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February 21, 2006

CURT GOWDY, Dies at 86

America's Most Versatile Sportscaster and The American Sportsman, "Photos Courtesy of Gowdy International"

Curt Gowdy, who over a span of seven decades brought a warmth and smooth delivery to his radio, TV and cable sportscasts and was known to millions of fishermen and hunters as The American Sportsman, died at 3:10 a.m. Monday, February 20 at the age of 86.

Gowdy passed away at his winter home in Palm Beach, Fla., surrounded by his immediate family.  Since 1951 he lived in the Boston Mass., area, first in the suburb of Wellesley Hills, then the city of Boston and also retained a summer residence in Sugar Hill, N.H. The cause of death was acute leukemia. 

A pioneer of radio sportscasting in the 1940s and TV in the early 1950s, Gowdy was the most prolific and versatile national sportscaster of the 1960s and 1970s. Working for four major networks, he enjoyed a wide fan base, critical acclaim and the respect of his peers for his in-depth preparation. 

Born and raised in Wyoming, the "cowboy at the mike," reported the action in a distinctively warm, articulate and relaxing manner.  On the air, he diligently strived for a blend of accuracy, pacing and balance. 

Of his first sports love, he said, "Baseball unfolds like a story, providing drama, character revelation, and surprise; and there is always time for the reporter to enrich the moment with color, narrative and anecdote." As host and producer of the long-running The American Sportsman television series, ubiquitous with a Stetson hat and casting a dry fly, he garnered a public following that endured for the rest of life; many referring to him as the "true American sportsman." Because of his versatility with a wide range of sports he was also described as the "voice of all seasons."

Man of many talents?and many honors including 20 Halls of Fame

Although in sports the words "Legend" and "Hall of Fame" usually refer to those who have earned their reputations on the field, they are used quite accurately to describe the man behind the microphone and fly rod. His demanding schedule called upon to cover more major sports events than anyone in broadcasting history. It included coverage of an astounding 16 World Series, 12 Rose Bowls, nine Super Bowls, 16 MLB All-Star Games, eight Olympic Games and 24 NCAA Final Fours of collegiate basketball. 

Gowdy is probably the only man who has been inducted into a total of 20 Halls of Fame comprising sports, broadcasting, conservation and fishing including the most recent, the 2006 Rose Bowl in early January. Gowdy's other Hall of Fame inductions include The National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame in 1981, the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1984, The American Sportscasters Hall of Fame in 1985,  The American Football League Hall of Fame in 1995 and The International Game Fish Association (IGFA) Fishing Hall of Fame in 2003 to name a few. 

He is also the man for whom the Basketball Hall of Fame's two prestigious broadcasting and print awards were named for in 1990, presented annually to the top basketball journalists and sportscasters.  He also served as its president for seven years.

Gowdy is the first individual sports figure to ever win the coveted Peabody Award for Outstanding Journalistic Achievement.  He has also received 13 Emmys, six of them for ABC TV's The American Sportsman, which he hosted from its inception for over 20 years.  He was presented with the Gold Medal Hall of Fame Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in New England for career contributions to the industry.  In March, 1990, Gowdy received the first Museum of Broadcasting's (now Museum of Television and Radio) Hall of Fame Award for outstanding achievements and contributions to the field of broadcasting and in April, 1992, the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences presented him with a special Emmy, the Lifetime Achievement Award. 

At the height of his career he broadcast many of sports most memorable moments including the Boston Red Sox's Ted Williams' last at bat in 1960 which ended with a home run for the "Splendid Splinter's" career; Super Bowl III in 1969 as the AFL's Joe Namath guaranteed a N.Y. Jets win over the NFL's Baltimore Colts; "The Amazing" New York Mets shocking the Baltimore Orioles in five games in the 1969 World Series; and the call of  Hank Aaron's 715th home run in 1974 that thrust him past Babe Ruth.

Growing up in Wyoming

Curtis Edward Gowdy was born July 31, 1919 in Green River, Wyoming, the older of two children in a close knit family. His father, Edward Curtis Gowdy, a dispatcher and supervisor for the Union Pacific railroad, and his mother Ruth Smith Gowdy moved the family to Cheyenne, Wyo., when Curt was six.  His sister Margaret was born nine years after Curt.  

