Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Jack Shelley (1912-2010)

Jack Shelley died yesterday (9/14/10) in Ames, Iowa.  A veteran broadcaster and journalism teacher, he was arguably one of the best known Iowans of the past half-century or so.  He was 90 years old.

Many accolades for Jack have been offered by people who knew him well – and others who never met him, but remember his work as a long-time broadcaster at WHO radio and television in Des Moines.  He followed that with a distinguished career as a journalism professor at Iowa State University.

The Des Moines Register and ISU School of Journalism are among those who've posted a wealth of information about Jack, including some audio excerpts of memorable broadcasts, a few photographs, and a tribute compiled by Jeff Stein of the Iowa Broadcast News Association.

Jack was a teacher of mine at ISU, and I’ve written about him before in this Radio-TV Journal.  Now I’d like to offer a few more stories about this remarkable man.

I first got to know Jack in the late 1960s when he had already retired from WHO and had gone to Ames to teach broadcast journalism at Iowa State University.  I was News Director at KMA Radio in Shenandoah and met Jack at gatherings of the Iowa Broadcast News Association, for which he served as Secretary-Treasurer for many years.

Jack Shelley was a major influence in my deciding to leave KMA and return to school to work on a Master’s degree at Iowa State, which I did in 1969.  Like a long line of students who studied under Jack before and since, I became an ardent admirer.  I had known little about his work at WHO, but his reputation as a top-flight broadcast journalist and manager were well-known across Iowa.

After completing coursework for my M.S. degree, I chose to return to the Navy and signed up for Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island.  But poor color perception cut short my aspirations of a career in the active duty Navy, and I soon found myself back home – with a wife and two children, but no job.

I still remember Jack calling me one evening and saying, “Larry, there’s a job out in Sioux City that might suit you.  It’s not in news – it’s a job as a TV weatherman, and I remember you said you’d done weather before in western Nebraska.”  Within days, I interviewed for the job and was on my way to Sioux City as a weatherman at KMEG-TV, the CBS affiliate.  Jack’s help allowed me to become gainfully employed again, for which I was -- and remain -- deeply grateful.  I’m guessing he did that sort of thing for hundreds of ISU students over the years.  

Since leaving Iowa State in 1971, I’ve returned only once – in 1974 to defend my M.S. thesis before a graduate committee.   Remembering that trip back to Ames spurs other poignant memories of Jack, who served on my committee, going above and beyond the call of duty to help me.  By that time, I was working for KLRN-TV in Austin, Texas, and raising a family.  I was very “non-traditional” as students go.  Jack offered several valuable suggestions for my thesis regarding Armed Forces Radio and Television service.  Without that guidance and inspiration, I doubt that I would have persevered.  Jack was a major force in my pursuing and receiving a Master’s degree.

Perhaps the most poignant illustration of Jack’s graciousness came just a few years ago.  It was the spring of 2003, and I was in my final years of broadcasting, serving as President of the Pennsylvania Public Television Network.  I had gotten wind of Robert Underhill’s book, Jack Shelley and the News, published in 2002 by McMillen Publishing in Ames.  I immediately called the publisher and ordered a copy – but was soon overtaken by a desire to get in touch with Jack.

By this time, Jack was already a spry 90 years old.  I tracked down his phone number in Ames and gave him a call. 

And what a delightful exchange it was.

Despite years having passed since we last communicated, Jack answered the phone and it was like a segue from a commercial to the news.  He wanted to know all about what I was up to, and how things were going.  I asked about his Rotary activities, WOI, and other ISU faculty I remembered – folks like Jake Hvistendahl, Ed Blinn, and others.

Then I told him I’d ordered his biography from McMillen Publishing.

“You have?  When did you order it?”

“Just today,” I remember saying; whereupon, Jack – having celebrated his 90th birthday just a few weeks earlier – announced that he was going to McMillen’s that very day. If they hadn’t already shipped the book, he would sign it for me.


Underhill’s book, and the abundant obituaries and tributes pouring out for Jack Shelley are a testament to a life well lived.  And as I gaze upon Jack’s perfectly penned note inside the cover, I am very moved.  “For Larry, with happy memories of our time at Iowa State.  Best wishes… Jack Shelley, April 1, 2003.

Happy memories, indeed.  Godspeed, Jack Shelley.

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