Milwaukee Talks: Jerry Taff
How time flies.
Two milestones -- 25 years at one station and retirement from an illustrious broadcasting career spanning more than 40 years -- are coming together for Jerry Taff. A law and history buff with a penchant for journalism, reading, mentoring, community outreach, Elvis and Corvettes, Taff has collected numerous broadcasting awards. Among them is the Southwest Journalism Forum special medallion, which is unique in that it can only be won once in a lifetime.
He also taught TV Journalism at Carroll College for a number of years and mentors college students to this day.
A native Texan, Taff cut his teeth in broadcasting in Amarillo. He then worked his way up through New Haven, Flint and Dallas before taking the anchor position at Milwaukee's WISN-TV in 1979. He's been here ever since, and his longevity speaks for itself: his pairing with co-anchor Kathy Mykleby lasted so long that it became the subject of an OMC April Fools' story ("Live, Local and Common Law for Taff, Mykleby").
On May 25, Taff bids farewell and wish us better tomorrows for the final time on WISN-TV, putting the cap on a fascinating journey in the world of television news. As he prepares for the relative relaxation of retirement, he sat down with OMC.
OMC: So you grew up in Texas. How was that?
JT: I really didn't like it that much. I grew up in Lamesa, Texas, which literally means "the table." It's a small town -- 9,300 inhabitants -- and it was miles and miles from anywhere else. I did like some elements of it, though. The cowboy culture is very interesting. The chivalrous way you treat ladies, the way you take off your hat when a funeral procession goes by ... they're quaint and touching. They're a part of me and I wouldn't change that if I could.
OMC: So what's a typical day been like for you over the last several years? You don't keep a 9-to-5 schedule, obviously...
JT: As long as I've been TV (since 1964), I haven't kept a 9-to-5 schedule. When I first started, I had a police radio bolted to my bed ... you're never really off the clock.
Then, for the bulk of my career, my schedule would begin in the late morning. Often, you meet somebody for lunch, like a local official, a colleague, or someone else involved in the community. You keep on top of issues with them and cultivate those relationships. To do the 6 and 10 reports, you need to be in here (the newsroom) around 2:30. You usually get out around 11:15. Lately, though, I've just been doing the 6, so I'm done earlier than that.
OMC: So you've been ramping down a bit, huh?
JT: A little. You could say I'm easing into retirement.
OMC: What was your most memorable moment over your broadcasting career?
JT: Wow. I loved the radio growing up, and I grew up in awe of WFAA radio, which was based in Dallas. The rush of my life was my first newscast there. When I moved to television and landed a job at WFAA-TV, I worked in the Fort Worth bureau. The company issued me this somewhat run-down car, but it still was a station-issued vehicle and I got to drive it. I remember vividly going home to my apartment complex; I sat there for hours looking out in the parking lot and thinking, "man, I have a key to that car!" I felt like I was at the top of the mountain.
OMC: So it was first getting there in your career that still stands as most memorable?
JT: I'd say first getting there, yes. I've been on "Good Morning, America," helped with "Nightline," gone all kinds of places ... but that still stands out in my mind as most memorable.
OMC: What was your most stressful moment ever while on the air?
JT: One time in Tel Aviv, I was prepping to go on the air. This was during the Gulf War, and a scud missile went off two blocks down the street. That was pretty nerve-wracking.
But while actually on the air, I remember when I was working in Flint. They'd just changed out a bunch of the lights overhead in the studio. I went out to do a 10-second cut-in, live, and one of those new bulbs exploded. Shards of glass rained down, and they burned holes in my jacket ... even holes in my hair, right down to the scalp!
OMC: What was your favorite assignment?
JT: Actually, it's hard to beat covering a war. You're on an adrenaline rush from the time you board the plane until the moment you come back. Everything is real; your life is on the line. It's a war zone and you're in it; you're never more awake or alive than when you don't know how much longer you'll be alive.
Another favorite of mine was in Dallas, when I was Director of Special Projects. ABC used to show the Monday Night Movie -- this was before Monday Night Football started -- and often the movie would end around 9:45 or so. The news didn't start until 10, so we had to come up with ways to fill the time in between. So, we got to travel and do features. We went around the country, and several times a year out of the country, all on the station. It's fun to travel the world on someone else's dime!
