Sunday, March 29, 2015

He Loved His Job

The genesis of this post is an e-mail my wife sent me last week, with a link to an obituary for Dr. George Fischbeck, long-time southern California TV weather man. I was not only saddened to hear of Dr. George’s passing; but shocked that my wife would even know who Dr. George was. Later, she explained to me that when we first met in 1988 – when I’d just moved from Los Angeles to Madison and we were colleagues at a Madison radio station – she recalled the great stories I’d told her (and anyone else in the newsroom at the time) about Dr. George and his famous KABC-TV forecasts.

My favorite memory of watching Dr. George Fischbeck do the weather on KABC-TV 7 in Los Angeles was the time he got all wound up explaining something in the weather that caught his interest – I can’t even remember what it was – but several million other viewers and I were captivated, as usual, by his enthusiasm for whatever it was. Suddenly, he looked away from the camera, paused a second (no doubt the producer of the newscast was talking to him through his earpiece – or, IFB, as the TV folks call it) when he said “oh, darn it, I’m already out of time and I didn’t ever get to the forecast. Oh, they’re going to be mad at me upstairs! Well, this is southern California; the weather’s usually nice, there’s nothing to worry about right now, and the next few days will be just fine”.


It was clear to anyone who watched Dr. George that he loved what he was doing. His enthusiasm was contagious. He would talk about stuff that perhaps only marginally related to the weather forecast for southern California and have you fascinated by it. I remember another time when he started out giving the actual forecast, and said it was going to be foggy the next few mornings because of a deep marine layer.


I had heard the term before; sometimes in southern California they call it the “May Gray” or “June Gloom”, when the mornings are foggy until the sun gets high enough in the sky to evaporate the fog. But on this particular day, Dr. George decided to explain what a marine layer is, how it develops, and how a marine layer doesn’t always mean it’s going to be foggy or cloudy.

That was a long time ago; nearly three decades since I watched him give an explanation of what a marine layer is, but - I still remember it, and could explain it to you if you asked, because Dr. George was a fabulous communicator.

Dr. George went to his eternal reward last week at the age of 92. He retired from KABC-TV shortly after I moved to Madison, but then a few years later did some work with KCBS-TV for a couple years.


He was actually trained as a geologist and archaeologist, and was a teacher – no doubt an excellent teacher – for some time before he became a TV weather man. He always said what he knew about the weather came from his days with the National Guard during the Korean War, which ignited his passion for understanding why the weather does what it does.  Somebody saw him doing a children’s science show on a PBS station and he wound up sharing his passion for weather with the huge audience of KABC-TV.


I have hours of videotape of Dr. George squirrelled away in my huge media archive at home. He worked with a couple people I have always considered the best TV news anchors in the business – the late Jerry Dunphy and Ann Martin. Dunphy was born in Milwaukee and passed away in L A in 2002. His signature opening to the KABC-TV 7 news was the often-quoted “From the desert to the sea to all of southern California, a good evening from KABC-TV News”. You’ve probably seen him on a lot of movies, as a news anchor, and didn’t even realize it.


Ann Martin was the TV news anchor I admired and respected the most, mainly because she spoke in plain language, never ever EVER hyped any story, and had that rare gift of making you think she was actually talking just to you – not to a mass audience of millions of viewers. That’s the concept they teach you in news anchor school – imagine that you are talking to one person – but so few anchors are actually able to pull it off. They communicate AT us, not with us.


Jerry Dunphy was the archetypal old-school news anchor, who delivered with authority and commanding presence; he told you the news in formal tones, speaking as if he were in an auditorium giving a lecture. But he was DAMN good at it. It was the epitome of old-school news anchoring. Ann Miller’s style was vastly different. She was, at the time, a real pioneer in the concept of talking TO people, not AT people. She was like the old friend who’d dropped by your house for a glass of lemonade after a hot day and chatted with you about what was going on.


And Dr. George was like that great professor you had in college, the one with the bow tie and dark-rimmed glasses, who you knew just loved his subject, and couldn’t wait for his chance to tell you exciting things about his particular field of expertise.


As a bonus, during that time, the main sports guy on KABC-TV was Jim Hill – a former Packers player who learned the TV sports business after his playing days at Channel 2 in Green Bay, one of the stations I watched growing up in the Fox Valley.  He was a “homey” from my home-town TV station.


