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Vann Kennedy: 1905-2004

Broadcaster took young Cronkite and Furley under his wing.

Corpus Christi Caller Times (04/19/2004)
by Nancy Martinez

Vann Kennedy

Legendary broadcaster Walter Cronkite mourned Sunday's death of one of his first mentors, Vann M. Kennedy, the former owner of Corpus Christi's KZTV Channel 10 and a pioneer in U.S. and South Texas broadcasting.

Kennedy, who until 2002 also owned the KSIX radio station and KVTV in Laredo, died early Sunday. The World War II veteran was 98. Because of his military service, many people called Kennedy "colonel" after World War II.

Kennedy gave many young journalists their start in the business, including Cronkite, the former CBS Evening News anchorman and a steady hand in coverage of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the nation's space program.

Cronkite was a student at the University of Texas when Kennedy gave him his first job in journalism as a copy boy, before World War II, at the Austin news bureau of the International News Service.

" I have a great deal of my career to thank him for," said Cronkite, who remained close friends with Kennedy. "I learned the principles of great journalism from him because he lived them.

" He was a man of such complete integrity I'd be surprised if anybody could come up with any time he failed the test of honesty, integrity, fairness - all qualities of a good journalist."

Kennedy and a small group of veterans founded KSIX Radio, which went on the air in 1947. KZTV started operations in 1956. All the broadcast properties were sold to Eagle Creek Broadcasting Inc. in 2002.

Mary Kennedy, who played an instrumental role in her husband's broadcasting efforts, died in 2001.

Caller-Times publisher Larry L. Rose recalled Kennedy: "Every Christmas, Col. Kennedy sent books to people as gifts. The one I remember most was in 1996, when he sent me a book about the Scripps newspaper family. Much to my surprise, less than a year later the Caller-Times was sold to Scripps.

" Col. Kennedy and I were on the Texas A&I University Communications Board in the late 1980s. In discussing how best to bring students to the profession, he was knowledgeable and decisive, and always most gracious. Over the years, he and wife Mary hired and trained hundreds of young broadcast journalists.

" In the passing of Vann and Mary, the community has lost a team that through radio and television informed, entertained and enlightened its residents for more than 50 years, a feat little recognized, easily taken for granted, but one in which they left a little of themselves in us all."

Kennedy's daughter Kathleen, a biologist, called her father a "great blessing" in an interview Sunday. "I've been struck through the years to see how many people he's touched and influenced throughout his life. It's a wonderful legacy."

Former Caller-Times publisher Steve Sullivan, now vice president of newspaper operations for E.W. Scripps, would go to the station as a young boy to listen to his mother, Ruth Delmar Sullivan, host her 1950s talk show, "Talk of the Town."

His mother also taught diction to the KZTV reporters for several years.

" I have fond memories of Vann," Sullivan said. "He would go out of his way to shake my hand and say hello. He was just a fine man, a one-of-a-kind individual. Those who knew him well-respected his intelligence and his personality."'

'Very tough'

Walter Furley began work at Kennedy's operations in Corpus Christi in 1949.

" He was very kind, but very tough. He taught us how to get it first, but first get it right," Furley said of Kennedy, whom he called a "stern taskmaster."

" He was a hard working man, and he expected that from his employees," Furley said. "There was no slacking off, but that made us better."

Gene Looper, longtime noon radio-show host on KSIX and Channel 10 news director, worked for Kennedy for 51 years.

" That in itself is an indication of the kind of man he was. Myself and Walter Furley both stayed there until we were old men.

" He was one of the most brilliant men I ever knew. He was a pioneer," he said. "A legend in the business. It's a great loss for the Corpus Christi area, for broadcasting."

Looper said Kennedy told him about an idea for a "man on the street" program where people could express their opinions. When Looper asked when he wanted to get started, Kennedy asked "How about tomorrow?"

Ken Cessna, a KZTV news director for 22 years, said Kennedy was so dedicated he was seen behind his desk in his office on weekends and holidays.