OMC: So how ticked off were you when Monday Night Football started?
JT: Well, it took away some of that fun. What was really annoying with Monday Night Football was when I worked in New Haven and Flint, which were both in the Eastern Time Zone. The games wouldn't start until 9, and since we couldn't start until the games were over, you'd be doing the news at 12:30, 1 in the morning. One night a game ran so long the weather guy who did mornings came in; he was so tired he just passed out on the floor. So, we did our report and every once in a while we'd cut to him, just laying right there on the floor. We had fun with it; they'd never let us do that now.
OMC: With all the changes over time, was there ever a moment when you got fed up with TV or broadcasting that wanted to get out of business?
JT: Hmmm. Not really. I guess every generation thinks the world is going to hell in a hand basket. When they stop doing what you invented, then you decide it's falling apart. But there's so much that's good about broadcasting. In some ways, television changed the world. In Dallas, our station helped overhaul the welfare system in Texas, change some of the ways the city government worked ... we did a lot of meaningful stuff. You believe what you're doing matters ... and you don't get tired of doing things that matter.
OMC: You've been in Milwaukee for just over a quarter of a century. What were your impressions when you first came here?
JT: Well, I had two. The first was when I came in from the airport. I was driving to the station and swung through the Marquette Interchange and had to get over to the right to make the 22nd Street exit -- the one they just tore out -- and thought "how do people survive this"? That road scared me to death. The next impression was when the GM took me down to the lakefront. We rode up Lincoln Memorial Drive and I saw the trees, the grass, and I'd rarely seen open water like that that wasn't the ocean. He said to me: "this is one of the country's best-kept secrets", and I agreed.
OMC: What are the biggest differences you see around town now versus when you first came here in 1979?
JT: I still totally agree with the premise that it's the best-kept secret I know. To come from Texas, where bragging is part of the fabric, I've always been impressed with how sincere people are here. They take more responsibility for their lives. If you go up to them with a news camera and ask them a question about a topic they don't know, they'll tell you they don't know. In many other places, people will make up something. These are the most decent, honorable, responsible people of any place I've lived. They care about their city and they'll spend money to improve it. That's something I've seen even more of lately.
OMC: What about TV broadcast news? What changes do you see since 1979, good and bad?
JT: I think the major change, sadly, has been in the audience. My perception is a larger percentage of the audience feels disengaged or disenfranchised. And in the quest to try and get them back, we've had to do some things that I didn't always feel great about. The stories aren't always as newsworthy as they once were; it's like too much coverage of the "runaway bride" and not enough of the war. And some outlets are slanted now; you have Fox News on one end, CNN on the other. There needs to be more people shooting down the middle all the time. And sometimes things get hyped that don't need to be.
OMC: Like when it snows? We ran a poll about that, when some TV stations posted people all over the city when we were supposed to get 4 inches in a "storm."
JT: Right. I mean, it's Wisconsin: a) we know what snow is, and b) we know what to do about it. Sometimes weather IS newsworthy, though. We've covered a lot of blizzards. I covered Hurricane Camille in 1969. We flew into Biloxi, Mississippi and I interviewed a guy who swam out the third story bedroom of his house. He literally swam out of it -- how he didn't get whisked out to sea is beyond me.
OMC: Ever seen "Anchorman"? Was it accurate at all?
JT: Oh yeah, I saw it. That and Broadcast News and, what was that other one? "Network." Seen 'em all. "Anchorman" was funny, and sometimes hit the nail, but for the most part it didn't.
OMC: So how many anchors have you been paired with over the course of your career here?
JT: Oh my God ... let's see. There's Vince Gibbons, Kathy Mykleby, Dan Lewis, Eleanor Hayes, Marty Burns-Wolfe, Tammy Elliott, now Toya Washington ... quite a few people. So, about seven.
OMC: You close your newscasts after the "good night" by saying "... and better tomorrows." Where did that come from?
