Robert Hardwick has always made his biggest splashes by leaving radio, not by jumping back into it.
There was hardly a ripple this week when Hardwick - once Seattle's most popular, publicity-grabbing radio personality - slipped back into the medium that has brought him both fame and frustration.
Hardwick joined KING-AM on Monday as co-host of the talk station's morning show. It opened another chapter in his rollicking radio career.
``Hey, yesterday's gone,'' said Hardwick, nursing a cup of coffee in the company cafeteria after his 5-9 a.m. shift Tuesday. "I do not carry pictures of myself around. My back is to the past.''
What a past, though. Some people would probably trade a dozen futures for it.
Hardwick worked at KVI-AM from 1959 to 1980. Those 21 straight years were interrupted only by a four-month sojourn at a Los Angeles station.
On his KVI morning show, Hardwick would sometimes play only two or three records an hour, when he ``ran out of something intelligent to say.'' The rest of the time was filled with jokes, skits, ad-libbed advertisements and promotions for his latest escapade.
And what escapades.
Hardwick piloted a tugboat to British Columbia to haul back Namu, the killer whale, for the Seattle Aquarium.
He jet-skied 740 miles from Ketchikan to Seattle, at about the same time that it was reported he had become the highest-paid radio personality in Seattle, hosting the highest-rated program on local radio. Later, Billboard magazine named him the nation's radio personality of the year.
He swam the Bremerton-Seattle ferry route.
Then, one day in 1980, he quit KVI.
True to his taste for drama, Hardwick did not give two weeks notice. Nope. He just left the studio in the middle of an 8 a.m. newscast and didn't return.
Hardwick was disgruntled with KVI's decision at the time to abandon its successful music format and switch to all-talk.
"I was so frustrated. Emotionally I was a wreck. I don't know what happened. I took my briefcase and walked out the door.
"That wasn't,'' he admits, "a businesslike way to do things.''
A few weeks later he popped up at KAYO. Several months passed. One Friday he called in sick and didn't return the following Monday.
"Seattle radio is a bore and I have been boring right along with it,'' he said in a statement read by his wife, who wouldn't reveal where Hardwick was hiding.
His two disappearing acts were not publicity stunts, Hardwick says, but "an emotional trauma in my life.''
There followed a stint at an AM station in Tacoma, another hitch at KVI, a failed venture to transmit computer programs via radio, and a year-long spin at KIXI.
Then in 1987 the Seattle native left the medium altogether. He worked for a time as communication director at Pacific Institute, and helped several local drug and alcohol rehab centers market their programs.
The job offer from KING-AM (1090 kHz) came after Hardwick wrote program director Brian Jennings a letter "on a fling'' congratulating the station on recent ratings gains.
Jennings, in turn, asked Hardwick to lunch. Then he asked him to do a few fill-ins for afternoon host Mike Siegel and former morning show co-host Tony Miner, who becomes news director and morning news anchor at the station.
"I was impressed. Nice voice. Nice demeanor,'' said Jennings. "It wasn't a hard decision because I don't have any old baggage with Robert. His past is his past. We have a clean slate.''
By late January, with a suddenness that surprised some who worked at KING-AM, Hardwick was named the new morning show co-host, joining Deb Henry.
Jennings says Hardwick, even after a more than two-year layoff, is still ``well-known in this marketplace as a real personality.''
Hardwick, though, realizes that to some listeners, his is just another new voice on an old medium.
"I'm not counting on name recognition,'' he says. "I love the things I did. But today is the good old days.''
Hardwick, who turns 56 next month, said he signed a one-year contract with KING that will pay him "generously,'' though less than the $75,000 salary he earned during his heyday.
Other things have changed, too. Hardwick drives to the studio from his Federal Way home in a late-model Ford, not the 1952 hearse that once was his trademark.
Hardwick says his new bosses have given him complete freedom to do what he wants on the morning show. In an act of moving symbolism, Jennings scratched out the segments in each hour of the morning show clock devoted to interviews and substituted the word ``fun.''
On Tuesday, KING-AM morning show guests included an environmental activist, a Kent police detective who calmed Hardwick's fears that swap meets were selling scads of stolen goods, and a self-proclaimed UFO expert from California. Hardwick handled the UFOlogist as gently as a piece of overripe fruit.
"I am not a controversy creator,'' Hardwick said later. "I'm a professional smartass. I love to tease people. I love to make people laugh. I'm a communicator.''
Hardwick, 61, was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot in a pickup off Highway 2 east of Stevens Pass on June 3, 1992. Poor ratings and a desire to draw younger listeners, KING officials said, caused his termination on April 7.