A Grand Marshal’s Path to Paradise

by Loretta Srch

Lake of the Ozarks is many people’s version of paradise and each for different reasons. Being brought up here or brought to here, folks’ stories – some truth, some fiction – all mix together defining and reflecting one large community. In celebration of that community, the Bagnell Dam Strip Association (BDSA) hosts the 39th annual Lake of the Ozarks Christmas Parade presented by COMC on the Bagnell Dam Strip, Saturday December 9 at 1 p.m.

Leading this year’s parade “Christmas in Paradise” is Grand Marshal Mike Clayton who is on the cusp of change in his story of paradise at Lake of the Ozarks. Mike is widely known for his presence both as the morning radio guy on Mix 92.7 KLOZ, and its program director; and as the voice and presence warming up and compelling the crowds, either emceeing annual not-for-profit organization fundraisers or remote broadcasting at businesses and special events.

Mike reflects on the concept of the Lake as paradise, “My definition of paradise might be different than the reason it was chosen as a theme. Or from other people’s reasons. The obvious being the beautiful Lake of the Ozarks, the beautiful sunsets; we have boating, we have bars and bikinis. And while all that’s fine, my definition of paradise is the people that live here, full-timers, second homeowners and those who are so giving to the community.”

He goes on to talk about the stories, “People know two things about the lake: One: That it is seasonal and, Two: the TV show “Ozarks.” Neither one is true. People still think the lake (business) dries up in Sept, but that’s not true. In radio we’re as busy in the off-season (promoting advertisers) as we are during the summer, just a different kind of busy.” To balance the dark narrative of the fictional “Ozarks,” Mike Clayton’s is a bright story with an upbeat arc. A rom-com that went beyond the place the credits usually roll, revealing what happily-ever-after looks like as the couple ages into their stages of life in their paradise called the Lake. Perhaps it’s called “Never Say No!”

(Cue the music) PROLOGUE

Nerdy St Louis boy finds passion in technical theater in high school, digs in deep learning more at Maryville University: lighting, sound design, set construction. Not much of a sports guy, and not outgoing much until high school; his interests reach toward communication. Finding adults good conversationalists, he utilizes the chance to develop his vocabulary. Discovers radio broadcasting at college.

ACT 1 …. and more (Cue the lights)

Mike Parrent assumes his mother’s maiden name as the radio persona Mike Clayton. His first on-air job takes him to Moberly. A group of friends develops. And one day he approaches one of the girls in his friend group …

Mike: Well, hello, Angel. Are you doing anything tonight? I was going to go to The Pear Tree for dinner and wondered if you wanted to come with.

Angel: So, you’re going to The Pear Tree… tonight? Alone? You’re just going out to dinner by yourself? (pause) Uhm, well, I was going out with my Dad, but I can give him a call.

And she does. And it’s set. And they meet, enjoy the evening and each others company. He picks up the tab. And after, it’s apparent it was a first date. A date that reveals there’s a path to some future.

The rom-com usually ends somewhere after they bumble and stumble and arrive back at the confirmation of their commitment. But this is a long story that goes beyond that and moves the couple to Lake of the Ozarks as a result of Denny Benne recruiting Mike from Moberly. This undertaking sets the course of their trajectory including the wedding, two kids, Faith and Jack, and the town of Eldon which has been home to Mike and Angel for thirty years. Of it Mike says, “Eldon has a great school district. I’m so comfortable here and it’s a great place to raise kids. We belong to a very good church, the 9th Street Christian Church that does so much for people who don’t even know it.” Upon Jack’s entry into the world, Angel chose home and family for her main work, while Mike continued morning DJ and program director at Mix 92.7 for decades. Until the end of this month that is.

Commenting on people’s perceptions of radio work, Mike says he’s heard many times about his job that “It’s easy, all you do is talk and play music.” He corrects that notion, “No. Our job is all about making a connection with people. And if we don’t do that on the air, maybe we’ve got to do it in public.” He takes seriously the mandate for an FCC license that a radio station must serve the public interest. This has put him out in the public with a microphone all of his career.

