The Venerated Voice of The Laurel Festival
It streams across the radio waves at 10 a.m. on the dot, every Tuesday through Friday, when you turn on WNBT 1490 AM and 104.5 FM; the voice of John Antonio greeting his town:
“Coming to you live this morning from Dunham’s in Café 1905 in beautiful, beautiful downtown Wellsboro.”
John’s show, Coffee Break with John, has been on air for over twenty-six years, and even though John just celebrated his ninety-second birthday at the end of May, he’s not planning on stopping any time soon.
John Antonio should be known as “community man.” Throughout most of his life, he has always had a presence in Mansfield, and Wellsboro.
He and his wife Effie married on June 28, 1947, and had a successful life together, owning several businesses until Effie’s passing in 1981.
“We started what is now Benedict’s Bus Service in 1950, and had that through 1972,” John said. “We had a fleet of fourteen school buses at one point.”
John also hosted a radio show with his wife, long before Coffee Break with John was even envisioned, broadcasting from former local country music station WGCR every Tuesday.
“Some shows were done from home, and some shows where done from the theatre,” John said, noting that he and Effie also owned Mansfield’s Twain Theatre for twenty-two years.
Let’s Get Together, a kid’s show, was broadcast from the Twain.
“We would give away records and play games, such as who could whistle first with crackers in their mouth,” John said. “Effie was a mother to all of the kids who came to the theatre.”
He pulled out a picture of Effie from his shirt pocket, a beautiful woman with curly hair. “I always keep her close,” John said, and described how they first met, while they were still just young kids.
“I had an old Ford Coupe that was acting up. I took it to her family’s garage in Nelson Township. She couldn’t have been more than fifteen at the time. She was pumping kerosene oil for a farmer.”
Once the car was fixed, John had run out of excuses to see her. So, like every young man in love, he came up with a plan.
“I would buy a jug of kerosene oil every week from her. It was seventeen cents a gallon. I would drive a mile away, and dump it into the ground, because, well, I didn’t need the oil,” John said with a chuckle.
In 1942, when John was twenty years old, he was called into the Air Force, and served with the B-24 and B-29 squadrons for four years. But he didn’t forget about the one he left behind. Nor did she forget him, and they exchanged letters the entire time he was away.
“My letters were mushy,” John said. “Hers were not. I came to find out why, because her mother was reading the letters.”
Each year during the Laurel Festival, John Antonio interviews the reigning queen before she crowns the new queen for that year.
When Effie passed away after thirty-six years of marriage, John felt that it was too risky to own the businesses without a partner, so he sold the theatre, as well as a restaurant they had owned together in Mansfield. After twenty-five years of living in Mansfield, he moved to Wellsboro.
In the mid-1980s John felt a calling to start a local Christian radio station. In 1984, he formed a board of directors for WLIH 107.1 FM, which went on the air March 15, 1987.
After long hours running the station, from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., John realized that he wasn’t getting any younger.
“One night after we went off-air, I was outside checking the transmitter,” John said. “It was down, and I was just about to touch it when I saw a spark come out of it. I could have gotten electrocuted.”
John resigned from the board and from the station at the end of 1987. Shortly after, WNBT called John and asked if he would do his own show. He was skeptical at first.
“I was all alone without Effie. We would always broadcast shows together before,” he said. But he agreed to do a trial run of shows on WNBT for six months.
“The first few weeks were tough because she wasn’t there, but I got used to it,” John said.
On Coffee Break with John, John starts the show by telling listeners the temperature, the movies playing at the Arcadia Theatre, and then, if he has a guest, he will talk to them for a few minutes.
“Wednesday guests are booked through the end of this year,” John said. “Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays are open for guests. When I don’t get a guest, I read community events.”
In the beginning stages of the show, he used to broadcast from WNBT’s studio.
“I had guests come in, but they would see the lights and the meters, and would get nervous,” John said. “So I asked Dunham’s if I could come here, and for the last twenty-six years the two back corner tables have been mine.”
His guests range widely, from Pennsylvania State Representative Matt Baker, to members of the Tioga County Human Services but the one guest that has always been a constant is the reigning Laurel Festival queen.
The Friday before the new queen is announced, John always interviews the reigning queen on his radio show.
Listeners, who have grown used to John’s voice on the radio, have also come to recognize John helping out during the Pennsylvania State Laurel Festival every June in Wellsboro.
“I used to be the master of ceremonies for the Junior Laurel Queens for seven years,” John said. “It was sponsored by the 4-H Club. One year I had 137 kids up to six-years-old. They don’t do that anymore.”
He has also announced the queen candidates at the courthouse in the past, and he is currently the broadcaster and the announcer during the Laurel Festival parade.
“My daughter Linda has been helping me announce the queens during the parade,” John said. “They come by on the float, and for me, well, they are pretty girls and that is it. My daughter can say that they are wearing chiffon gowns. I don’t even know what chiffon is.”
About the Laurel Festival, John said, “There is always a lot of action. The Chamber of Commerce works hard all year long for the one week, and I really enjoy what I’m doing to help.”
From being President of the Elkland Lions Club, to President of the Site Council of the Wellsboro Senior Center, John said, “I’ve always been a worker. I’ve always enjoyed everything I do.”
When asked if he plans on retiring from his work on the radio or with the Laurel Festival, he said point blank, and with a smile, “I’ll stop when I die. Until then, it makes me get up in the morning.”