“Jack is the man!” booms McQuade, doing his best to direct attention to the 75-year-old Rowley, who earlier this month celebrated his 50th year with the station. He’s held many positions — cameraman, production manager, microphone operator, commercial production director — but today he’s doing precisely what he did when he first came to Richmond, fresh out of television school in New York.
Rowley started working for WTVR on Feb. 6, 1954, at a time when television was still new. In 1948, WTVR was the first television station to hit the air in Richmond, the first station south of the Mason-Dixon line, with its famous Conestoga wagon. WXEX, now WRIC TV-8, signed on in 1955 and WRVA, now WWBT TV-12, began broadcasting in 1956.
At the time, television was anything but science. Channel 6’s pioneering owner, Wilbur Havens, built much of the camera equipment used to produce the shows from old projectors in a shop in his basement. The news content and commercials were ad-libbed by newsmen who had no experience.
“You didn’t have news coverage like you do now,” Rowley recalls. There was no videotape, only 16-mm film, which was too time-consuming to use for the news shows. “Before videotape, everything was live,” he says.
The on-air stumbles — he has a million of them. If only he could remember. There was the time when John Shand, the program director and first on-air news anchor, cursed out Puffin biscuits during a live commercial.
The uncooked biscuits had been on the counter too long, and the dough had expanded inside the cardboard tube. Shand tapped the container on the counter to illustrate how easily it opened. The tube exploded and biscuits went everywhere.
“They open up pretty easily,” Rowley recalls Shand announcing calmly. “But you got to make sure the damn things don’t kill you.”
Shand, 87, concurs there were many stumbles. At 87, still sporting his trademark handlebar mustache, he’s short on details. “I could write a tome on the mishaps we had,” he says in a deep announcer’s voice. “All I can remember is Jack Rowley had an innate talent that he could handle any situation.”
Among many incarnations at WTVR, Rowley may be most remembered for his work producing commercials. Tim Finnegan, the founder of Tim Finnegan Advertising, remembers working with Rowley on commercials for Commonwealth Ford, which later became Dick Strauss Ford and then Sheehy Ford on Broad Street.
As a sports anchor for the station in the 1950s, Finnegan recalls the Richbrau beer commercials between newscasts. The beer, in a clear mug, would sit on a table for long stretches. Once one of the floor producers — he can’t recall whether it was Rowley — got caught with his hands in the booze.
“One of the floor guys was spinning his finger in it,” Finnegan recalls, “trying to get the head back.”
Most remember Rowley, but that they are short on specifics testifies to his demeanor. He’s a behind-the-scenes man. He gets into work at 4:30 a.m. to set up cameras for the morning show, which starts at 5 a.m. And today, because of all the technology, he doesn’t work quite as hard. Videotape made his life easier.
“I love the business,” he says. “It’s just not as much fun as it used to be.” Even with videotape, there were moments. He remembers years ago the station incorrectly reported that U.S. Sen. Harry Byrd Sr. had been killed. Of course he was alive, and the news director lost his job for not verifying the fact. And just a couple of weeks ago, one of the producers, attempting to communicate with a satellite reporter, joked that she was “going to kick her ass” and it went out on the air.
By and large, television news today is a piece of cake for an old floor producer like Rowley. He sticks around because he loves his job. And the station loves him back. Earlier this month, WTVR held a party for Rowley to celebrate his 50th anniversary and invited members of the old gang.
Peter Maroney, the general manager at WTVR, says he isn’t keeping Rowley around just for sentimental reasons. The station needs him. “He is not window dressing,” Maroney says. “He is part of the institutional memory around this place. He has a real job, an important job.”
And Rowley plans to stay as long as they’ll have him, he says.
During the morning show on a recent Thursday, he’s earning his keep. It’s a big news day. The weather is pushing 60 degrees, there’s more on the church arsons, the lottery is approaching $215 million.
Rowley, in the background, knows this place like the back of his hand. He remembers that the new studio, with its bright lights and high-tech weather bureau, sits where Tony’s Restaurant used to be. Sometimes, he does long for the old days.
He points to one of the newest pieces of technology sitting on a table. “That flat monitor they call the plasma,” he says. “I can’t figure out why.” S
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