|Posted on Mon. Jan. 14, 2008 - 10:11 am EDT|
Foellinger, Sievers, Gates helped shape personality of Fort Wayne
Most every town and city of considerable size in our great country has public figures who end up being larger than life. If they are particularly good at what they do, they come to help shape the personality of that town or city and sometimes the whole region. To achieve this status, these public figures have to have two things in spades: a commitment to excellence that is unique to the area in which they live and work, and then something beyond charm or charisma, a kind of presence. They are both goodwill ambassadors for the time and place in which they have put down taproots, and public faces of a community through the generations.
New York City had Kitty Carlisle Hart. Chicago had Mike Royko. Philadelphia had Kate Smith. How about Fort Wayne and Allen County and our part of the world? Who were these public figures?
I think the answer is a combination of the three most influential people in TV, radio and the newspaper business. All three of these folks, one woman and two men, always had the heart of our community at the center of what they did. They always seemed to be projecting something bigger and deeper and larger than the confines of the geographical place we all think of as home. Their good work and their legacies survive them. Perhaps that is the best metric of their excellence.
The News-Sentinel's Helene Foellinger, WOWO's Bob Sievers and WKJG's Hilliard Gates were force multipliers for good. Long years after their passing, the rising generation will come to know and remember what they did to make this a community rich in culture, fluid in sports, animated by public service.
Oscar Foellinger was a great newspaper publisher. He had no sense that his daughter Helene would succeed him. Providence had other ideas. After being educated at and graduated from the University of Illinois, Helene came back to Fort Wayne to write for what was called this newspaper's Women's Pages. It was mundane work. But when her father died unexpectedly on a hunting expedition, the board of directors chose her to succeed him. It was a big deal. There were only a handful of women who served as publishers of newspapers in the United States. After Fort Wayne nearly closed down for Oscar Foellinger's funeral - our city used to shutter its businesses and drape the city in black bunting and ring myriad church bells when one of our most prominent citizens died - Helene took up her new duties with verve and boldness and never looked back.
A woman running a conservative, Republican-leaning newspaper in those years before the sexual revolution of the 1960s was almost unheard of. That is exactly what happened, and she went on to achieve state, regional and national prominence for her publishing and business acumen. When I visited her in her corner office at The News-Sentinel's Main Street offices in the late 1970s, four things stood out: her convertible Cadillac, which was parked under an awning just outside her office window; a string of pearls and matching earrings that bespoke elegance in an otherwise inky profession; carpeting in her office, which was bright and chic; and a ready smile that belied a tough-as-nails role as publisher of a paper whose editorial page had a rapier, florid reputation.
During that same visit, she took me upstairs to the newsroom and introduced me to the editor of the paper, Ernest Williams - Ernie - who was bow-tied and red-socked and, like his publisher, a person of a serious sense of what a newspaper's mission and role were. The News-Sentinel shaped Northeast Indiana politics and civic life for decades. It made a cultural name for itself by promoting public service. It prided itself in a strong sense of community involvement and the people who made this city and region our home. Those are large legacies of perhaps the most important woman in Fort Wayne's history.
Long years later, the Foellinger Foundation continues her mission and vision: The parks are stellar; the summer theater is stellar; the community groups that rely on its generosity have the people of Fort Wayne as its mission. The last time I saw Miss Foellinger - never Ms., and she told me she was not a feminist - was in Foster Park, down the street from her beautiful Tudor mansion on Old Mill Road. We discussed a number of things, but two things stand out: her love of travel and horses, and a singular sense that, “Although I love to travel, I am always ready to come home.” That phrase echoes in my mind all these years later. She loved the place we love.
That same narrative is what made all of us love Bob Sievers. If our collective childhoods had a narrator, its voice would have been Bob Sievers'. He was singularly modest and one of the most generous men I have ever known. I remember having a conversation with him, trying to discern his style. He was always a kind of aw-shucks type person, but I was keen to understand how the Sievers modus operandi came about, beyond the booming voice and gentle humor and good will.
