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Obituary: Paul Long / Longtime voice of WTAE News dies at age 86

Saturday, July 13, 2002

By Barbara Vancheri and Rob Owen, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

Paul Long, an anchorman with unconventional TV looks but a majestic voice and encyclopedic knowledge of news, died yesterday at Presbyterian Senior Care in Washington, Pa. He was 86 and had suffered from congestive heart failure.

WTAE News anchor Paul Long in 1989 (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

Mr. Long, a Texas native who once picked cotton for $1 a day and prided himself on losing his Southern accent, joined KDKA Radio in 1946 and added television to his repertoire a decade later. In 1969, he moved to WTAE, where he and Don Cannon forged a successful anchor team as pal Joe DeNardo forecast the weather.

"I never saw anybody better," Cannon said of the broadcasting veteran affectionately called "The Old Man," "Pappy" (after Pappy Boyington, the ace war pilot in the TV series "Black Sheep Squadron") or "P. Long."

"He had a physical presence. Everybody wanted to have his voice. He talked like the voice of God," Cannon said. Indeed, Mr. Long later "spoke" for God in a Burgunder Dodge commercial.

Mr. Long retired from Channel 4 on Dec. 30, 1994, a month shy of his 79th birthday. He had been a reporter and anchor who later served as the station's editorial voice and anchored its "Our Town" features.

Former WTAE news director Joe Rovitto said, "It wasn't just the voice, it was the voice in combination with performance. Paul Long understood above all else that journalism itself was not enough. There also had to be a powerful, passionate performance that went along with it."

Cannon, now a KDKA anchor, agreed Mr. Long "epitomized everything a TV anchor should be: He was smart, he knew what was going on. I learned early on never to get into arguments with him because I had no chance of winning, especially when it came to religion and airplanes."

Although Mr. Long was known for his bald pate (a distinction that once prompted Johnny Carson to hold up Mr. Long's photo on his late-night show) and for his glower and cigars that burned tiny holes in his clothes and once caused a minor fire in a newsroom wastebasket, he had a wicked wit and was a terrific writer whose e-mail messages boasted perfect spelling and grammar.

Mr. Long left his family's farm in the tiny town of Como, Texas, at 16 for college. "My father lost his job as postmaster and couldn't afford to support me any more in college," Mr. Long told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "But when I was there, I got into the drama class," joined the choir and studied mechanical engineering because he wanted to learn to fly.

Paul Long takes part in a show being taped at WQED in September 1998. (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette)

With the help of his older brother, who sold his accordion and cashed in an insurance policy, Mr. Long took off for New York, where he spent three years pursuing acting jobs and working as a night clerk in a bakery. He appeared in a Broadway play called "Fickle Women," which opened in December 1937 and closed the next night.

He eventually retreated to radio, working in Texas and then Louisiana, and later served as a flight instructor. When word came that KDKA Radio, whose powerful signal could be heard in Texas, was looking for a newsman, he got the job.

"I thought I had died and gone to heaven," Mr. Long said.

Mr. Long gained national notoriety on KDKA when he filed a report for NBC Radio's evening newscast about a coal strike called in November 1949 by United Mine Workers leader John L. Lewis.

Mr. Long's narration began: "John L. Lewis just shot Santa Claus. That's what one miner told me this afternoon. And that seems to sum up the general feeling among all the boys who go down in the pits for a living." Children were hysterical and Mr. Long's follow-up clarified: "John L. Lewis shot at Santa -- but he missed."

In a 1988 issue of Executive Report magazine, Mr. Long said being a bald anchor had its privileges. "People figured if a guy looks like that, he must know what he's talking about."

Former WTAE anchor/reporter Adam Lynch remembered going out to cover a story where he met an older gentleman. "You're getting all this stuff ready to take back to Mr. Long, aren't you?" the man asked.

"That's the way it was," Lynch said. "I couldn't be seriously angry or upset. That's what Channel 4 wanted them to believe. It typifies the way the market thought of him, that Mr. Long ran the operation, and no one tried to dispel that notion."

Cannon, who started working with Mr. Long in 1969 and stayed in touch until his death, remembers the first time he saw him on the air. Mr. Long had opened an 11 p.m. newscast with the dramatic report: "Frances Gumm is dead." That was Judy Garland's real name.

Paul Long was Channel 4 news anchor from 1969 to 1994. (WTAE photo)

Mr. Long's first words to Cannon earlier that day had been: "You're the guy from Chicago with the hair." It was the beginning of a fruitful friendship and working relationship, dramatized in a memorable set of 1980s commercials in which one anchor stumbled and sent an arc of coffee flying through the air -- and the other caught it in his cup without looking up from his work.

