Meet northwest Ohio's greatest television icon

And, get this, he was actually a nice guy.

By Tom Henry / The Blade
Sat, 08 Aug 2020 15:00:00 GMT

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I’m more than a month late with this tribute, but so be it.

Hugh Downs would understand. Chances are he’d even wonder why I’m devoting my precious space to him when I could be riffin’ away about someone or something else.

I’ll tell you why: His demeanor.

I had a 90-minute interview with Mr. Downs on June 27, 1998 when he came back to northwest Ohio for Shawnee High School’s 60th Class of 1938 reunion. He was one of only 52 people in that graduating class.

Shawnee High School is in the southwest outskirts of Lima, Ohio. That particular reunion was in nearby Wapakoneta, Ohio, which is about a 90-minute drive from downtown Toledo.

There were jokes galore when I arrived early to do some advance interviews. Locals pointed out the only other person who came close to matching Mr. Downs for name recognition was bombastic comedian Phyllis Diller, one of early queens of self-deprecating humor. She also grew up in Lima.

Let me stop here and make a quick observation: Journalists meet a lot of celebrities. Some are every bit as nice as you hope they’d be. Others? Not so much.

Mr. Downs was definitely one of the former. He was nice to me and to all of his classmates, most of whom - like him - were 77 at the time. You could tell by the way he interacted with them there was a level of comfort that wasn’t phony. He was home. And they knew it.

That reunion wasn’t his first, either, which helps explain the level of comfort.

Mr. Downs came back for the Shawnee High Class of 1938’s 45-, 50-, and 55-year reunions, too. He had signed up for the 40-year reunion in 1978, but couldn’t make it because 20/20’s first broadcast was June 12, 1978. The network kept him in New York that year.

Mr. Downs died July 1 at age 99. Yes, he had a full life. But you could have said the same thing about him even if he had lived less than half that long.

He grew up with the advent of television, was a big part of the emerging digital era, traveled the world, knew many of its most famous people, and never let it go to his head.

Mr. Downs was described as an insatiable reader with a never-ending thirst for knowledge. But when I asked him about the countless scientists he interviewed, he chuckled and tried telling me he was never that smart himself. He said he just looked smart by hanging out with intelligent people.

‘I’m almost a Chihuahua among Saint Bernards,’’ he mused back then.

His life journey and his amazing career began on a whim during one of America’s bleakest eras.

Less than a month before he graduated from Shawnee High, Mr. Downs - then 17 - walked into the WLOK radio station offices in Lima, set down a pint of newly purchased milk on the reception’s desk, and naively asked these words: “How do you become a radio announcer?”

He had no appointment and no particular interest in a radio career.

It was still the Depression. He just wanted a job.

Mr. Downs somehow got hired on the spot despite giving what he called a lousy audition.

He was paid only $12.50 a week, but was off and running.

His father told him to give it a week and see if anything better turned up.

Mr. Downs helped start the Tonight show with Jack Paar in 1957. The following year, he became host of Concentration, a game show that helped television recover from its quiz show scandal of the late 1950s.

He pitched anything from Brylcreem to Fords before spending nine years as host of NBC’s Today and more than two decades on ABC’s 20/20.

Born on Valentine’s Day in 1921, Mr. Downs first lived in Akron. For the latter part of his life, he made his home in Scottsdale, Ariz.

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Mr. Downs had for many years logged more time in front a television camera than anyone else until Regis Philbin passed him in 2004. The career totals for Mr. Downs include more than 15,000 hours of exposure on news, game, and talk shows.

What motivated him to keep coming back to Lima?

“The water that tastes best,” Mr. Downs told me, “is the water from the well of your youth.”