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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Ralph Renick's Final Years

The end of the line is a sad place to be. We’ve all seen it.

Willie Mays, one of the greatest baseball players ever, stumbling with the Mets in 1973… hitting only .211 with just six home runs.

Chuck Berry at age 84, going through the motions on stage, not really concerned about what he’s doing to those classic old songs he created.

Yet we cheer for them. Encourage them. Want so much to see them, be around them, and to share in their auras, for the performers they once were and will always represent.

I don’t know Willie Mays or Chuck Berry, but I did know a living legend. Even though he was just a shell of the giant he created, it was still an honor to know, and dare I say, help him.

If you’re under 30, don’t live in the U.S.A., or paid no attention to television news, then you might not know the name Ralph Renick. The rest of us, especially those who grew up in South Florida, know the image, the accomplishments, the legend.

Renick came into my life in 1988, when his agent – the man who ordered my firing from WNWS eight years earlier – negotiated a comeback deal for the veteran newsman. WCIX News Director Larry Wallenstein, who’d worked with Renick at WTVJ, had the idea to return Renick to the South Florida airwaves… as a commentator. It was a familiar role. Renick had pioneered the television editorial, nearly 40 years earlier. Heck, Renick had pioneered just about everything, when it came to TV news in South Florida.

It was hard not to feel intimidated by the man’s accomplishments, but the ego that I’d heard so much about was not on display. The Ralph Renick that went to work at Channel 6 was a lot more down-to-earth than we could have expected. When Renick was given the added task of hosting Insight, the Sunday morning public affairs show that I produced, I got the chance to work closely with him; to write his copy, and to help with questions for our guests. Renick had the final say in what topics we chose, which meant indulging him at times. (He earned that right. I didn’t.) Then, on January 23, 1989, Renick was called on to anchor one final newscast – the last he’d ever do. He insisted that I produce it. Surprisingly, he opted not to write any of his own copy, concentrating instead on the performance he’d need to give that night. Had I known it would be his last-ever newscast, I would have kept the aircheck. Unfortunately that show is lost forever. I’d be lying if I said it was one of his best, but it didn’t need to be. It was Ralph Freaking Renick! Like Willie Mays and Chuck Berry, this was a living legend, doing the thing that made him that way. Not all of Picasso’s etchings are aesthetically pleasing, but they’re still Picassos.

Memo from our bosses about Renick, dated August 29, 1990. Click image to view it full size.

Ralph Renick left WCIX in September 1990. To the casual observer, it might have appeared that he’d been coasting during his last few months at the station. Officially, he was moving on to devote more time to public broadcasting and his community work, but unofficially, there was something else brewing that just wasn’t talked about. Ralph Renick was ill.

It was one of Miami television’s best-kept secrets… to the general public… but we insiders knew that something was wrong. As the months passed, it became clear Renick was dying. Had it been any other local legend, the news reports would have been plentiful, but this was a colleague whose right to privacy we all respected. I’m not saying that was right or wrong, but again, he earned it. After all, where would any of us had been had Ralph Renick not taken to the airwaves back in 1949?

Renick’s battle with hepatitis and liver cancer ended on July 12, 1991. He was 62. We all wrote tributes to the man and his legend, but it was the station he put on the map – WTVJ Channel 4 – that captured his spirit the best. What follows is the first block of a 30-minute special that WTVJ aired that night. It was co-anchored by Bob Mayer, who was given his start in TV news, decades earlier, by none other than Ralph Renick. The audio is low, and there are a few video glitches, but still the pictures are priceless.

Renick had been chairman of the advisory board of the Louis Wolfson Media History Center. The footage that follows (about the blight on Miami Beach) is part of their archives, which stand as a tribute not only to him, but to all the other local broadcasting pioneers.

I still have the Christmas card that Renick sent me in December 1990 – less than 7 months before his death. In it, he wished me good luck on my forthcoming book, which he called “fascinating”. I consider that one of the greatest compliments I ever received.

Christmas card from Ralph Renick, December 1990. Click to view full size.

Ralph Renick might not have been the powerhouse he once was, but for those of us at the old Channel 6… he didn’t need to be. He just needed to be himself, and an important part of our team, as we slowly grew more competitive in the tough Miami news market. Twenty years after his death, he remains the single most important figure in Florida broadcasting history. None of us will ever forget him.

Now that you're here... check out my OTHER POSTS on the Say Six! blog.


Donald D'Haene said...

What a lovely, well-written tribute to your friend. Thanks for sharing your story with us!

Bob Mayer said...

Jeff, I can't believe I had never seen this before. Your blog on Ralph Renick was simply beautiful. Renick was the most important person in my career, a larger-than-life man whom I'd been in awe of since my earliest childhood. I certainly know why he wanted you to produce that final newscast. The respect and honor you had for Ralph is bursting from your words. And the delicate manner in which you framed his final days tells me a great deal about you. Thank you for an honorable and moving story about the final chapter of Ralph's career and life. I'd love to chat with you sometime about our experiences with 'the man'.
Bob Mayer

Danielle Garrard said...

To me he will always be PopPop. As a young child I loved being able to "see" my grandfather every night. He meant more to me than he will ever know. My children may not get to meet the legend, but his spirit lives on in your words. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Good night, and may the good news be yours.

Patty Garrard said...

Thank you for this tribute to my Dad. We are forever proud of his legacy to local news. I think that you beautifully captured his commitment to integrity and the news profession.