The gentleman journalist

By Christopher Harper

Hugh Downs stood far above the self-absorbed bloviators who pawn themselves off today as journalists.

For nearly a decade, I worked with Hugh for ABC’s 20/20. He was the consummate gentleman and Renaissance man who treated everyone with respect.

Hugh referred to himself as “a champion dilettante,” who dabbled in music, art, and science. His 1986 memoir, “On Camera: My 10,000 Hours on Television,” was no idle boast: For years, he held the Guinness record for most hours on commercial network television until Regis Philbin eventually passed him.

Hugh was born and grew up in Ohio. His father worked as a salesman who struggled to make ends meet during the Depression. Hugh had to drop out of college to support the family as a radio announcer in Lima, Ohio.

In 1940, after serving in the Army, he joined the staff of WMAQ, the NBC radio station in Chicago. Later in the decade, he made the transition to television, working on “Kukla, Fran, and Ollie,” a popular puppet show.
Eventually, he would appear on “The Tonight Show,” “The Today Show,” “Concentration,” “20/20,” and others.

At the beginning of his career, Hugh said he suffered from stage fright. He recalled those days in “On Camera,” his memoir:

“At the end of a piece of music, when I was supposed to say something, my knees would shake uncontrollably. My pulse and respiration went up. Fortunately, the fear never showed in my delivery, but it did in my hands. If I had to hold copy, the paper would rattle. As a defense, I learned to lay copy out flat on the desk, or, if standing, to grab my lapels along with the copy, so the paper didn’t move with my hands.”

In 1978, Hugh received a call from Roone Arledge, the president of ABC News, asking him to take over the newsmagazine “20/20.” Its debut just a week earlier had been a disaster. Hugh was the sole host until 1984, when his former “Today” colleague Barbara Walters became his co-host. He remained with the program until retiring in 1999.
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In addition to his television work, Hugh was a composer. He wrote a prelude that was performed by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

Hugh was an amateur guitarist and played for Andrés Segovia. He said he was pleased that Segovia did not leave the room.

Hugh also was a science buff and an adventurer. He piloted a 65-foot ketch across the Pacific and traveled to the South Pole.

During my time at “20/20,” I worked with Hugh on a project to create coral reefs near Miami. We had a great deal of fun, including the opportunity to blow up an old ship to start a reef.

But I truly appreciated Hugh’s fame when he was able to get a reservation for our team at Joe’s Stone Crabs in South Beach, where people lined up for hours to get inside in the usually first-come, first-serve restaurant.

Hugh died at the age of 99. I know he probably wanted to reach 100, but somehow 2020 seems more appropriate.

3 thoughts on “The gentleman journalist

  1. Huge Downs was a joy to watch and in many ways my early life involved him
    He was always on tv and always reliable, sober and thoughtful From the Today Show , to Concentration and 20/20 and others things
    Not many like him then, and certainly not now.

    RIP

  2. Wow, how very interesting, Chris! I really enjoyed Hugh Downs because he was so likable! I didn’t know about all his radio & TV history!
    I think you are absolutely correct. He probably did want to reach 100, but you are also correct, 2020 just seemed to fit him better!
    Thanks!
    Donna

  3. Yes, Hugh was a true gentleman and we sure do not have many like him in journalism today. Your bio helped me remember him as he was when I was young. My grandfather always admired him and he was a great judge of character. Thanks for the smile your 2020 gave me and I’m sure Hugh would have liked it too.
    Thanks,
    Toddy

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