“Radio is not dead. Nor should it be. It’s a community service. There are lots of alternatives, but if you’re one who says, ’I don’t like the commercials,’ then you’re not supporting local business. The only way radio stations make money is by having advertisers. We have to pay to play music. We pay lots of money to play an artist on the radio, so we have to generate the money by having advertising. So a part of our job, I think, is to tell people about these great businesses in the area, whether it’s a national chain like McDonald’s or local, like T LaFata’s Salon on the Strip. And I think it’s important when you get into broadcasting that, yes, you’re going to have to go judge a greased pig contest; or you’re going to have to go eat chicken wings at a fundraiser; or emcee a car show. It’s just part of the job. And there’s so many great broadcasters that have been doing this for their careers. So I am definitely not special in that realm because there are thousands of people like me that get up every day and do this job and go do other stuff, because it’s expected of you. You’re in this career.”

But the Lake thinks Mike Clayton is special. One of his most enduring and endearing public appearances has been Februarys’ Polar Bear Plunges. From its inception at PB2, which was the first Polar Bear Plunge in Missouri, Mike has emceed this annual event with the radio station helping raise funds for Special Olympics. This thirty-year affiliation has taken a hold of Mike.

In 2019, at another fundraiser, he met Jill Miller Wilke, now Executive Director of Wonderland Camp in Rocky Mount and descendant of its founder. Wonderland Camp has given children, teenagers and adults with disabilities the opportunity to come to camp for over fifty years. When she offhandedly mentioned the camp’s need for a new Director of Fundraising, Mike’s equally offhanded remark, “Sounds like something I’d like to do,” became a reality within the month.

The part-time position was added to his full-time radio commitments. Mike feels he stepped in at the right growth time. A clear vision under a strong board and executive director added the effort and momentum to achieve record fundraising for the camp. Fund development and presence in the community has grown exponentially in the past four years and Mike credits those records to cohesive, focused efforts resulting in growth for the camp, service expansion, and reaching more campers throughout the year, beyond the summer season.

Mike shares “Never Say No” as a motto, grateful that Angel understands and supports his need to answer the call in serving public interest. Emceeing hundreds of events for good causes, he understands there are a lot of great non-profits at the Lake but finds that Wonderland Camp is a good fit. His heart has leaned toward disabled citizens for a while, and Mike wonders if Polar Bear Plunge was where that seed was planted.

A seed that continued to grow causing Mike to make a career choice. In October an offer from Wonderland was extended for the full-time position of Director of Fund Development, a call he couldn’t deny. Come the end of December he will sign off one last time as the morning radio guy. But there is no riding off into any sunset yet. And make no assumptions he will retire the microphone.

Mike’s radio work has introduced him to many over the decades, forging relationships built on doing good in the community. Wherever you land, whether or not you consider this paradise, Mike’s observation is “It’s what you make it. If you don’t choose it, it’s what you make it.” And for Mike Clayton a place is made from the people. “I just like to find out about people, what people do, and why they do it. And why they’re so passionate about it or maybe not so passionate. Let’s face it, some people are just in it for money, they don’t really have any drive or passion to help other people at all. It may not be evident, but all they care for is their little group of people, their family. Which is fine, you’ve got to take care of your family, but I think we’re put here for more. I think we have a bigger purpose than just looking out for number one. I think we need to look out for each other. There are a lot of good people everywhere, but it just seems like the Lake area, in particular, is just so giving.”

Mike Clayton’s new full-time position with Wonderland Camp brings opportunity to carry on with the community work in which he is most interested. His radio career sun-setting has built the bridge to his future, his philanthropic career in which he can continue to “Never Say No” within this new framework.

(Cue the music) EPILOGUE

As the sun sets on Mike’s radio days, his many awards and honors including Citizen of the Year 2021 and Wonderland Camp as Best Non-Profit 2023, he walks not away from it but toward a time and place of a certain destiny. For all Mike has done in his career, it seems natural that the steps have led to Wonderland Camp.

Mike: It’s going to be different, but I don’t want to be out of touch with what I’ve been doing. I don’t want to let anyone down, but it’s also time for a change. I’ll be out in the public for Camp, and in time, as I settle in, I’ll figure how radio-type appearances might go. I’ve emceed Polar Bear Plunge all these years. If they asked again, I don’t think I could say no.

Crowd cheers as they follow him in step, towards his next adventure in Paradise. Cries of “Good Luck” “Best Wishes” “Vaya con Dios” and more fill the air as Mike steps on toward Wonderland.

(Curtain) But only an intermission, the show carries on.

More info about “Christmas in Paradise” hosted by BDSA, presented by COMC LakeChristmasParade.com

Saturday Dec 9th 1:00 p.m.

Bagnell Dam Strip