It dawned on me there was no self-conscious creation in him, no conceit, no arrogance. He had succeeded “in the business” by achieving a very hard thing to achieve: being himself. Which is probably why he broke every stereotype of people in show business: He was married to the same woman for over 60 years; he loved and lavished praise on his two daughters and grandchildren and enjoyed being with his family most of all, even though he spent a lot of time apart from them for professional reasons; he was a man of serious faith; and he strove, morning after morning, year in and year out, to put other people - not himself - first. He eschewed cant.
I remember talking with a former general manger of WOWO, Dan Fried, and a former program manager of WOWO, Chris Whitting, about Sievers' remarkable popularity. Both men were from the East with lots of experience in radio. They both told me they had never met a man quite like him in broadcasting, a man who was exactly the same in private as he was in public, without airs, without spite, without skepticism, without envy. “He just walks into the studio every morning and talks to his 10,000 best friends,” I remember Whitting telling me.
That is how we all felt about him, those of us who grew up listening to him through all those snowstorms and heat waves and Coho reports and Little Red Barn gigs and commodity reports and songs of inspiration records and jokes with Jay Gould and wink-and-nod quips with Sam and Nancy DeVincent and the Earl Finkle weather reports. We liked it when he invited us to come downtown and see the Christmas lights and magic window displays and “put a few pennies in the Penny-Pitch barrel.” We were glad to know he stopped at Powers each morning for coffee. Our parents loved his man-on-the-street reports and lost-dog announcements and first-robin-of-the-spring sightings. He was a good man.
With scarcely a dozen years left before the 100th anniversary of commercial radio in 2020, you come to see that the WOWO of the '50s, '60s, '70s and '80s was of great cultural import to our city, from the foot-stompin', fiddle-driven Little Red Barn theme music to the “personalities” who we considered our neighbors. WOWO gave Fort Wayne and northeast Indiana a powerful entree to our national life, and Bob Sievers was our ambassador at large, rooted not in slick but in a genuine grace.
On my office wall hangs a movie poster of the minor classic “Hoosiers.” I used to think this was a film about basketball. It isn't. It is a film where basketball is the jet fuel for a larger story about a way of life that, while passing, retains an effervescent evergreen in our Indiana subculture. The heart of the movie is a kind of running debate about excellence, and it impeccably recreates a time and place in Hoosier history that was singular and unique to this part of the world. Appropriately, Hilliard Gates plays himself in the movie. He was not only the central announcer of that famous high school basketball championship but also one of the handful of people who molded and shaped the contours propelling Indiana basketball to a kind of definition of our state.
I remember a discussion at Indiana University my freshman year. The topic was defining what it means to be a Hoosier. Interestingly, most of my fellow students were not from Indiana, and yet when asked the question de jour, they all said the definition of Indiana was bounded by three things: the Indianapolis 500, one of the breadbasket states, and a kind of basketball-craze - high school and collegiate - that was not shared by any other state.
Much of this was a vision propounded by Hilliard Gates over many years, who though not from Indiana himself, was perhaps basketball's greatest advocate in the history of this 19th state in the union. When I told one of the women at that IU forum that high school basketball was televised - she was from California - she said, “Surely you are joking.” I told her basketball was not only a sport but also a kind of rolling centerpiece of what it means to be a part of a given community almost anywhere in Indiana, whether you were from a city or a small town.
Hilliard Gates loved sports. I worked for him for a year and a half. He was my first boss after I graduated from IU. He was a serious journalist, a serious writer, and was to sports journalism what another great Hoosier journalist, Ernie Pyle, was to war journalism. I remember the first time I went to see Hilliard in his oak-paneled office at WKJG on West State Boulevard. I thought the office would come collapsing down around us when he shut the door, because the total weight of awards and sports memorabilia in his office was so great. How I wish that office - with red leather furniture and plush carpeting and footballs encased in little glass boxes - had been preserved. It was a timepiece not soon to be recreated. The center of the office, however, was the typewriter. I wonder where that typewriter is now? A thousand memories for a thousand people were created when he rolled a piece of paper into that machine and began to tip-tap-peck out that night's sportscast.
Fort Wayne is a great city. Allen County is a great place. Three of the reasons why is because Hilliard Gates, Helene Foellinger and Bob Sievers were among our best community champions and supporters who showed us excellence, persistence, tenacity and boldness that were unapologetic and without peer. They helped shape, as contemporaries, our corner of God's beautiful earth.