MT. VERNON — Businessman and community leader Russ Withers passed away Friday night at the home of his daughter after a long illness.
“Mt. Vernon and this area have lost a great man,” said Sam Mateer, longtime friend and business associate. “Russ had a beautiful smile, a great sense of humor and a sharp wit. He was bright, logical and systematic in his thinking. He was passionately interested in making Mt. Vernon and Jefferson County a better place to live by helping to create jobs.”
Withers is best known locally as the founder and owner of Withers Broadcasting companies, including WMIX AM-FM of Mt. Vernon. According to information from the National Association of Broadcasters, at the time of his death he owned six television stations and 30 radio stations in seven states.
Withers began his career in broadcasting as an announcer/salesman at KGMO in his hometown of Cape Girardeau, Mo. In 1961, Withers joined LIN Broadcasting in Nashville as a disc jockey, moving up the ranks to sales and became vice president in 1963. He founded the cable TV division of the company and was president of Schertle Galleries, a subsidiary of LIN, and franchised 100 art galleries, according to information from the NAB.
He was chairman and CEO of Withers Beverage Corporation of Mobile, Ala., vice president and board member of Turneffe Island Lodge Ltd., a fishing lodge in Belize and chairman and CEO of Productos de Atlanticos, S.A., Costa Rica, a lobster processing company. He founded Withers Broadcasting Companies in 1972.
Withers was considered a pioneer of the broadcasting industry, serving as chairman of the Mutual Broadcasting affiliate board for 16 years; and as a board member for the NAB, Illinois Broadcasters Association, the NAB Political Action Committee and the Associated Press Broadcast Board.
Withers served the Mt. Vernon and Jefferson County community throughout his life.
“Russ served on the airport board and had a major influence on economic development in the city of Mt. Vernon,” said Mt. Vernon Mayor Mary Jane Chesley. “During his service, there was growth in both areas. He chose Mt. Vernon as his home. That says quite a bit. He could have lived anywhere. He will be missed a great deal.”
Withers served on the Mt. Vernon Airport Authority Board of Commissioners from 1987 to 1997, serving as chairman for many of those years.
“Under Russ’ leadership, Mt. Vernon Outland Airport was named the State of Illinois Commercial Airport of the Year in 1992 and 1994,” said Chris Collins, airport manager. “That was no small feat considering Mt. Vernon was up against Chicago O’Hare and Chicago Midway. ... Russ’ board opened the lakefront development area, securing ARDL. ... Many expansion projects were completed during Russ’ tenure at the airport including Hangar A-1100 NREC, and the taxiway extending south of the Kozaria Terminal. On the state level, Russ was active in the Illinois Public Airport Association, serving as chairman and even hosting the State IPAA Conference in Mt. Vernon. Russ continued to be engaged in aviation until his passing. He loved his Mt. Vernon Outland Airport.”
Withers also served as chairman of the Tourism Bureau and was instrumental in obtaining the property and the architect for the Municipal Building West on Potomac Boulevard. For several years, he served on the economic development commission, said former mayor and friend, Kenneth Martin.
“Russ did a tremendous job for Mt. Vernon and Jefferson County,” Martin said. “Without him, a lot of things wouldn’t have happened in Mt. Vernon. ... He knew a lot of people in a lot of parts of the United States. He could pick up a phone, call and talk to them.”
“He was a key player in creating jobs with General Tire and Walgreens Distribution,” Mateer said. “He always impressed people he dealt with in economic development. He could converse with anyone on any topic. ... He really wanted to create jobs here.”
Funeral services for Withers will be held 10 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014, at Hughey Funeral Home.