'A very impactful life'

One of Kennedy's biggest missions was to help young journalists get their start.

" He always took young journalists under his wing," Cessna said of Kennedy. "When I was news director, we were known as the Vann Kennedy College of Journalism Knowledge," he said. "People stayed for 18 months, gained experience and moved on." One of those who moved on was Mary Alice Salinas of Corpus Christi, now a broadcaster at an NBC affiliate in Washington, D.C., where she still works.

Salinas had a degree in communications but worked at a department store, desperately trying to get a job in broadcasting when Kennedy hired her.

Salinas left KZTV as an anchor and, after a brief job in San Antonio, went to work in Washington, D.C.

" To this day, I think of (Kennedy) and feel gratitude," Salinas said. "He gave me a chance when no one else would and taught me how to take care of myself in the professional world. He was the consummate journalist, a very big-hearted human being that lived a very impactful life."

Dave Johnson, now a reporter at KIII-TV, said Kennedy also gave him one of his first breaks. "He moves you up very quickly and gives you a lot of responsibility," he said.

Johnson said he remembers visiting Kennedy in his "big dark office at the end of the hall. He was a walking encyclopedia. He knew everything about Texas and politics and everything," Johnson said. "I always tried to learn as much as I could from him because I knew he didn't get anything handed to him."

Johnson was an anchor at Channel 10 for several years.

Kennedy was a lawyer, a decorated officer in World War II and secretary of 10 Texas Democratic Party conventions. He was a longtime adviser to U.S. Sen. and President Lyndon B. Johnson.

He got his start delivering milk and the Austin American-Statesman to homes in San Marcos.

Graduating from San Marcos Academy in 1923, he enrolled in Southwest Texas State Teachers College (now Texas State University).

Kennedy never graduated from the college, but it honored him in 1987 as a distinguished alumnus.

Juliet Wenger, a journalist and author, who worked for Kennedy's radio and television stations as a news director for 21 years, respected Kennedy for being a "southern gentleman."

'A deep thinker'

" I would run in there late at night and ask him if he had time to talk, and he would get up, bow, and say, 'I always have time to see a gracious lady.' "

But Kennedy showed much more than polite manners to women.

" When I started out, I'd go to a conference and there wouldn't be any other women there," Wenger said. "He respected me as a human being. He didn't care if I was a man or a woman. He didn't say men can do this and women can do this. We were all people to him."

In her 2001 book, "News to Me," she wrote an entire chapter on Kennedy.

" He had the most integrity of anyone I know. He was a deep thinker, a fantastic newsman," she said. "Walter Cronkite told me he learned five times more from Mr. Kennedy than he ever did from J-School, and I feel the same way."

He is survived by his daughters, Kathleen Kennedy of Raleigh, N.C., and Laura Frances Waguespack, of Dallas.

Visitation will be 5-7 p.m. Tuesday at Cage-Mills Funeral Home. Funeral services will be at 3 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon, at First United Methodist Church. Burial will take place in San Marcos on April 22.

The life of a legend

Vann Kennedy's career spans almost 70 years. Some highlights:

1905: Born in Haleburg in southeast Alabama
1913: Moves to San Marcos with widowed mother
1927-30: Works for a variety of newspapers
1931: Travels to New York to convince International News Service to open a bureau in Austin. Serves as bureau manager from 1931 to 1942
1934: Passes Texas State Bar after taking courses at UT Law School
1934: Hires UT student Walter Cronkite at the Austin news bureau
1940: Marries Mary Louise Wittliff
1942: Volunteers for World War II. Decorated by both U.S. Army and Republic of China
1946: Moves to Corpus Christi and establishes KSIX-AM radio station
1952: Files application with FCC for Channel 10 television broadcast license
1956: Channel 10 goes on the air as CBS affiliate KSIX-TV. Call letters changed in 1958 to KZTV
1973: Kennedy-operated KVTV goes on the air in Laredo
1993: Kennedy is among local broadcasters receiving national attention during "cable wars"