It's where his father introduced him to hunting, and to fly-fishing, teaching him valued lessons in conservation and respect for nature.  But it was his mother, "a tough disciplinarian and western gal" who saw that he got a proper education and strived to do his best in school.  She equipped him with a library card at the age of six and required him to read a book a week --- and 80 years later he still has a voracious appetite scouring the newspapers, magazines and books on subjects of all kinds.

"She said 'you must build up your vocabulary and the only way to do it is to read'" he said.

"At the age of 10 she made me take elocution lessons which I also thought was silly. She wouldn't stand for unintelligible speech."  He chuckled, "I said, 'Aw geez, mom, c'mon! We're living in Cheyenne, Wyoming! Elocution lessons?  How is this gonna do me any good?'

"Then in my senior year of high school she made me take touch typing and I was the only boy in a classroom of 35 girls but years later in my professional career I was up to 100 words per minute."  

An outstanding basketball player and varsity tennis player at the University of Wyoming, where he graduated with a degree in business, his athletic career was cut short by World War II and a serious spinal injury that he suffered with much of the rest of his life.  After his discharge from the Army Air Corp, Gowdy began his broadcasting career backed with a journalism stint in his hometown of Cheyenne, in the fall of 1943. 

"It was a fluke," Gowdy said of his entry into broadcasting. "Otherwise I would have probably gone into something like statistics," he revealed in a recent Nov. 2005 interview.  

"Bill Grove the manager of KFBC, a small, local radio station asked if I would do a live broadcast of a six-man football game. Since my back surgery, my mother encouraged me to do it. She said 'It will take your mind off your back problems.' Other than a single public speaking class I took at Wyoming or acting like a sportscaster when listening to a radio broadcast as a kid, I had no real experience. 

"It was a cold day and only about 15 people in the stands. There were two boxes, one for me and to sit on and the other one for the microphone. There was no roster, no numbers on the players jerseys, no yard-lines and I had to guess where the goal line was," he smiled. "I took some liberty making up names of the players, many of them guys I had met in the Air Force or played against in basketball.  Grove said the sponsor liked the broadcast and offered me a job announcing high school basketball as well." 

"Whenever I did an important game like a Super Bowl or a World Series, I always remembered my first game and of my younger sister Margaret bringing me hot soup my mom had prepared to warm me up at halftime in that subfreezing weather." 

He rapidly gained experience doing everything at the station including news, reading commercials and coverage of a variety of local football and basketball games, something he attributes to his versatility in the business. 

"We re-created major league baseball games within several minutes of the live action. Tickertape was fed to our station as a Western Union telegrapher at the game typed in balls, strikes, hits and plays to various positions. Beforehand, I would research the teams with player statistics and get a photo of the specific ball park they were playing in, distances to the fences and other technical stats so I could lend more accurate description and color to the game.  We also added recorded sound effects of crowd noises and reactions and the 'crack of the bat' with a stick and block of wood for realism."  

In the same time period Gowdy also had a dual role as a sports writer and later sports editor of the Wyoming (Cheyenne) Eagle, striving for accuracy by "getting it right" on the air and in print.

His major career breaks and rewarding lifelong friendships

He received his first big break in 1946 when a radio executive from CBS radio affiliate KOMA heard him and asked Gowdy to move to Oklahoma City to broadcast the football games of Bud Wilkinson's Oklahoma University (OU) teams and Hank Iba's champion Oklahoma State basketball squads.  He also began broadcasting minor league baseball games in the Texas leagues.  "Since then broadcasting sports is all I've really done."  

It was while in Oklahoma that he met his future bride Geraldine "Jerre" Ophelia Dawkins, a communications graduate student at OU.

"She was the most beautiful girl in Oklahoma, and still is," he said with a warm smile conveying a hint of the legendary love and respect the couple has had for each other over 56 years of marriage.

His next major career break came just three years later when in 1949 at the age of 29 he won a national audition and became Mel Allen's partner on the New York Yankee's baseball broadcasts.  

"I was scared to death," he said of his professional debut.  

That year he also married Jerre in New York City. Years later Ted Williams said thoughtfully of his friend, "Marrying Jerre was the smartest thing Curt ever did."

It was also during those spring training years in St. Petersburg with the Yankees that Gowdy discovered the abundance of saltwater fly-fishing along the Florida coast and his love for the sport flourished.

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