ALAMEDA -- When John Lennon was fatally shot outside his New York City apartment, Ed Cavagnaro remembers how everything stopped for a second as the news sunk in.
But what sticks out in his mind most is not necessarily where he was when it happened, but who was delivering the news at the time -- it was KCBS-740 AM anchor Al Hart.
"As we listened to Al Hart tell that story, we heard his voice and all of the emotions we were feeling -- the shock, the grief and the overwhelming sadness," said Cavagnaro, a retired KCBS news director, who was one of nearly 75 people who gathered Saturday in Alameda for a joint Broadcast Legends and California Historical Radio Society tribute to Hart at Historic Alameda High School's Kofman Auditorium.
"I remember thinking later that Al Hart had done more than just break the bad news -- the way he told the story and brought us together, tens of thousands of us, on the radio as a community to share the pain. You see, Al had this incredible gift -- he could communicate the emotional presence of a story not just through words but through his voice."
It's exactly how many of those close to him would like people to remember him. Hart died in January at age 88 after battling corticobasal degeneration, a rare, neurological disease that slowly robbed him of his mobility and unique, distinctive voice that made him easily discernible in a crowd.
Some of those who knew Hart best, including radio industry veterans and family members, remembered his virtuous, buoyant personality; tactful, yet authoritative reporting style; and amiable nature -- all qualities that, they said, led people to gravitate to him over the years.
"He was the definition of a nice guy," said former Alameda County Supervisor Alice Lai-Bitker, who remembered Hart offering to sing at one of her political fundraisers. "He would just do little nice things constantly because it was just right."
Her husband, KCBS morning-drive sports anchor Steve Bitker, said Hart was always "supportive, friendly and warm."
"He's one of the greatest men that I've ever met," Bitker said. "He just had all of the qualities you admire in people and maybe all of the qualities that we wished we had more of ourselves 'cause Al always had it.
And then there was, of course, his unmistakable voice and reporting style that listeners had come to recognize on most mornings.
"Al had a beautiful, deep, baritone and a very soothing, calming voice," Bitker said. "He never editorialized on the air -- you could listen to Al for 30 years and never know what his politics were. I think Al's voice to his hundreds of thousands of listeners every morning was a very calm, soothing voice to wake up to, yet still very authoritative, so when Al delivered the news, you could believe what you heard."
KCBS morning anchor Stan Bunger recalled that Hart had a sanguine way of handling tough situations with forbearance, poise and sometimes, with a good laugh, whether it was at work or out of the office.
"It wasn't always easy at the radio station for Al," Bunger said. "Al was a remarkable co-worker who was often moved around and shoved around -- he didn't always get to do exactly what he wanted to do -- but at the end of the day, you were a member of this community."