Astor exclaimed when I once asked him why. “How can we not care about them?”

I thought about that passion as Astor’s friends and loved ones gathered Tuesday morning for his funeral at Temple Beth El in Portland.

As all of Maine knows by now, he died Saturday of a heart attack just after sitting down with his cousin to a corned beef sandwich. (His “soul food,” noted Rabbi Carolyn Braun with a smile.)

Astor’s story — known to anyone who spent more than five minutes with him — harkens back to a time when manners mattered, kids respected their elders and real entertainment was a gem to be polished, not a check-this-out impulse that’s instantaneously and often mindlessly uploaded to Facebook or YouTube.

Dave Astor came home from World War II and sold cars for a living. Then one Christmas, he bailed out a friend who needed a Santa Claus for a local TV variety show and, as they say, a star was born.

First at WGAN and later at WCSH, “For Teenagers Only” highlighted not only its cast of musically gifted regulars, but also a delegation of the best and the brightest from a seemingly endless rotation of Maine high schools — or so Astor claimed.

“He said nobody was ever allowed on the show unless they were on the honor roll,” said the renowned Maine music man Tony Boffa in his eulogy Tuesday. “I have personal knowledge of a violation of that standard.”

Boffa, one of “Dave’s kids” throughout high school, recalled how “as an insecure, pimply faced, skinny kid, I remember feeling more than a bit unnoticed” during his freshman year at Cheverus High School in 1964.

“Dave Astor noticed me,” said Boffa, now the leader of the ever-popular Tony Boffa Band. “And somehow he recognized some potential.”

Boffa remembered “like it was yesterday” those Saturday afternoons when his mother would kiss him and send him on his way to the live performance. She’d always say, ‘Have fun. We’ll be watching,’” he recalled.

Pausing, he added, “Everybody was watching.”

Lost in his mental rehearsal, Boffa would amble across Deering Oaks and up High Street to the television studio in downtown Portland, reminding himself the whole way, “If Dave thinks I can do it, then I must be able to.”

Dave, lo and behold, was right.

“At 61 years old, I can say that there’s a piece of Dave Astor in my every performance,” Boffa told the congregation. “Every time I put on a tuxedo and check the crease in my pants. Every time I conquer nervousness. Every time I rehearse a tune and tirelessly insist on perfection, it can be traced back to lessons I learned from Dave Astor.”

Multiply Boffa by hundreds and you begin to appreciate the impact Astor had on not only a generation of young Mainers, but on an entire state.

“Dave Astor was a genuine human being,” said former Maine U.S. Rep. Tom Allen, now president and CEO of the American Association of Publishers, in an interview from Washington, D.C.

Allen played football for Deering High School in the early 1960s — hence he appeared on Astor’s show with players from Deering and Portland High School on the Saturdays before their annual Thanksgiving Day gridiron classics.

Astor, who would later help Allen in many a political campaign, claimed he once tapped the young Deering co-captain on the shoulder and predicted he’d someday end up on Capitol Hill.

A career in politics, Allen said, was the last thing on his mind back in those days. Still, something about Astor set him apart from the typical grown-up.

“When he talked to you on the show, he was always encouraging, always warm,” Allen said. “And being on television was very cool if you were a young person. Very cool.”

Near the end of Tuesday’s service, during which she fondly recalled her own lunches with Astor, Rabbi Braun read a poem entitled “What is Life?”

Advises one line, “Life is a song. Sing it.”

Dave Astor, who knew the future when he saw it, did that one better.

He turned his stage over to the kids.

 

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at [email protected]