They were my crew. My favorite TV news peeps during my last stint as a southern Californian. That was 27 years ago – and, the scary part is, it seems like only yesterday.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Being Safe Out There

We may never know exactly what happened when a Madison police officer shot and killed Tony Robinson earlier this month. Too much has already been said by people who know very little about what happened. All they needed to know to spout off was one of two things: an unarmed black kid was killed by a cop; or, a cop was assaulted by a crazed kid and what you’d expect to happen, happened.


As a nation, as a state, and in this case, even as a city, we are too divided to really listen to each other. Too many people insist on being heard, yet they have no time to listen. For too many people, there’s no middle ground; it’s all black or white. For some, the President is a Kenyan Muslim who’s going to declare Sharia Law and appoint himself President for Life; for others, he’s doing the best job possible under extremely trying circumstances. Scott Walker is either the antichrist, or the reform Governor the Badger state needed.


And now, among too many people in Madison, it would seem that anyone who “questions the manner in which police services are provided” (to paraphrase a meme from the movie “A Few Good Men” that’s going around a lot) is automatically a cop-hater. No middle ground, no rational discussion. Either you support the cops and never question anything they do, or you’re a cop-hating anarchist who doesn’t deserve the protection they provide.


When NBC Reporter Ron Mott and other national TV people did their damndest to paint the incident in Madison as “another Ferguson”, the local reporters told them to look around. Madison and Ferguson have nearly nothing in common.


The Madison cop who shot and killed Tony Robinson will not face criminal charges. I base that opinion on the FACT that in the entire history of Wisconsin as a state, in only ONE incident where a cop shot and killed a person did the police officer face criminal charges. And there are dozens of such cases every year. We can debate how cops should be trained to react in these instantaneous and extremely tense situations, but, it’s not going to affect the outcome of the Tony Robinson scenario one bit.


My bona fides as a non-cop-hater are solid. My grandfather was a Wisconsin State Patrol officer. Two close family members are cops. Another is an FBI agent. From childhood on, I was taught that the cop is there to protect you, someone to seek out when there’s trouble. No one in my family ever told any child “the policeman will come and put you in jail if you’re not good”.


But my experiences are not the same as a lot of other members of society.


What’s it like to be a cop?  I don’t know, and never will. I have opinions and attitudes about what it must be like to be a cop, suppositions formed from impressions gleaned while talking with my family members who are cops. But I know about as much truth about what it’s really like to be a cop as most folks know what it’s really like to be a tuba player.


Let me share one story with you. On a hot day last summer, I drove my giant gas-sucking SUV to the Octopus Car Wash on Park Street. It was a busy day with lots of cars in line. Right ahead of me was one of those Madison Police Department TEST (Traffic Enforcement Safety Team) cars – a big, black, unmarked Crown Vic bristling with antennas but carrying regular Wisconsin auto plates.


The uniformed Madison cop who was driving the unmarked cruiser was just ahead of me in the line at the cashier’s station, and as he stood in front of the huge glass widows that let you see your car being washed, I came up and stood next to him and started talking to him about his Crown Vic. How many miles on it, was it comfortable enough to be his “office” for an eight-hour shift; did it perform and handle well; did he get to take it home - small talk. He politely answered all my dumb questions.


I asked him if he knew another Madison cop, a cop who had been my daughter’s varsity basketball coach at LaFollette High. He did (no surprise); that led to more small talk. One of the other girls from that basketball team is now a Madison police officer. Just conversation, passing the time as the guys at Octopus dried and polished our cars up. Just a few minutes of inconsequential communication.


Our vehicles were both finished about the same time, and we walked out of the customer waiting area and headed toward our cars. The officer, who was a step in front of me, stopped and turned and said “hey – thanks for the conversation.” I gave a somewhat quizzical look and said “sure, why not?”  He said “nobody just talks to cops like that any more unless they know you personally. They either have an angle and want something, or they just plain don’t like cops. It’s pretty rare when somebody treats us like another guy just waiting for his car in the car wash, and passes the time by just making conversation."


That’s pretty sad.


Cops, be safe out there. Not all of us hate you.