Leighton Hepker, whose deep voice was heard over the KMAQ airwaves for 44 years, died Friday, Jan. 11, after a lengthy battle with a rare blood disease.
KMAQ listeners grew accustomed to hearing Hepker’s “Good morning” in his distinctive bass voice on a daily basis as he signed on to the airwaves, and generations of sports fans knew him as “The Voice of the Cardinals.”
A recognizable voice and face throughout Maquoketa and Jackson and Clinton counties, Hepker had said his career in radio had been fulfilling not only professionally, but personally.
“Listeners know me on a first-name basis,” he said during a Sentinel-Press interview in 2017. “And I’ll run into them around town and they’ll speak to me on a first-name basis. I’m sorry I can’t speak to all my listeners on a first-name basis, but that’s how it goes. You appreciate their listenership and support over the years.”
Visitation will be 3 to 7 p.m. Wednesday in “The Bistro” at Carson Celebration of Life Center in Maquoketa. A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Thursday at First Lutheran Church, Maquoketa.
Hepker was born Jan. 4, 1954, and grew up on his family’s farm in Springville, located about 45 miles west of Maquoketa. As a boy, he liked listening to the radio.
Hepker’s career at KMAQ began in 1975 after Dennis Voy hired him fresh out of broadcasting school in California. Voy and Hepker worked together on thousands of radio broadcasts, usually with Hepker driving to and from events they covered.
“Leighton enjoyed radio, was always serious about his job, was a perfectionist,” Voy said. “On a daily basis, he never let me forget something that needed to be done. Maquoketa is known as a one-of-a-kind town, and Leighton was one ... in sports, news, education, and community betterment.”
Most importantly, Hepker and Voy were comrades.
“Leighton and I were not only fellow broadcasters for 44 years, we were good friends,” Voy recalled Monday morning. “I will always have good memories of Leighton, and I’m sure many friends and citizens will, too.”
Hepker became news director at the station, and within a decade he was promoted to station manager, overseeing the advertising and news.
That eventually included reporter Sheri Melvold. Their relationship began as competitors when Melvold was editor at the Maquoketa Sentinel-Press in 1981.
“He loved getting the scoop on the newspaper and was upset when I was able to get ahead of him,” Melvold recalled. “We joined forces when I was hired in 1997 at KMAQ as news director. He still pointed out ‘you write like a newspaper reporter’ when my stories got too long.”
Hepker interviewed everyone: county 4-H members and fairgoers, the young and the old, athletes and coaches, political figures and every-day residents.
The radio man eased the nervous jitters of people unaccustomed to being on the airwaves.
“My first couple years at the fair, the man really pretty much did the interview for me because I was so green at radio speaking and describing things,” Jackson County Fair Manager Lanny Simpson said in 2017.
Due to a rare blood disease, Hepker took on a part-time role at the station in recent years.
He had surgery late last fall and thought he would be able to return to work after the first of the year. However, he encountered complications, including kidney issues, he told listeners in a pre-recorded statement that aired Dec. 28 on KMAQ. He told listeners he was under hospice care.
“It saddens me I didn’t properly say thank you to all my radio family and friends,” Hepker said.
“I’ll miss this great live discussion, both positive and negative — yes, even the negative,” he teased, referring to the station’s Friday morning “Just Talk” show in which the public voiced what was on its mind.
Hepker ventured into politics in the 1980s, being elected to a five-year term as mayor beginning in 1984. The progressive mayor and council built the police side of the Maquoketa Law Center, a move that upgraded the police station and dispatch center.
They also pushed through construction of the current Maquoketa City Hall, moving the police station and city offices out of the old building it was in (the current Old City Hall Gallery).
Hepker lost his re-election bid against Clifton Lamborn in 1989.
He was appointed to fill a vacancy on the Jackson County Regional Health Center Board of Trustees in 2012. He ran for the seat in the 2016 general election and won.
Kevin Burns worked closely with Hepker on the hospital board for six years.
“Leighton was a tireless supporter of Maquoketa and the surrounding area for decades,” Burns said. “He was passionate about providing quality health care in our community, with a strong vision for the future. This was never more evident than when he attended a board meeting during his final days, urging us to continue moving forward on the new building project that he supported with all his heart. His presence will be greatly missed.”
In his recorded speech on KMAQ Dec. 28, Hepker maintained his support for the new hospital on the new site, calling it a “necessity for Maquoketa to have a new hospital.”
Hepker implored listeners to “please keep Maquoketa moving forward.”
He also served as a community volunteer.
Hepker was on the Maquoketa Airport Commission. He served one year as president of the Maquoketa Area Chamber of Commerce in 1981. He was active with the Maquoketa Kiwanis Club and served on the Community Foundation of Jackson County board from 1997 to 2003.
He belonged to the First Lutheran Church and officiated high school basketball games for 25 years. He helped Maquoketa Middle School students hone their interviewing skills by conducting mock interviews every spring.
Hepker earned accolades for his community mindedness. In 2007 he was named a Friend of Agriculture by the Maquoketa Area Chamber of Commerce Ag Committee. He led the 2017 Jackson County Fair Parade as the grand marshal, and months later was among the second class inducted into the Maquoketa High School Hall of Fame.
The radio and sports man also was a proud husband, father and grandfather. He married Cindy Kudart June 23, 1979, in Iowa City. They had two sons and three grandchildren.
Many of Hepker’s listeners praised him as they sent thoughts and prayers to him and his family during the Dec. 28 radio show and the time leading up to his death. They called him a role model, “a terrific man, an inspiration to everyone.”
The Farm Guys, area regulars on KMAQ who discuss agriculture topics, expressed their thanks and offered prayers.
“He’s one of those people who have made an impact on a lot of lives over the years,” they said.
Wendy McCartt, Maquoketa Area Chamber of Commerce director, first met Hepker in August 2018 and said he’s had a “positive impact on community.”
“Here at the Chamber we are going to do our best to keep Maquoketa moving forward for you,” she said.
Hepker left listeners with some final words.
“Enjoy every precious day and never give up.”