This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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SAY IT ISN'T SNOW
(a factual review of Tony Wons)
by Joyce Wans, © 2004
(From Radio Recall, February 2004)
EDITOR’S NOTE: Most standard OTR reference books, including John Dunning’s recent encyclopedia, On the Air, state that radio personality Tony Wons was born “Anthony Snow.” In this article, that cherished myth is replaced with the historical facts.
There are some names I regularly check on the Internet; one is my first cousin twice removed, Tony Wons. I recently ordered a back copy of the February 1999 edition of Radio Recall when I learned that it included an article about Tony Wons, written by Elizabeth McLeod. I was surprised to see that the article perpetuates the story that Tony's “real” surname is Snow. There is even a specific time and reason for the name change presented in the article.
For those of you who don't remember, it states Tony was “a bit self-conscious about his radio debut” so “he performed under the name of ‘Tony Wons’ (‘Snow’ spelled backwards).” I agree that Snow is a lovely name and undoubtedly much easier for people to spell correctly the first time, every time, than Wons. Nevertheless, Wons is the name Tony was born with, lived with, and died with.
There are variations in his given names in different records but his surname is never in question. His father was born in the old country, an area that is currently the northwestern area of Poland but has been under Polish, German, and Prussian rule. The family name in Polish is Was, with a little hook under the “a,”, a vowel we don't have in English, that is pronounced “ahn.” In German the family name is spelled Wons, which results in about the same pronunciation but uses letters that both German- and English-speakers can deal with. My great-grandfather Joseph Wons, Tony's uncle, changed the spelling to Wans with an “a” for our branch of the family when he moved away from Wisconsin, where there were plenty of Polish- and German-speakers who could pronounce the name, to Minnesota, where my guess is that he got tired of correcting people and just accepted what I think of as the English spelling.
Tony was born on Saturday, December 26, 1891, in Menasha, Winnebago County, Wisconsin, to John and Theodosia (Koslowski) Wons. Official birth records were not maintained until 1906 so I don't have a birth certificate for him but his daughter Theodosia confirmed the date for me. Let's take a look at some records where his legal name would be used to see if there is any “Snow accumulation” on the paper.
Tony is listed as John Wons’ son in the 1900 Census taken on Friday, June 8,1900 in Menasha, Wisconsin. His given name is shown as Antone and is a six-year-old, single, white male born during November 1893 in Wisconsin. Both his parents were born in Poland. He can read and write some language and can speak English. His occupation is being at school. He is listed with his parents and five siblings. [Yes, eagle-eyed reader, the birth details don't match. It is not uncommon for census “facts” to be a little weak. The census taker got his information where he could, including neighbors’ guesses at details if no one answered the door.]
His father died in 1904. Court records regarding his estate include a certified copy of the Letter of Guardianship for Minor for Szczepau A. Wons, commonly known as Anthony Wons, and his siblings. The Polish “Szczepau” is Stephen in English. The “A” is for Anton. So it appears that his birth name in the language of his parents was Szczepau Anton (Stephen Anthony) which he used in reverse for all purposes I have discovered in English.
The 1910 census taken on Monday, April 25, 1910 in Kenosha, Wisconsin, lists Tony as Theodosia Wons’ son. His given name is shown as Anthony. He is described as an 18-year-old, single white male who was born in Wisconsin. His parents were born in Germany. He can speak English. His occupation is laborer in an automobile factory where he works for wages. He was not unemployed during the census year. He can read and write. He is listed with his mother and three sisters. [Now, eagle-eyed reader, you have noted that he is the correct age but his parents’ birth place appears to have moved, but it is actually the same old place under new management.]
He married Ruby May Hillin 1918 in Chicago. I haven't been able to confirm this in legal records. The on-line index of Illinois marriages stops at 1895 for Cook County. I have a research trip planned for fall 2004 and may have more definitive news on this point after that trip.
In the 1920 Census in Chicago, taken on Saturday, January 3, 1920, Tony Wons and his wife Ruby are listed as lodgers in Amy M. Keeley's home at 5544 South Park Avenue. He is described as a 35-year-old, married, white male who was born in Wisconsin. Both his parents were born in Wisconsin. He can read and write. He is a teacher in the commerce industry. Ruby is described as a 29-year-old, married, white female born in Wisconsin and both her parents were born in Wisconsin. She can read and write. Her occupation is stenographer at a steamboat office. [So, Eagle-eye, now Tony is too old and everyone is born in Wisconsin. I'm betting his landlady answered the door when the census taker knocked and did the best she could.]
After he began his career in radio, the only documents I have discovered that would absolutely require his legal name are deeds. I don't know if dry deeds are sufficient to change the minds of people who believe the more romantic Snow legend, but here goes:
He bought property from his mother on Monday, July 23, 1923 in Vilas County, Wisconsin. The parties to this Quit Claim Deed are described as “Theodozia Wons of Kenosha, Wisconsin” and “Anthony Wons of the same place.” In December 1929, in what appears to be acts of financial planning, Tony and Ruby bought and sold property to and from each other to add survivorship rights. “Anthony Wons and Ruby Hill Wons of Cincinnati, Ohio” exchanged properties for $1 and other valuable consideration. The land is on Pike Lake in Northern Wisconsin where they retired.
Tony wrote an article for Stand-By on Saturday, published on April 20, 1935. It is entitled “Tony Reminisces” and does not mention the name Snow. You may be interested in his version of his origin. Here’s some excerpts:
“It was 10 years ago. There were no chain programs when I wandered into WLS with a book of Shakespeare under my arm.
“I would like to broadcast,” I said to the program manager, Edgar Bill. “I can read Shakespeare.”
“Well, how much time do you want to do Shakespeare on the radio?” he asked.
“Give me an hour and I’ll be satisfied, and so will you when I get through.” I told him confidently.
I’ll give you 45 minutes. See what you can do in that time.”
So the program was arranged. The time came, and I found myself standing before a microphone for the first time in my life, with Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice and an organist to play background music. Trembling, I stood, knowing that upon this one program depended my success or failure in radio.
(When the show was over) an assistant came rushing in, saying: “Hey, the big boss wants to talk to you on the phone.”
I went to the phone (and heard): “That was great. Can you come in once a week with other plays by Shakespeare?”
Since those days at WLS I have spent much time in radio stations over the country, but WLS is the home where I had my birth. And among the programs nearest to my heart was The Little Brown Church of the Air, (where I was the preacher) for several years.
I have wandered far from the place of my radio beginning, and WLS has overgrown its small quarters in a hotel for more modern studios. (But) it is my ambition some day just once more to sit at the little table we used as a pulpit and conduct a service for The Little Brown Church of the Air.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Joyce Wans is a self-appointed family historian who takes her job seriously. Whether from her computer at home, or on the road in her RV, she enjoys tracking down tidbits of information about every member of her extended family. Tony Wons, her only famous relative, is one of her favorite research subjects. She would appreciate any information readers may wish to share. especially anyone who knows anything about The Little Brown Church of the Air mentioned above. Please write to Joyce Wans, 121 Monument Hill Trail, Georgetown TX 78633, or e-mail her at: Joyce@RonAddisonImages.com.