Most of us are lucky to inhabit even one good love story. Dallas disc jockey Jon â€śJ.D.â€ť Dillon, who rocked the soundtrack of our lives for more than 40 years, got to claim two.
The first was with the legion of FM listeners like me for whom he shaped the music and culture of North Texas, particularly as one of the original Zoo Freaks at our beloved KZEW-FM.
The second love story was the one between Jon and his wife, Nancy, who â€” when the early signs of Alzheimerâ€™s knocked him off the air in 2013 â€” courageously cared for him until his death Jan. 14.
It twists my heart to imagine this nightmarish disease progressively stealing the words of a deejay whom we grew up and grew older with, a perfectionist who always said just the right thing on the radio.
Aging is not for the faint of heart. Alzheimerâ€™s finally took J.D.â€™s life at age 71.
With his passing, weâ€™ve lost another link to vinyl, to record shops and to a powerful FM station that shaped the lives of young people not just in North Texas but all the way to Oklahoma, to Midland, Odessa and Lubbock, and to my tiny hometown of Hewitt, outside Waco.
â€śHe was so influential to millions of young people,â€ť longtime Dallas journalist and filmmaker Kirby Warnock told me a few days ago as we traded memories. â€śMusic was our Facebook, our way to meet people, our big connecting point.â€ť
One of the many window stickers produced by Dallas rock station KZEW-FM during its dominance in the Seventies and Eighties.(HANDOUT)
J.D. came of age alongside the Seventies free-form radio format that gave rock DJs the freedom to play whatever they liked and with whatever commentary popped into their heads.
He had a way of talking to you on the air that made you feel â€ślike you were the only guy in the room,â€ť Kirby recalled.
J.D. was part of the original KZEW cast when the station debuted in 1973. First to get his hands on seemingly every new album cut, he had a way of spinning music that was mesmerizing.
From its earliest days, The Zoo was everything we desperately wanted to be. Even for those of us still too young to know what counterculture meant, listening to the station felt like we were teetering on the edge of something radical.
Keeping our ears grounded in this musical revolution was the one Texan in the bunch. J.D. Dillon â€” suggestively smooth but with that little native twang â€” â€śwas one of us,â€ť Kirby said
Mike Rhyner, a Zoo alum and godfather of sports talk radio The Ticket, still marvels at KZEWâ€™s deep cultural imprint. â€śThe Zoo did a real good job of throwing down that vibe and leaving you feeling like you had stepped into another world,â€ť Mike told me.
He recalled joining the station in 1979, â€śa dork of a pretty high order,â€ť and realizing that a lot of the deejays were really cool cats who made sure newcomers were clear on that point.
â€śJon Dillon was not like that,â€ť Mike told me. Eaten up with the business of radio, Mike had a thousand questions and Dillon was the guy game to answer them all.
So touched by J.D.â€™s generosity, Mike vowed back then that, if he ever got anywhere in the business, thatâ€™s the kind of guy he wanted to be too. â€śSomeone who really helped others like he helped me out in my career,â€ť Mike said.
In KZEWâ€™s first year, I was one of just many at my high school who signed on as Zoo Freaks. Listening to J.D. is how I became a Led Zeppelin fanatic, learned about blues guitarist Freddie King and eventually frequented the live music spot, Faces, on Cedar Springs.
Former KZEW DJ Jon 'J.D.' Dillon, right, with Lonnie Pritzger, of the Melody Shop, at a Little Feat record release party in the late 1970s.(Kirby Warnock)
Kirby was a Baylor student in Waco when The Zoo debuted. â€śThis was at a time when every radio format was Top 40 and all you found on the FM side of the dial was classical music,â€ť he said.
Kirby became friends with J.D. after he moved to Oak Cliff in 1976 and took the editorâ€™s job at the Texas music magazine Buddy. You could find the two in the audience any time J.D.â€™s favorite band, Jimmie Vaughan and the Fabulous Thunderbirds, was in town.
For 14 years, Dillon made it work at The Zoo, even when management started listening to the guys in suits more carefully than its own deejays.
When The Zoo bosses finally fired him â€” after he publicly dissed them â€” J.D. began a second career in the afternoon slot at KZPS-FM. He opened every show with the instrumental â€śLightningâ€ť by Carlos Santana and the Fabulous Thunderbirds.
From 1989 to 2013, the former â€śunderground formatâ€ť J.D. played many of the same songs he introduced at The Zoo â€” this time under the label classic rock â€” to longtime fans and new generations.
Kirbyâ€™s last interview with J.D. was for his 2013 documentary When Dallas Rocked. At the filmâ€™s Kessler Theater premiere, Kirby sensed that something was very wrong with his friend.
â€śHe seemed confused, and Nancy told me he was having trouble.â€ť
Eleven years younger than J.D., Nancy met The Zoo personality at an 1981 event. She had no idea who he was, but her brother â€” who idolized the deejay â€” wanted to meet him.
â€śAnd the rest is history,â€ť Nancy told me. They married in 1983 and had two sons.
She also told me that our conversation Wednesday was her first-ever interview. â€śJon was the star in our family.â€ť
Nancy was the saint.
Although no details were released when KZPS abruptly fired J.D. in June 2013, Nancy had feared that day was coming.
Nancy Dillon (far right) and Jon 'J.D.' Dillon (second from right) with friends at the Dallas premiere of the 2013 documentary 'When Dallas Rocked' at the Kessler Theater.(Kirby Warnock)
The man who once came home every day excited about pulling off a great show increasingly was bewildered by the on-air moments that went wrong â€” when he forgot the details of the story he was telling or what day of the week it was.
â€śNow I realize he knew something was going on with him, but he didnâ€™t know what,â€ť Nancy said. â€śIâ€™m sure that scared him.â€ť
In the years after J.D. left radio, even with good doctors and drug treatments, he became steadily worse in ways familiar to those who have dealt with neurological problems in our own families: Balking at taking a shower, trying to eat soup with a fork, crossing a busy road when Nancy thought he was safe inside their home.
Nancy rarely heard J.D.â€™s beautiful voice in recent years. But she knew that music â€” the blues, the Beatles, the Stones â€” still brought him to life.
â€śI would take him in the car, roll down the windows and weâ€™d blare music,â€ť she said. Their destination was often to get ice cream at McDonaldâ€™s.
In 2016, J.D. spoke briefly during his induction into the Texas Radio Hall of Fame. That day it was his sons, Tyler and Nick, who had the right words as they talked about â€śgrowing up in a house full of love and music.â€ť
They also publicly thanked their mother for the enormous sacrifices she was already making as their dadâ€™s sole caregiver.
â€śNancy took care of him when things started going bad and she was alongside him the whole time,â€ť Kirby told me. â€śI donâ€™t know that many people can be that strong.â€ť
The stress skyrocketed Nancyâ€™s blood pressure. She lost 15 pounds. Her body ached from pulling her husband up each time he fell.
Last July, J.D. began to fall so frequently that Nancy had no choice but to move him into a nursing facility.
She saw him every day and, until about a month ago, he greeted her with the same huge smile, hug and kiss. â€śThat gave me a big lift because on some level he remembered me.â€ť.
Nancy had known from the beginning how this story was going to end. She told me she has no idea how she managed through these difficult years. She just hung on to the belief that â€śIâ€™ve got to do right by him, to let him keep his dignity.â€ť
â€śI just loved him and I always will.â€ť
We are lucky that J.D. was here to help write our generationâ€™s cultural history. He was far luckier to have Nancy at his side.