book tells local history “through the eyes of television” | Chroniclers
Although they both worked on-air for Fort Wayne TV station WPTA, the careers of Don Chevillet and Marti Wright never overlapped, Wright said.
On Thursday in Auburn, they sat side by side at a table inside Carbaugh Jewelers – owned by Chevillet’s son-in-law Mike Littlejohn – greeting fans and dedicating copies of “Television in Fort Wayne 1953-2018”, a new book that includes both of their careers.
Former Congressman Mark Souder and longtime TV presenters Melissa Long and Heather Herron produced the nearly 300 wide-page book. At the jewelry store, a constant stream of nostalgic enthusiasts were buying copies and talking about their memories.
“I remember listening to you years and years ago,” one fan told Chevillet.
“Add a few years to that and you’ll be right,” said Chevillet, who spent the afternoon joking about his 93-year-old age.
“I’m still here. At my age that’s quite an accomplishment,” he joked.
“Let me be you at this age,” replied Wright, admiring the vitality of Chevillet, who looked dapper in his blue blazer and a “21 Alive” cap.
Chevillet recalled how he started his career as a broadcaster at WNDU in South Bend in 1955. Four years later, the powerful WOWO radio of Fort Wayne offered him a job.
– You didn’t refuse, he said. Chevillet became a member of what the station promoted as its Fabulous Four, which also included hockey announcer Bob Chase, Jack Underwood, and friendly morning host Bob Sievers.
In 1974, Chevillet switched to WPTA-TV to be part of a format change he was promoting as “21 Alive,” a rebranding that spanned 47 years.
“I was able to travel everywhere and meet all the famous people in the world,” during his career, he said.
Chevillet brought with him a file full of photos of these encounters, particularly proud of one showing him with Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon.
The authors of the televised book were delighted to find the hundreds of photos that Chevillet had recorded.
Souder said he quickly discovered that station owners had deleted most of the archive footage of old local programs. Much of what still existed was in outdated formats with no way of seeing it.
Instead, the writers relied on memorabilia collections from people who had worked at Fort Wayne TV, such as Chevillet, who also contributed with his storytelling skills. Chevillet loaned about 100 of the book’s 500 historical images and an account of when WPTA asked him to get drunk on camera for a story demonstrating the dangers of drunk driving.
“I have always been fascinated by the media, especially television, and love the history of Fort Wayne,” Souder said of his choice of subject for the book. By examining the local history, he wanted to “tell it through the eyes of television”.
“Television has strengthened ties across the region,” said Souder. At the height of local news broadcasts, “If something happened in our area and it wasn’t on TV, did it really happen? “
But even though work on the book has continued over the past three years, ratings of local TV shows have plummeted due to changes in people’s viewing habits, Souder said.
A local contributor to Fort Wayne TV history, Wright spent Thursday greeting her classmates in her 1975 Concordia High School class, who had come to the book signing.
As the first black television presenter in Fort Wayne, Wright’s story represents a serious side of the book. She was working for the city’s WMEE radio in 1981, when a job opened at WPTA-TV. A coworker encouraged her to apply and she suggested that he should be the one to take care of the job.
“They are looking for a black woman,” he told her.
“I never thought I would be on TV,” Wright said. “How was a black person going to be on TV in Fort Wayne with no one like him?” “
Souder said that on the one hand, one might wonder why it took so long for a black reporter to appear on a Fort Wayne screen.
On the other hand, Souder credits the then General Manager of the WPTA, the late Edwin C. Metcalfe, for taking a big risk. At the time he hired Wright, Fort Wayne’s black population was smaller than it is today, and black audiences across the viewing region were less than 1%.
“It was a gamble” for the WPTA to hire Wright, said Souder. For her part, Wright – like baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson – was pressured to be perfect.
“I got the job because I was a black woman,” Wright conceded Thursday, “but I didn’t keep it for 20 years because I was a black woman.”
DAVE KURTZ can be contacted at [email protected]