WMAQ-TV staffers could always tell when a big story was breaking. The bosses would ask: “Where’s Joe Howard?”
They trusted the gifted writer-producer to turn a complex story into a concise TV report, pairing it with the best video.
After the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis in 1968, Mr. Howard produced a live, three-hour special on the civil rights leader, whom he’d met and interviewed.
Two months later, while Mr. Howard was in California covering the presidential primary, Democrat Robert F. Kennedy was gunned down in a Los Angeles hotel. Mr. Howard was tapped to write the reports NBC News anchor Frank McGee read to a stunned national audience.
Mr. Howard died May 11 at 90.
He won six Emmy Awards over the span of a TV news career that, in addition to producing evening broadcasts in Chicago, included producing more than 25 documentaries for NBC as well as segments for “The Huntley-Brinkley” night network news show and the “Today” show.
It was a swaggering time for TV news, when the medium didn’t have to compete with cable, streaming or social media. Yet when people asked what he did at the studio, his wife Bernice “Bunny” Gallagher said he’d say: “Sometimes, they let me push the broom around.”
Outwardly, he was a crusty cigar-chomper. But newsroom co-workers appreciated his kindness, his organizational skills and his grasp of history.
“He knew what the hell he was doing,” former WMAQ anchor Jim Ruddle said.
“Us young guys wanted to hang out with him, hoping a little bit of that might rub off,” said Peter Nolan, a former reporter.
His advice was “invaluable,” said Ron Magers, who sought his guidance when he arrived from Minneapolis in 1981 to anchor the news. “Joe was somebody you needed to talk to to get some perspective on Chicago.”
“He was very kind to me,” former anchor-reporter Art Norman said. “I walked in that newsroom, and I saw Len O’Connor and Floyd Kalber, and I said, ‘Oh, my gosh, these are legends.’ I was afraid to even talk.”
Norman said Mr. Howard’s knowledge enthralled the journalism students he’d host on studio tours. “He would tell them stories about covering Dr. King,” Norman said.
And he said Mr. Howard worked to preserve historical news footage about the Black community. “If you want to find a 1957 interview with Dr. King, it’s in our archive thanks to Joe,” Norman said.
“Joe taught me how to turn financial information into a video story,” personal finance journalist Terry Savage said. “He was never too busy to help, to smile.”
“He knew how to navigate around City Hall and the statehouse, but he also knew how to find a precinct captain,” said Carol Marin, a former WMAQ political editor and WTTW-TV “Chicago Tonight” correspondent.
Young Joe grew up on the South Side, where he went to St. Philip Neri grade school. He graduated from St. Bede Academy in downstate Peru and Quincy College. He went on to work as a reporter for the Herald-Whig newspaper in Quincy.
In the early 1950s in the Navy, he was a fire-control technician on a destroyer in the Pacific.
He met talent agent Dolores “Dee” Zeigle while working for Wilding Studios, a maker of industrial and educational films. She landed them roles as extras in a scene filmed at the old LaSalle Street Station for Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest.”
But Hitchcock wasn’t a fan of Mr. Howard’s work in front of a camera. His family said the great auteur told him: “Sir in the blue sweater on the escalator? Stop! You are over-acting!’’
“He ended up on the cutting-room floor,” his daughter Lisa said, “while my mom and her sister Carolyn did make it into the final scene.”
They got married in 1958 and raised their family in Wilmette. He was “the encourager-in-chief” to his four kids, according to his daughter, who said they loved crowding into bed to hear him read “Charlotte’s Web.” In 1999, his first wife died of a pulmonary embolism.
He met Bunny Gallagher at the Irish American Heritage Center. They were married in 2004 and enjoyed trips to Ireland. Mr. Howard, who sang tenor with a barbershop quartet, impressed the locals when he performed “My Tumble-Down Shack in Athlone” at Tigh Hughes’ pub in Spiddal, County Galway.
He was “the nicest human I’ve ever known,” his wife said.
Once, when she’d been down, he gave her flowers with a card on which he’d written: “Bunny. I love you. Now cheer up. Joe.”
In addition to his wife Bunny and daughter Lisa, Mr. Howard is survived by his children Joseph Howard, Jennifer Bullington and Colleen Quenan, his wife’s children Stephen, William and John Vignocchi and 15 grandchildren. Services have been held.