REMEMBERING GEORGE ENGLE
By Alan Walden
Where to begin? With apologies to Sofia, the irrepressible Sicilian doyenne of The Golden Girls: Picture it! Cleveland, Ohio. 1962. A callow youth, having arrived a year earlier from a overly long apprenticeship on Long Island, finagles his way into major market radio and, for reasons best known to those who employ him, becomes News Director of WERE.
Our principal competitors were WHK (Bruce Charles was News Director there), WJW (Mike Prelee was News Director there), and WGAR whose News Director and principal anchor was George Frederick Engle. From the moment I met him at City Hall I knew I wanted him for a friend. I was the new kid on the block and, to me, he was the BMOC. But he was more than willing to take the neophyte under his wing and lead him through the somewhat arcane mysteries of Ohio politics. With George, what you saw was what you got. His relentlessly sunny disposition (I don’t think I ever met anyone else who was so perpetually ebullient) was as natural to him as breathing.
When my then wife Judy and I first gathered with his wife and boys we began to swap stories of the trials and tribulations of small market radio. George had begun his career in Coldwater, Michigan and had me on the floor with some of the misadventures he’d endured. On one memorable occasion, he’d done a story about a felon for whom a fugitive warrant had been issued to the Michigan State Police. George told us that he had proclaimed, in that glorious, rolling baritone of his, “ (The suspect), under indictment for assault grand larceny, missed his date in court by jumping a 10,000 dollar blonde. (pregnant pause) BOND!!!!!!!” He said it had taught him a very important lesson. When you make that kind of gaffe on the air, never look back. Never try to correct it. Just keep going as though nothing had happened. That was George: He never looked back except to tell that story.
Being with George and his family was like being extras in an episode of My Three Sons. He and his wife, Wally, had their hands full with Ray, Skip (George Jr.), and Tim, as fractious a brood as ever you were likely to encounter. Wally’s real name is Sybill Walterine. George also called her “Rat Face,” something I suspect few other men would hazard with their spouses. I venture to say she suffered it willingly because (1) he meant it as a unique term of endearment, (2) it didn’t fit. Wally is a very handsome woman, born and bred in the deep south, and (3) it was almost impossible for anyone, Wally included, to become angry with George for more than a few seconds. He’d flash that big grin and that was that.
When we arrived in New York and I began working at WNEW George Engle was the first name that sprang to mind when an opening suddenly appeared on the news staff. I touted him quite shamelessly to Lee Hanna and Jerry Graham as the perfect man for the job. I really did think George would fill the bill quite nicely, but there was an ulterior motive: I also figured he, as the newest member of the crew, would relieve me of a damnable split shift: Three late days and two overnights. He did, and he did, and there we were, working together for the first time. It was an interesting coincidence that brought all four news directors of those competing radio stations in Cleveland to New York within less than a year; even more curious that three of us, Bruce Charles, George, and I came to WNEW. The odd man out was Mike Prelee who went to WHN although, eventually he, too, became a WNEW newscaster and, finally, News Director.
While the Engles were making their move to New York George bunked in with Judy and me at our home in Westbury for several weeks. Our three year old daughter fell immediately and madly in love with George and, blissfully unaware of the implications, told the neighbors that she had a nighttime daddy, me, I worked days, and a daytime daddy, George, who worked nights. Judy went along with the gag by making sure that she was on the steps to wave each of us off to work, morning and evening.
In addition to his considerable skill as a broadcaster George brought an additional and welcome element of fun into the WNEW newsroom. He never took himself very seriously and tried, very hard, to insure that no one else did either. Boisterous by nature and gifted with a big and marvelously mellow voice, his laughter resounded through the building. After I became News Director and would discuss an assignment with him, he usually responded to instructions by sliding into a fair imitation of the cartoon character Bullwinkle, the talking moose, and blurting, thunderously, “Riiiight, Rocky!” I laughed, and so did everyone else. Andy Fisher tells the story of when he and George were on assignment in Washington and riding the private subway that runs beneath the Capitol they assumed the roles of “Senator” (no name given) and “Krinefanch,” his aide and kept up a lively patter of gibberish for the benefit of all within earshot. George and Andy were also among the regulars at the Red Raven on East 45th Street where the bunch of us would gather after work to talk about anything and everything and engage in some innocent mischief for a few hours.
George was a good and trusted friend and colleague. A solid performer he wrote well, was a fine reporter and, on the air, sounded better than almost anyone else. When George was at the microphone there was no need to worry…about anything.
After the collapse of Metromedia Radio in 1970 George and I lost touch for awhile. But we got a second chance to work together during the short but exciting run of the NBC News and Information Service in the mid 70s. Actually, it was Wally, always fiercely protective of George and his career, who came to me and told me that I had to hire George, “or else.” The hard sell wasn’t really necessary. If George was available, we wanted him. He was every bit as good at NBC as he was at ‘NEW.
We lost George Engle far too soon. His wasn’t a very long life as the years are measured in the early 21st Century. But I like to think it was a good life. It was certainly a good career. George was respected, admired, and enjoyed. I can still hear his laugh and, off in the distance, through the swirling mist of memory, the faint echo of that stentorian bellow: “Riiiiight, Rocky!”