As a professional accordion player in 1950s Tennessee, Jim Soyk could have hit the big time after he hooked up with a roadshow that featured future superstars Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins.
But he swerved away from life in the fast lane to focus on family life and ran right into a conservative, rural lifestyle in Nez Perce County that suited him far better. He became a colorful local broadcaster and businessman, won two terms on the county commission and served as a pastor in retirement.
Soyk died on June 11 at age 86, and his family paid tribute to that legacy by including his creed in his obituary: “A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches.” (Proverbs 22:1)
He was born into poverty in rural Wisconsin in 1932. At the age of 3, his family moved to Alaska as part of a government program to settle the territory. But they moved back to Wisconsin in 1937 after homesteading on the forbidding landscape proved too rough, according to his family.
But Soyk proved to be a go-getter from an early age, and his multitude of odd jobs during childhood helped keep his impoverished family afloat. In his obituary, his family wrote that his intelligence led him to radio, and he built his first set as teen. He later graduated from the U.S. Navy’s aviation electronics school, and met his first wife, Opal Griggs, while stationed near Memphis, Tenn.
He fully entered the world of broadcasting after leaving the Navy in 1953, joining the staff of a Memphis television station. After that, he worked in radio and played his accordion with the Tennessee Volunteers, a local band that toured with Poor Richard’s Road Show along with the likes of Cash and Perkins.
But life on the road didn’t match up with Soyk’s moral convictions.
“Jim soon realized the dangers to a stable family life that traveling from gig to gig presented,” his obituary said.
He landed at Lewiston’s KLEW-TV in 1957 after a some other radio jobs, working first in sales and then as station manager. Soyk made one of the most important decisions in his life, however, when he returned to radio to work at KRLC as a night disc jockey.
Steve MacKelvie, now of Bend, Ore., knew Soyk well as his father Pat MacKelvie’s on-air partner. And Soyk’s infectious grin was something he remembered well.
“Jim didn’t ever have a serious moment,” said MacKelvie, a 64-year-old airport advertising consultant. “You could be having a tough day and just look at Jim and his smile would make you laugh. He had one of those super-creative, catching smiles that turned the proverbial frown upside down for anyone he came in contact with.”
Soyk helped found a popular top-40 show called “Night Train” that won a loyal following. MacKelvie said the show was a major factor in the introduction of rock music to the area in the late ’50s.
“Jim was the forerunner of personality radio for teenage rock ’n’ roll in the (Lewiston-Clarkston) Valley and, I think, in the Pacific Northwest,” he said. “He was well-known for his ability to understand music because he played music.”
Soyk briefly moved his family to Arkansas for another job opportunity, but came back to Lewiston to sell insurance for a bit until radio called again.
This time, he made an even more indelible mark on his adopted hometown with a wacky morning show called “Rooster Reveille” that featured Soyk hamming it up as various characters like Auntie Maude. His popularity made him a fixture in the community, and he was a frequent emcee and speaker at local events.
MacKelvie said Soyk borrowed the framework for the bit from Jonathan Winters’ Maude Frickert character, and even dressed up for the part when he and Pat MacKelvie would do remote broadcasts from businesses around town.
“Dad was the straight guy and Jim was the comic,” he said. “And they never rehearsed. They would totally do things off the cuff. Dad would ask him a crazy question, like what did he think of whitewall tires, and Auntie Maude would go off on her schtick.”
Soyk and Opal bought an Arrow Junction homestead in 1963, and it became the family’s home base for decades. His political career got off to a rocky start a year later when he ran for the Legislature for the first time. That 1964 attempt ended in defeat, and he withdrew from his second run two years later.
He continued operating a furniture store and an advertising agency over the intervening years until he was thrust into his first Nez Perce County Commission race in 1992 when the Republican nominee dropped out. The party’s central committee chose Soyk as the replacement to run against longtime Democratic legislator and Culdesac farmer Larry Vincent.
Soyk lost that race to the veteran campaigner but gave it another go in 1994, again as a replacement for a Republican candidate who withdrew. He campaigned on reversing the trend of steady property tax increases and beat Vincent by fewer than 300 votes.
Opal also died in the spring of that year. But Soyk married Juanita Weibert in December, “gaining a beloved new stepfamily,” according to his obituary.
His 1994 election victory gave the commission its first Republican majority in years. He held onto his seat by a wide margin four years later, but declined to seek reelection in 2000 at the end of a two-year term. Soyk’s seat went to Vincent, his old opponent.
Vincent beat a newcomer to politics that year, Douglas Zenner. But Zenner bounced back to win in 2004, and still serves on the county commission.
Soyk sold a prized collection of Nez Perce memorabilia to buy the Leland Pioneer Community Church a couple of years after he left the commission in an attempt to preserve the landmark from the 1930s. He first learned about the church when he was a commissioner, and decided to buy it when he had an epiphany upon walking inside.
“I was stunned,” he told the Tribune in a 2007 story about the stained glass windows in his church and others in the area. “It was like a weird experience standing here. Aren’t they beautiful? They’re just spectacular.”
A celebration of Soyk’s life is planned for 10 a.m. Saturday at House of Faith, 2502 16th Ave. in Lewiston. Burial will immediately follow at the Stevens Cemetery at Arrow Junction.
Mills may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 848-2266.