WESTERLY — Christopher DiPaola, the lifelong Westerly resident whose name was synonymous with WBLQ, the local radio station he lived, breathed and loved, died early Friday from an apparent heart attack. He was 49.
Often called "The Voice of Westerly" due to his passion for live radio, his tireless support of local causes and community events and the reliable way he greeted his devoted listeners each morning with the region's latest "news, weather and sports," DiPaola was a constant on Westerly's airwaves and within this tight-knit community.
As news of his death spread on social media, tributes poured in from friends, family members, associates, former colleagues, business owners, nonprofits and listeners, with posts expressing shock, sadness and disbelief that the larger-than-life personality who called himself "Crazy Chris" would no longer be greeting them live on 1230-AM each morning.
"The Jonnycake Center of Westerly is devastated to learn of the sudden passing of Christopher DiPaola. A champion of local non-profits, an ardent supporter of local business, an unwavering advocate for Westerly, a loving husband, father, friend, and a true gentleman," read the post from the center. "Our thoughts are with his family, friends and colleagues. Godspeed, Chris."
"He touched so many lives," said Betty-Jo Cugini of Westerly, a longtime WBLQ host who has worked with DiPaola for years in various community capacities, most recently on the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce candidates forum. "Chris believed that everyone had a voice, that everybody had a story to tell, and that everyone should be heard.
"Chris was everywhere for everyone," she added. "He gave us entertainment, information and comfort."
The owner of several radio stations — WBLQ AM/FM in Westerly and WWRI AM/FM in West Warwick — DiPaola was a member of the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce, past secretary of the Charlestown Chamber of Commerce and a past president and current member of the Westerly Rotary Club.
DiPaola was a champion for local nonprofits and could often be seen under a white tent in front of the High Street Post office, broadcasting a live show to help raise finds for a charity or person in need.
Ken Collins, the radio station's longtime sportscaster who often joined DiPaola under the tent, and in recent years has been cohosting the WBLQ "Happy Hour" alongside DiPaola each morning from 6-7 a.m., spoke about DiPaola's deep support for the people and the town of Westerly, his eagerness to serve others and his seeming unfailing optimism.
"No matter what," said Collins, "no matter what idea I had or suggested, Chris would say, 'we'll make it work, we'll make it happen.' And he did."
In times of crisis, Collins added, DiPaola loved nothing better than to be of service to his beloved Westerly-Pawcatuck community.
"Everybody loved Chris," Collins said, "and if they didn't, they should have."
During Superstorm Sandy, Collins recalled, when power was knocked out throughout the region, DiPaola set up at the station's transmitter on Margin Street and broadcast live, sharing up to the minute information with listeners who had battery-operated radios.
"He was a savior for many people during that storm," said the Rev. Cal Lord, the pastor of Central Baptist Church who is also a member of the Westerly Rotary Club. "And during the pandemic when so many people felt isolated."
Calling DiPaola the "heart and soul of the community," Lord said DiPaola helped his listeners "feel connected while sharing important information" in those dark times.
"He cared deeply about people and he meant a great deal to a lot of people," he said.
"The Rotary gave him the Paul Harris Fellow Award," said Lord, referring to the Service Above Self Award the club bestows for "dedication and service to the community."
"Chris lived a full life in a short period of time," he continued. "He's leaving a big void."
"He's leaving too big a hole," said Westerly Town Councilor Caswell Cooke Jr., who had maintained a friendship with DiPaola for more than 35 years and who was struggling to make sense of the news. "He just texted me last night. We just did Guy Fawkes together and he was the king."
Cooke said that he and DiPaola — along with some friends from their high school days at the Prout School — gathered on the beach each year to present a Guy Fawkes celebration full of pageantry and fun.
"He played the king each year for twenty-five years," said Cooke. "This year, he brought his son, Haidan, adding a whole new generation."
The only son of Thomas and Nadine (Champlin) DiPaola, Christopher Thomas DiPaola was born on April 13, 1973, in Skowhegan, Maine, and grew up in Dunn's Corners and Ashaway.
