In most cities and towns, there are last names that stick out. Maybe the family has lived there for generations. Perhaps they’re notorious. Or maybe they own a well-known business. For writer Sandy Reitman of Milwaukee, her semi-famous last name sticks out mostly thanks to her beloved uncle.
As a kid, I woke up to the sound of my uncle’s voice on my little white FM radio alarm clock every morning before school…along with half of the city of Milwaukee.
My uncle, Bob, was the Reitman half of “Reitman & Mueller in the Morning” on 94.5 WKTI playing music of the 80s, 90s, and today for many years. He was a big voice with a unique last name in a small city. But the last name didn’t start its recognition there.
My grandfather, Robert Reitman, senior was an FBI agent and served as commissioner of the Whitefish Bay police and fire department, so his name was known about town. His namesake son, Bob the radio host, was the total anti-culture of his father, becoming somewhat of a civil rights movement activist and the city’s original hipster. His career started on public radio, then onto underground radio, to morning radio, and now full circle back to public radio. His listeners have loyally followed him along the way, also remembering the Reitman last name.
The first time I remember learning that it was unusual to have your uncle on the radio was when my elementary school music teacher repeated a fact about me that she had learned on the radio that morning. Maybe it was my birthday or something, I can’t remember. But I was beyond confused and embarrassed that this teacher, and now my entire class, could learn things about me on the radio! After school I talked to my parents about how it all works and I soon became much more interested in the fame that came with my name than whatever was bothering me earlier.
My big brother, Kevin, was an active Boy Scout around that time and took his whole troop with him to the WKTI radio studio for some kind of patch earning activity — I of course tagged along with all the boys. I remember being in the sound production room while the troop was in the studio, amazed to see how radio works behind the scenes. This was my first backstage moment of my life.
My parents were used to the “Are you related to Bob Reitman?” question as they grew up hearing it — my dad had the little brother complex of it all but also made his own name for himself. As I got older, my friends’ parents started to ask me more about my uncle and “what’s he really like?” and I would engage their questions. He had some big moments of national fame (like pranks telling listeners they were dropping the coveted 1980s Cabbage Patch Dolls from an airplane over a Milwaukee stadium), but around town he was just a likeable guy. When I was old enough to make purchases with a debit card, cashiers would ask me “Are you related to Bob Reitman?” And, I would oblige this question from strangers because I was proud to be his niece.
I ran off to New York City for 10 years only to get a couple “Are you related to Ivan or Jason Reitman?” questions — a famous Hollywood directorial family of which I am not related (but occasionally would lie saying I was just to get the reaction). When I moved back to Milwaukee in my early 30s, I noticed that the “Reitman” question came up less and less. I started to miss being asked it, actually.
Recently, this whole saga came full circle when someone asked my dad “Are you Bob Reitman’s son?” That was all the validation my dad needed after years of being the disc jockey’s little brother. Age was now in his favor and people now know Bill’s name for Bill’s work all over town.
I recently reconnected with my elementary school art teacher, also a Milwaukee native who listened to my uncle her whole life. She told me a story where she was talking about Reitman on the radio and whomever she was speaking to said, “Oh, like Sandy Reitman?” Full stop. Full circle. I had officially moved from BTS to VIP status.
So, what’s in a semi-well known German-Jewish last name in a big small city like Milwaukee? For me, it’s a sense of pride and an even bigger sense of comfort — we Reitmans are at home when in Milwaukee.
SONGS: “Doing The Wrong Thing” by Kaki King
“It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) by Charlie Ballantine