Saturday December 8, 2012

GREAT BARRINGTON

The legendary news man, Don Decker, has passed. I loved him. Not only did he give me a chance, he was also responsible for hiring many of the anchors whose names have become household words, like Liz Bishop and Ed Dague. Don, who contracted polio as a kid, was a true profile in courage. He never complained, even when it was evident that he was in great pain.

When you mention Don Decker, the first thing everybody says is, "What a nice guy" and believe me, he was. But he could be a terror when it came to people making mistakes. If someone who worked in his newsroom got into trouble, he insisted that his station, WRGB, cover it the same way they would have covered an outsider.

Sometimes a valued advertiser got burned because Decker insisted that no one got "most favored nation" treatment. He lived and breathed the news. Every night he would watch the broadcast with an eagle eye from his dinner table, surrounded by his wonderful family. No one was allowed to talk until it was over. Everyone at Channel Six knew that if you were the unlucky one who screwed up, you could count on a phone call.

I got into television by sending my tape around to the various Albany stations. I was already doing radio, teaching and running the Legislative Gazette newspaper but I wanted to try TV commentary. I got the word back that people at the other stations weren't impressed but then I heard from Don, who had me come in.

"We'll try it," he said, and then laid down the restrictions. The commentary would be two nights a week and there would be no pay. The first night we talked about Walter Mondale and the second night the wonderful TV anchor, Ernie Tetrault, asked me about a guy who pulled out two pearl-handled revolvers on the New York City subway and shot some kids who were threatening him and asking for money. I responded that as a longtime traveler on the New York City subway system, when three kids surrounded you in that kind of threatening way, you were being robbed. The phones lit up and then, for many, many years, I did commentary on the news every night.

Don was strict but he was funny. Once he put me and my twin brother on. "I'm Doctor Chartock," I said and then Lewis said, "No, I'm Dr. Chartock." Of course we were both right. I still have people come up to me in the street who remember that "What's My Line" moment. Another time when my boy Jonas was 11 and there was a big pennant race, he had Jonas come on in his Red Sox shirt and hat and predict what would happen in the series. None of us will ever forget that either. He sent me to conventions and paired me with anchors like Liz Bishop and Ed Dague. Finally, he got fired when the ownership of the station changed. After that, things there were never quite the same.

I was delighted when Don said he would come to WAMC as our news director. He was a terrific mentor and really whipped our staff into shape. As Marlon Brando might have said, "we became a contender." I knew Don's heart was in TV so I called Dow Smith at Channel Ten and suggested that since he was down a news director, he should hire Don. Dow said that he had someone else in mind but a year later he called back and said that he wanted Don. Don never really left us, though, because he agreed to serve on the WAMC board of trustees and never missed a meeting.

Do you remember the person who gave you your first break? Of course, I'll never forget Don. How could I?

Alan Chartock, a Great Barrington resident, is president and CEO of WAMC Northeast Public Radio and a professor emeritus of communications at SUNY-Albany.