JT: I was working in Dallas and had a story about this older couple. She had emphysema -- at that time we were really into reporting things on medicine -- and the docs told her husband that there was nothing they could do for her, so he should just take her home so she could die peacefully. But there was hope with this machine that could help her -- and it cost $400. This couple had very little money, and the guy sold his car to buy this machine. He came back to the hospital to get his wife, went home, and they found that somebody had stolen their machine. They didn't have money for another one, so I took up a collection at the station and we raised the $400 to buy them another machine. After we reported their story that night, I said at the end of my report, "for the Smiths and for us all, good night, and better tomorrows." It wasn't even at the end of the newscast.
Some time later, a somewhat similar event occurred, and I said it again. You need to make an emotional connection with the audience, and it seemed right to me. At the time I had no idea something was being started, but eventually I began to say that at the end of each newscast. It just worked for me, and I've doing it ever since.
OMC: Channel 12 keeps running all those "goodbye" and "best wishes" pieces on your newscasts ... so what's like when you're sitting there watching those things?
JT: I have two reactions to them: one is in my conscious mind, the other is in my subconscious. Right now, my rational/conscious mind is just thrilled: the freedom, the excitement, all of that. My subconscious mind, the less rational one that believes whatever you tell it, is in absolute trauma. It doesn't understand what's going on, and it doesn't like it. I had lunch with a friend the other day, and we were just sobbing. No real reason to do that, but when your subconscious mind takes over, you get those emotions.
OMC: We know you're an avid reader, and you're currently working on a book. What's happening with that?
JT: Yes. Have you ever read "Cold Mountain"? It just stopped me in my tracks, at least until you get to page 264 or so, when the author realized they could make a movie out of the book. As for my book, that's been a long time coming. In 1980, it started out as a book I was writing to give to students. Then I got really busy and before I got back to it, someone else had written a book about that. More recently, I thought I'd write a book called "What The Heck Went Wrong With TV News?" But before I could write that, a whole bunch of people wrote just that sort of books. So now, I'm working on a book about things that happened to me during my first four years in TV, back in Amarillo in the '60s. To protect the innocent, I'm writing it from the standpoint of a female anchor in Milwaukee. My protagonist's name is Veracity Trueso; "veracity" meaning "truth", and I reversed so-true into Trueso. So her name means "true, so true." It's written, I just need to polish it.
OMC: So it will be ready in say, the next 25-50 years?
JT: Probably something like that. We'll see. I hope!
OMC: So you're retiring back to Texas? What will you do down there?
JT: Yes, I'm retiring in New Braunfels. It's a great area, and popular for retirement. It's also very German; you can get great food there, and they have the festivals and all of that. In that sense, it's kind of like Milwaukee, except it was 84 degrees there yesterday and here it was 46. What will I be doing? Well, I have a high school reunion back in Lamesa on July 1. Back in September/October, I sent an e-mail out to friends. I'd just bought a Corvette, and I'm up for road trips. So, I told them "if there's any place you want to go and nobody else will go with you, I probably will."
I've received 17 proposals for trips, ranging from Denmark to Atlanta. Being from Texas, I have some friends who are Civil War buffs, as am I. We'll be traveling through the south and east, visiting some of the battle sites and we're trying to hit each place on the anniversary of their battles, so that may take a while. Then I realized, "hey, I don't know much about the Revolutionary War!" So I may tour those sites ... there's a lot I want to learn about.
OMC: Will you keep a place up here?
JT: Well, I may not be totally gone. I know so many people here and I may eventually split my time. I had a condo in Pewaukee up for sale and thought "well, if it doesn't sell, I'll just keep it." But it sold in six days ... I put it up for sale, went out of town, came back, and it was sold. But nothing says I can't buy something else here if I find I need to live here. As they say, you don't miss the water until the well runs dry.
OMC: So what will it be like on the 25th, your last broadcast? What will you do right after?
JT: I really won't know, until the bell rings, how I'm going to act. I don't want a party or anything like that; we've done a lot of the "goodbye" stuff over the last few weeks and I probably won't be in the mood for it that night. What will be tough is the 27th, when they load all my stuff up and I cross the state line. To drive out for what is, at least symbolically, the last time will be interesting.
Jerry Taff's final newscast will be Wednesday, May 25.
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