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  • Gray says there's no comparing his newscasts with what appears on TV today. (Gregg Bender | The Journal Gazette)

  • Jack Gray, center, was the first news anchor at WKJG-TV. Pictured with him are Dick Florea, left, and Hilliard Gates, right. (Courtesy)

Tuesday, March 13, 2018 1:00 am

Broadcast TV pioneer

Jack Gray was playing it by ear when he became the city's first anchor

GREGG BENDER | The Journal Gazette

You may remember the name Jack Gray.

Even after 65 years his distinct voice is still clear and commanding.

It was 1953 when WKJG-TV signed on the air, launching a new medium in Fort Wayne and making Gray the first news anchor in local TV.

Although Gray was a pioneer, he doesn't remember those days as being especially pioneering, but more of a job, career and opportunity in a new medium he was fortunate enough to be part of.

“When the light went on the camera and they pointed a finger, we were live on the air,” he said of the first broadcast. “Kids today go to school for years to learn this, we went down to an Indianapolis television station where we were invited into the control room to see what they were doing. We watched a couple live segments, then came back home and did it.”

He doesn't recall being too nervous at the time, “I didn't know how I was going to feel, we just did it.”

Gray's story begins in Muskegon, Michigan, where a young Jacob Huizenga, Gray's given name, attended high school. One day his principal asked if anyone was interested in being on radio.

“I thought, 'Yeah, that might be interesting.' So I auditioned. I was 16 years old,” he said. It was a small station that did the usual news, sports, commercials and music and ... it was a job, Gray said.

After graduating in 1947 and later marrying his wife, Virginia, Gray continued his work at the station until “one day, I came to work and the stockholders fired everyone to save money,” he said, “So I started auditioning.”

About this time, a friend of his, Hilliard Gates' brother, called him about an audition in Fort Wayne at WKJG radio. “I used to listen to Hilliard all the time, so this was a big deal,” he said

The receptionist couldn't pronounce Jacob Huizenga, so he changed it to Jack Gray, and later legally changed it.

“Jobs were hard to come by in 1951, as the war was over and people were settling down, but I got hired at a dollar an hour,” Gray said, and “Hilliard was the big boss.”

The station was located on South Calhoun Street about a block north of Rudisill Boulevard. But the times they were changing, and WKJG was moving to the new medium of television and also to a new location.

With the preparation for television, the station was moved to the Purdue Building at Jefferson Boulevard and Barr Street. The building was the home of the Purdue University Extension, and it was from this new home that WKJG-TV started broadcasting.

Gray recalled the new offices were much better suited for the new medium with a weather set, basically a chalk board with a map, he recalled, as well as a sports and news desk.

Everything was done live in those days, including the commercials.

Since everything was live, mistakes could and often did happen. Gray recalled one time they were rehearsing a commercial for a furniture store, demonstrating a countertop that was supposed to be flame resistant. The salesman would pour some sort of fuel on the counter, light it, and the fire would go out. “The evening they were to air the commercial, someone poured a bit too much juice on the counter and it caught fire,” Gray said. To compound the problem, the fire extinguisher had been moved. “We just went on with the news as the commotion was heard across the room and they finally got the fire out.”

Gray also did a morning show called “The Editor's Desk” at 10 a.m. in which he would interview local people of interest or discuss topical matters.

Gray recalls one morning that had him a bit nervous when a girl from South America on a goodwill tour of the United States was scheduled to appear on “The Editor's Desk.”

“It was 5 till 10 and she wasn't there. Finally, just as we're starting to begin, they walked in. I just asked, 'What happened?' Her chaperone explained as they were driving past the Coliseum on the way into town, she saw a squirrel. She had never seen a squirrel before, so they stopped to check it out,” he said, “We had a pretty nice chat after that.”

In those days, rarely did the news stations go out into the field with cameras and get footage of live events. The technology just wasn't there to film, develop, edit footage and get it on the air, Gray said.

“When the Polaroid came along, we were able to get still shots, mount them on a rack in the studio and the camera would zoom in on them while we talked over,” he said.

One time, he remembers, they wheeled a camera out to the fire escape to try to show a fire that was going on downtown.

Gray said today's newscasts aren't really comparable to what was being done back in those days.

“I look for originality, feeling, but of course, they have a lot more resources than we did. We didn't have anything to build on. Just live and learn,” he chuckled.

The local news in those days consisted almost entirely of meetings, police news and events, rarely focusing on national news. Gray made the rounds of the city building, which was then located in the current History Center, and gathered the information which would become his broadcast.

Gray and his wife were also members of the sheriff's reserve at the time, which provided wider contacts and access to local officials and news of the day.

As for being on TV at that time, Gray said one had to be a bit careful about what you did and where you went.

“One time, we were in Hawaii and someone stopped and asked if I was Jack Gray, so you could tell people knew who you were,” he said.

But after several years on the air, Gray, who had two children, Kim and Gary, was ready to move on.

“It was the Palm Sunday tornado of 1965, and we were headed south that night on U.S. 27 to check the damage. It was dark, power lines down all around, and dangerous as we had no idea what we were heading into,” he said. “I wondered to myself, 'What am I doing?' and decided I might have run my stint at WKJG.”

Shortly after, he took a job at Lutheran Hospital where he retired in 1988 as a vice president.

After that, he and his wife went to work with his son Gary Gray's company, Chain Reaction, a physical therapy practice focusing on the kinetics of movement. There they set up accommodations and meeting schedules for the multiday seminars held across the United States. They helped their son with these seminars for 25 years, traveling extensively across the country. They retired from this three years ago.

Now 88, Gray and his wife regularly attend The Chapel where they are involved in church activities, and also spend more time with their children, four grandsons and seven great-grandchildren.