John Conomikes was the WTAE general manager who hired Mr. Long and, a few months later, lured DeNardo away from KDKA. He paid Mr. Long not to work for six months to sit out a noncompete clause in his KDKA contract. A few months after Mr. Long and DeNardo were on the air at Channel 4, Cannon joined them.

Conomikes said hiring Mr. Long put Channel 4 on the map.

"It gave us instant credibility overnight and our ratings went up 75 or 80 percent," Conomikes said. "Paul Long was an icon [in Pittsburgh]. Back then he was better known for radio than television, but if anyone was going to challenge Bill Burns, it was Paul and Joe DeNardo."

Mr. Long's prowess -- and mishaps -- as a pilot were almost as legendary.

In April 1962, Mr. Long and two passengers walked away from the crash landing of a light plane in Westmoreland County. Mr. Long was piloting the Cessna 180, which came to a halt 15 feet from a house in North Huntingdon.

He had been returning from broadcasting the Pirates-New York Mets baseball game at the Polo Grounds. According to a possibly apocryphal account, Mr. Long got out of the plane, walked to the front door and introduced himself to the woman who answered.

"Madam, my name is Paul Long, may I use your telephone?" he asked.

"No, you can't," the woman replied. "And besides, I watch Bill Burns."

At the time, Mr. Long said the accident wouldn't stop him from climbing into the cockpit again.

He would often call DeNardo at the station before flying to get a weather report. But he wouldn't accept the recommendations, just the information.

"He'd say, 'Mr. DeNardo, I'm the pilot, you are the meteorologist. You tell me what the weather is. I will make the decision whether I fly or not,'" DeNardo remembered.

DeNardo worked alongside Mr. Long from 1960, when both appeared on KDKA-TV, until Mr. Long's retirement. He had visited Mr. Long weekly since learning of his move to a nursing home in early November.

"Paul was my mentor when it came to what to do with respect to television and the scales and salaries and the chain of command," DeNardo said. "He taught me everything. He was a continuous and ultimate professional. He would not lower his standards. He'd get into some [hellish] arguments to prove a point."

Serious-sounding though he was, Mr. Long was a good sport when it came to his friend's practical jokes.

DeNardo recalled Mr. Long's penchant for leaving his keys in his car. One night, after Mr. Long had returned from dinner to prepare for the late news, DeNardo climbed into Mr. Long's car and moved it to an upper parking lot.

After the 11 p.m. news, DeNardo exited the WTAE building to find Mr. Long.

"I'm looking for my goddamned car," Mr. Long said.

"Well, you leave the keys in it all the time. It had to happen sooner or later," DeNardo replied, before suggesting Mr. Long search the lower parking lot. While Mr. Long looked there, DeNardo raced to the upper parking lot and moved Mr. Long's car back to where the anchor had parked it.

"He came back up, said, 'I'll be a son-of-a-...,' and drove right off," DeNardo recalled.

When anchor Sally Wiggin arrived at WTAE in 1981 from a station in Birmingham, Ala., she had an image of how anchors were supposed to look.

"Don looked like that. Paul did not, but he had a voice like an anchor," Wiggin said. "Paul didn't speak, he intoned and made pronouncements, and there was something lovable about it. He had this marvelous laugh."

Although Wiggin never had a permanent seat next to Mr. Long at the anchor desk, she did fill-in work alongside him.

"Paul savored the language," she said. "He didn't just read the news. It wasn't this machine gun rat-a-tat-tat."

Friends and colleagues all had favorite Paul Long memories, like the time he fell asleep on the bleachers used for Paul Shannon's children's show and the day he read a story that colleague Eleanor Schano wrote, stood up in the newsroom and crankily inquired, "What in the hell is a youth?"

DeNardo also remembered the anchor's tendency to wear the same suit several days in a row.

"One day he was going to go to Denver for the weekend, and Don Cannon and I were talking to him and I said, 'Are you going to wear that suit?' [And] Cannon said, 'You've had that one on for 10 days.' And he replied, in his bell-like tone, 'They don't know that in Denver.'"

Mr. Long is survived by his wife, Elaine, whom he met while she was singing at KDKA as a member of the Kinder Sisters. Although her first glimpse of Mr. Long was of a rumpled, scowling, balding man, he straightened up, looked at the women and said, "Good evening, ladies." That kindled her attraction. Until recent health setbacks, the couple lived in Thornburg.

Mr. Long also is survived by a son, Chris of Baltimore, and a daughter, Holly Van Dine of Point Breeze.

Funeral arrangements are being handled by Jefferson Memorial Funeral Home in Pleasant Hills. Details were unavailable last night.

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