Pam’s Pictorama Post: Many ongoing Pictorama readers know that my father, Elliott Butler, was a career cameraman for ABC News. Therefore, news of all sorts has been digested by my family in a variety of fashions but with great gusto over the years. A background of television and radio news is among my earliest childhood memories.
The radio news issued all day and into the evening from a large (12″x18″ ish?) brown box of a radio which sat atop of the refrigerator in each house we lived in until the last, when somehow it magically disappeared. It was on an all-news station almost all of the time, at least until my sister was old enough and tall enough to occasionally turn it to music. Back it would ultimately go to the staple of news however. (My mother allowed my sister her way with music in the car more often, but oddly I have little or no memory of every changing either. It was easier not to get in the middle of their minor tugs of war I guess.)
In those years television news was consumed mostly in the early evening and again later at night. It was viewed on a scratchy black and white television at first (I have vague memories of the landing on the moon viewed on the smallest and almost impossible to see little portable television). Occasionally we would watch a different television channel in an attempt to see my father filming a major story for his channel. A very large man, 6’5″, he towered over most of the other folks. He always wore a distinctive hat and these made him easy to spot.
As a small child I thought I would grow up to be a journalist. There is a photo of tiny tot Pam dressed up like a reporter which is on display in Mom’s house. I may take a picture of it and add it to this post when I am there later in the upcoming week. I held onto this thought as a possible career into adolescence, but it faded as my interest in visual art grew over time. I don’t think I would have been well suited to it in the end and I think it was mostly a response to wanting to be like my dad.
A whole post could be devoted to my father’s work wardrobe which was devised with a stunning combination of practicality and his mother’s underlying sartorial sensibility. I look at images of how cold it is in the Ukraine and I know my father would have been there sporting an Eddie Bauer long down coat which covered even his long frame (the size of a sleeping bag to a young me) and down trousers to match for extreme cold. Layers of long underwear and wool (he was religious about wool socks in winter cold and for a quiet man he could nonetheless preach their virtues and how wool keeps you warm even when wet), would have been topped with a wool (itchy) watch cap on his head.
In warmer weather he favored safari suits for their myriad pockets which light meters and other tools of his trade might be stuffed. Years of standing outside for hours a day helped fine tune his work clothing to a perfect pitch.
Dad bought for quality as well as practicality though and he liked shopping, unlike my mother who frankly has barely ever noticed what she wears as long as it is temperature appropriate and not confining in anyway. (My mother has a hatred of pantyhose which is well documented in the family. You could sometimes coax her into a pair of tights if weather permitted, but an event which required pantyhose of her roused her ire immediately. She often threatened to just strip them off and leave them on the sidewalk as she had seen stray pairs thus on the streets of New York. My mom imagined women like herself who couldn’t take it another minute.) I inherited my father’s love of clothing and fabrics although in terms of style and design we differed some.
My father was equally at home in a suit and owned a fair number of them. There are things he never wore – shorts and cotton or linen suits number among them, as was any fiber that wasn’t natural. I believe this impacted my own opinion of what men (as in boyfriends and eventual spouse) should wear. He had specific ideas about my attire and I wish I had asked my sister if he tried to impress these on her as well because oddly I don’t remember that he did, but no one ever really told Loren what to do.
The background of radio news helped my mother gauge if my father might be called away or kept at work. It was local New York news on the radio in those days although we always lived in a New Jersey suburb. My mother’s brother, John Wheeling, worked for CBS radio and so that was the radio station of choice. (He had a variety of jobs writing, producing and on-air, a few years in sports at the end of his career. He once did an on-air report on a hurricane from our house, surrounded as we were by flooding waters.) As I said, we were a news family. Between the commute and his schedule we rarely had dinner with dad and I was always surprised by my friends who had set dinner hours for when their father would come home from work each day. Other than weekends and vacations it was a novelty to find him home in time for dinner with us as small children.
Dad woke to a clock radio of also tuned to news, loud enough to wake the whole house at least briefly. I too still wake to a clock radio, but with the more soothing sounds of WQXR classical radio although hungry cats have sometimes gotten to us first.
For most of his career my father traveled to news locations across the country and the world. First using film which would need to be developed before going on air, grabbed by three in the afternoon by messengers who would get it back to the newsroom, then moving to video and finally the ability to send it via phone lines and satellite for broadcast. News bureaus did not exist robustly across the country and the world in the early days of news and he would travel, frequently by car but sometimes by air, on a routine basis, storing up a list of restaurants and stores he liked to visit in towns across the US and occasionally countries he went back to visit later.
As a media consuming family, transistor radios and portable televisions multiplied around my childhood home. I was very attached to both and have memories of carrying a small Sony radio around with me, not to mention hours spent in front of a small black and white (also Sony) television in my room.
His work was of course occasionally dangerous. He covered riots at a time when the news wasn’t seen as friendly or potentially necessary documentation of an event. He hung out of helicopters and traveled to areas of political unrest. He knew colleagues who were killed while on the job in war torn areas and he was smart to take his safety seriously. I cannot watch television news without worrying about the crew in dangerous situations. In my mind my father is always among them.
In his retirement he himself became very attached to radio news – an amazing fondness for NPR and also a show called Car Talk notable since he had little interest in the mechanics of vehicles. Sometimes I would find him returned from a trip in the car, sitting in the driveway until some story or segment ended. In the last years of his life he would be peevish about CNN and how often their stories repeated on a loop which he would nonetheless watch. Meanwhile, my mother has in turn become a CNN addict and it is on the television in her house constantly. Her flatscreen television so large I believe I can see the pores on the news anchor’s faces.
After a year of Covid and election coverage frequenting our television I banned CNN and television news in our house to try to regain a sense of proportion and sanity around ongoing current events. I continued to consume my news primarily from the newspaper – I have subscribed continuously to the New York Times since I was in high school when I accepted a special subscription offer which continued through college. Although I still subscribe to the hard paper, like most people I read it mostly online these days. During the pandemic delivery times got later and papers were left in our lobby so it wasn’t possible to read the hard copy over breakfast as is my habit any longer. Online access allows me to investigate other news sources as well and I think if I had more time I would subscribe to the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal daily as well.
However, the outbreak of war in the Ukraine combined with long days spent with mom now, has drawn me back to watching television news, witnessing those horrors has continued even upon my return home. My diet of news television increasing again as I worry about those delivering the news as well as the events they are covering.
I really enjoyed your post. What an interesting life your dad had. He was right there in the thick of things, nearly at the dawn of tv news. I grew up in a news household too although my parents were strictly consumers. My favorite tv personality from about the age of 10 was Walter Cronkite and my favorite new station CBS although we also watched other channels. I have considerable disdain for most TV news today other than pbs News hour or bbc. I also sometimes stream foreign news programs. Were my parents alive, I wonder what they’d watch. I occasionally turn on Fox and while I believe them to be unfair and biased, they sometimes remind me of the shows I grew up with and I wonder if that’s why the network is watched by so many old people. Anyway, thanks for sharing your story. It brought back many good memories.
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Thank you Carol for sharing and sending your thoughts! I loved Walter Cronkite too and out of all the famous people I saw come through the doors of the Met I remember him best – and when he checked in for a party coming to the spot I was in and quietly saying, “Cronkite, Walter” – as if I wouldn’t have known!
Dad loved his job and it really was his life. As they say, in that way he never worked a day in his life!