He may have been “Jim” Van Sickle in his later years, as a TV reporter at NBC, but in his time at WNEW, he was James. He did the big hourly newscasts in evening drive-time, expanded — when the typographers shut down the papers in the fall of 1962 — into Six O’Clock Close-Up, one of three hour-long daily broadcasts that used the talents of WNEW’s formidable 35-member news staff.
After the strike, the two other hour-long shows (8AM and noon) were discontinued, but Six O’Clock Close-Up ran on, ending with a five-minute newscast at 6:55. As the copy boy, my job was to clear Mr. Van Sickle’s desk and place his briefcase in the hallway so that he could grab it on the way to Grand Central Terminal. He was worried not about missing his train to Briarcliff Manor, but of missing his seat in the club-car poker game.
On that awful November day when President Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas, James Van Sickle anchored hour after hour of fast-breaking developments. It was my job to keep the copy flowing to him; he did the rest.
His style seemed to echo that of Lowell Thomas, but he would bristle if anyone openly made a comparison. One afternoon the news department got a telegram. It said, simply, “Where is Nelson Case?” The reference was to Lowell Thomas’ announcer. News Editor Al Wasser handed James the telegram when he returned from the studio. He missed the point completely, raging, “Why wasn’t there anything in that newscast about the Nelson case? Here’s some guy waiting for details about the Nelson case, and we didn’t have anything!”
He had much more important things on his mind than comparisons to other broadcasters. He once told me that writing children’s stories was excellent practice for writing news stories, and he mentioned the children’s stories of Howard Pyle as the very best of their kind.
Every news story in his newscasts was clearly told by a master storyteller: Joseph Valachi’s riveting Capitol Hill testimony about the mob. The bitter presidential campaign of 1964. The beginnings of the disaster in Vietnam.
In 1965, he voiced one of the finest documentaries WNEW ever produced, the half-hour obituary for Winston Churchill. The show was written by Assistant News Director Jack Pluntze, for whom Churchill was the highest of heroes. Every nuance of Jack’s brilliant writing came through, perfectly modulated, ending with a wistful, “There may never be another man like him in our lifetime…”
Years later, after he had been a news anchor on WPAT for several years and then moved into television, he would stop in at the NBC Radio Network newsroom now and again for a chat with my editor, Charlie Garment. In what I now remember as the good old days at NBC Radio, it was great to remember the really good old days at WNEW, and the big role James Van Sickle played in them.
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