Old school TV and the ties that bond

I fell in love with the power of television when I realized that every house in my neighborhood was watching Roy Mitchell and Channel 4 Eyewitness News on KARK-TV in Little Rock. Of course, that was in the old days when 3 stations meant you lived in a big town. All I ever wanted to be was in TV. Not ON TV. IN TV.

So I turned down a scholarship to Arkansas State University in order to attend the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and get the hands-on experience I knew would be crucial to landing a job after college. Jonesboro only had ONE TV station and LOTS of would-be interns applying for a limited number of jobs.

All I really wanted was to intern with KARK. A tough trick, because KARK wasn’t using interns at the time. Somehow in early 1984 I managed to worm my way into the studios and actually landed a production internship. I was in HEAVEN.

Those were the old days, when local TV was more about community service and good, sound journalism than about making money. The money side was a necessary component of the public service agenda. The men and women at KARK were very talented individuals who loved working together. Truly, the whole was much stronger than the sum of some stellar parts. The culture revolved around news and community service.

From February 1984 to early December 1986, I walked almost daily down the wide hall from the reception area to the newsroom at 3rd and Louisiana. It was an honor to approach the large cluster of awards gleaming at the end of that massive hallway.

Heck, that’s how I met Captain Kangaroo! Nearly ran over the poor man in that hall!

I ran camera, floor, and teleprompter for a whole bunch of newscasts, Bozo shows, election nights, Easter Seals telethons, SIDING MOVIE sponsorships…(now THOSE were absolutely MISERABLE ways to spend Sunday afternoons.)

Even though I took a full load of courses at UALR, I managed to work between 20 and 40 hours a week at KARK. That left very little time for hanging out after hours, but some of us spent quite a bit of time together on the clock.

People tend to bond when it’s after 11 on a Monday night and we’re 1 out away from cranking up our newscast — then a guy belts a home run, ties the game, and extra innings force us all to sit in a studio — ready to go “hot” with a minute’s notice. What else are ya gonna do but talk, curse the home run, and talk some more?

Throughout my time at KARK, I made a life-long friend. I remember asking her once, “Would you be my friend for a long, long time?” Her reply astounded me. “Only for a lifetime.”

Life hasn’t been easy on either of us, or our friendship, for that matter. But it’s still there. It’s genuine. It’s strong, and very comfortable.

Something else that’s strong — the camaraderie among the individuals who walked those halls and ran tapes from the old bank vault turned edit suites back through engineering — sometimes with only seconds to spare before the piece aired — just like they did it in Broadcast News.

Earlier this year, some of the news guys started organizing a reunion. In typical fashion, the invitation list spilled over into production and all through the station. The amazing part is that very few old school people remain at KARK. Heck, the 3rd and Louisiana property was vacant last time I checked.

Even MORE amazing is that the organizers of the reunion aren’t even IN Little Rock anymore. They’re scattered across the United States. Some are news producers, others are photojournalists and directors. Heck, some are big national names. The rest of us moved on to other careers. Getting to “play TV” now and again is just an added bonus.

I didn’t get to attend the reunion, but I saw lots of photos from that evening. It looked like a blast. Since that time, a lot of the people on the master e-mail list have kept in touch. It’s been fun hearing from them all and catching up with their lives a bit.

Last week, we got a sad notification — one among the group had died in his Memphis home, following a prolonged and chronic illness. He wasn’t even 50 years old.

Throughout the week, I got several e-mails from friends who remembered times spent with Wendell. I can’t comfortably say he was a friend, but I always, always enjoyed being around him. The words that traveled through the ether last week were so comforting to me. The shared memories made me laugh. Sometimes I cried. Mostly, I felt blessed to have been a very SMALL part of such a talented team.

Nearly 25 years later and scattered across the country, and this collection of talented individuals STILL finds the right words to comfort one another. I’m guessing 30 or more people are on this list. Many haven’t seen each other in 20 years. But they’re still there for each other.

Today, I sat and talked to my friend. She made me laugh. The fire alarm in her building went off. “What’s that?” I asked. She sighed, “Oh, I guess the fire alarm” and kept right on with her train of thought. That’s my friend. Every time a bulb would explode on a studio light, the rest of us would jump through the high ceilings. She, on the other hand, would sit quietly and say something like, “Well, there goes another one” and yawn. Unbelievably unflappable.

Today, my friend insisted that I re-focus — to use un-tapped talents to be more of a blessing. Her words were sharp, true, a little unsettling — and right on the money. Spoken in love, as if to say, “Wendell didn’t have the time he thought he’d have. Don’t you dare squander the gifts — and the time — God has given you.”

Also today I received an e-mail from Wendell’s best friend. Wendell, by the way, was one of those guys who most likely had several “best friends.” He had an enormous capacity to love, encourage, and share life.

Today, this friend recapped the funeral. He painstakingly transcribed the eulogies — assuring us that the mood was joyful, sad, comical, and soulful. My favorite line went something like this, “Wendell is with God, and you can be sure that God knows Wendell.”

How blessed I am to have been surrounded by such a talented and cohesive team early in my career. These KARK guys set the standard for me nearly 25 years ago. The hallowed halls of Channel 4 Eyewitness News exist only in our hearts now, but the desire to continue marching toward excellence is still extraordinary.

Heck, this crew is still holding each other accountable and demanding excellence from one another. The only difference now is that expectations for excellence are multi-dimensional. No longer is the focus on professional goals. The drive and encouragement extends to personal lives, and to spiritual matters with eternal consequences.

I have no doubt that these same people have carried that commitment with them and have been nuclei in forming strong teams wherever they’ve gone. As I’ve read comments about the bonds Wendell forged in his post-KARK life, I’m certain he shared the spirit.

Old school TV is gone — but the ties that bond have continued.

Wendell Stacy and his friends have touched my life. Again.

Thank you all.

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