June 20, 2010

Tom Leahy Jr., Kansas television's Major Astro, dies at 87

From Wichita to Great Bend, Garden City to Oberlin, almost any Baby Boomer who grew up in Kansas worshipped the airwaves that beamed Major Astro.

From Wichita to Great Bend, Garden City to Oberlin, almost any Baby Boomer who grew up in Kansas worshipped the airwaves that beamed Major Astro.

Each afternoon, thousands of children rushed home from school and turned on black-and-white television sets to watch as Major Astro, an astronaut in a shimmery silver jumpsuit with a deep baritone voice who wished them: "Happy Orbits, boys and girls ... Everything will be A-Okay and all systems will be go."

Tom Leahy Jr., best known to generations of Kansas children as either Major Astro or the weekend movie comic horror host with a mute sidekick in the show "The Host and Rodney," died Friday from complications of open heart surgery.

He was 87.

A Rosary is scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesdayand a funeral Mass for 10 a.m. Wednesday, both at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church, 861 North Socora.

Mr. Leahy was born Sept. 13, 1922, in Pawhuska, Okla.

He moved in 1940 to Wichita, where he attended the University of Wichita, now Wichita State University.

During World War II, he served in the U.S. Army and was stationed in the Philippines.

Following the war, he returned to Wichita and began a 60-year career at local radio and television stations.

In the late 1940s, Mr. Leahy became a booth announcer at KAKE. It was there that he created the show "The Host and Rodney" to introduce movies.

KAKE anchor Larry Hatteberg was going to high school in Winfield when he first saw Mr. Leahy on "The Host and Rodney."

"I remember sitting at home and loving the show," Hatteberg said. "I thought it was the greatest thing. It wasn't that they were so scary, he was just so interesting to watch. He would ad-lib whatever came to his mind."

In the early 1960s when the nation's attention was focused on outer space and astronauts, Mr. Leahy created Major Astro.

The afternoon show first ran from 1962 to 1973 on KARD, now KSN. Mr. Leahy reprised the character for a short time in 1985 for KSAS.

In 1985, Mr. Leahy told then-Wichita Eagle film and movie critic Bob Curtright that he created the Major as a father figure.

During the 11 years the show ran on Channel 3, Mr. Leahy "moved" Major Astro from a space station orbiting Earth to a moon base. Then, he took the major to Venus and finally to a base on Mars.

On Sunday, Curtright called Leahy a local icon.

"Every kid from a certain generation knows him," Curtright said.

Fans were often card-carrying members of the Major Astro Club. Members would receive a space newsletter. One fan reportedly cut a hole in the family's carpet to hide and insure her card's safety, said Mr. Leahy's wife, Wilma.

In 1986 when the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, some of the Major's youngest fans worried he was on it.

This weekend, as word spread of Leahy's death, his fans took to the internet to wish him their thoughts and prayers.

"RIP, Major Astro!" wrote Linda Baughman the guestbook created in Mr. Leahy's memory on

In an interview with The Eagle on Sunday, Baughman said she remembered as a child running home after school each day to watch Major Astro episodes.

"He was always so kind and positive," Baughman said.

Mr. Leahy is preceded in death by first wife, Billye Leahy, son; Tommy B. Leahy and parents; Thomas B. and Marcelle Leahy. Survivors include wife Wilma, children Lisa (David) Navarro of Wichita, Rodney (Wendy) Mumaw of Mansfield, Texas, Ryan Edward Leahy of Wichita; and five grandchildren.

Memorials have been established with Bishop Carroll Catholic High School, 8101 W. Central, Wichita, KS 67212, and The Lord's Diner, 520 N. Broadway, Wichita, KS 67214.

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