DiPaola dreamed of owning his own radio station from the time he was a kid and a faithful fan of WNBC-AM.
John Fuller of Full Power Radio in Ledyard, DiPaola's first boss, remembered the phone call he received from a young DiPaola who was applying for a job at WJJF AM, Fuller's Hope Valley radio station.
"He spoke so passionately and knowledgably," Fuller said. "He knew so much about older radio history. I said this guy's a winner."
When DiPaola confessed he was just 14, Fuller told him he was too young.
"I told him I didn't think I could hire him, that I'd have to get working papers," Fuller recounted. "Then I asked him how he'd even get to the station without a driver's license."
"He told me that his grandfather would drop him off and his father would pick him up," Fuller said. "And that's exactly what happened."
DiPaola's grandfather, the late Vito DiPaola, was a longtime morning host on WBLQ.
"Chris loved radio so much he couldn't wait to be full time," Fuller continued. "And when he turned 16, he did become full time and we became great friends."
"He's probably one of my best friends," added Fuller. "He was also a wonderful father and a great husband.
"Family time was very important to him," Fuller added. "He loved his wife and his sons and his stepson."
In addition to his parents, DiPaola leaves his wife, Laina, his sons, Haidan and Stevie, his stepson, Adrian, his sister and brother-in-law, Jaime and Tristan Wager, their daughter, Sadie, and a large, close-knit circle of aunts, uncles and cousins.
He also leaves an enormous void in downtown Westerly, said Lisa Konicki, president of the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce.
"He was the heartbeat of the downtown and an integral part of every community event we produce," Konicki said. "Chris was one of the most optimistic, energetic and generous community leaders Westerly has ever known.
"He gave so selflessly of his personal time and the station's support to aid every nonprofit and small business in the region," she added. "We will miss him dearly and our hearts go out to his family as we all struggle with the reality."
"He was an amazing big brother," said DiPaola's only sister, Jaime, who is seven years his junior. "One thing I will always hold close to my heart is how, when we were kids, and I was very afraid to go to sleep upstairs alone, he’d go in his room across the hall and stay there so I’d feel safe."
"He'd go in there tinker with his radio and listen to 66 WNBC," she recalled. "Not many big brothers would do that."
"He was also the driving force for my parents having me," Wager continued, explaining that her brother used to go outside on the front lawn of the Ashaway family house and pray to God for a little sister.
"He was Westerly’s own George Bailey," she added. " He touched and affected almost everyone here and I can’t picture a life without him in it."
"I'm just grateful for the memories," said David Cartwright, CEO Central Auto Group in Plainfield, Conn., an advertiser on WBLQ and a close friend of DiPaola's.
"Chris spent a lot of time at Central Auto," he said, "and we had lots and lots of conversations. He loved people and he loved to take care of people."
"Chris was kind," Cartwright said, "he was very, very kind. And he was attentive. He'd do anything for anybody."
"I never heard Chris say a bad thing about anyone," said DiPaola's business partner, Steve Conti. "He could always put a positive spin on everything."
Last summer, DiPaola was one of four community service honorees at the annual Appreciation Evening at the Westerly Armory, where the honored guests were celebrated "for their service to community, state, and country," said Armory President Roberta Mudge Humble.
"Chris DiPaola is a person who brightens the day of the community," Humble said in her remarks. "He never says 'no' to helping organizations — be it advertising on his radio stations or bringing music and fun to fundraising events for oodles of local organizations.
"There is not room on his resume or time tonight to list the many organizations he voluntarily helps," she continued. "On top of that, he is a wonderful and caring dad. Always a smile, always good-natured, Chris is the kind of person every community could wish to possess."
In a 2015 interview with The Sun, DiPaola said his goals were to "be a great father and grow my radio empire."
His favorite way to spend his time, he said, was with his family; his proudest accomplishment, "fatherhood and starting/owning two great local radio stations."
Asked how he'd like to be remembered, DiPaola replied, "Being the local radio guy."
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