On May 6, his 80th birthday, legendary anchorman Dave Ward will publish his autobiography, Good Evening, Friends: A Broadcaster Shares His Life, packed with eyewitness stories about the U.S. space program, the Vietnam and Middle East wars, multiple presidential campaigns, one presidential assassination, and the rise to world prominence of his beloved hometown, Houston.
Ward began his television career at Channel 13 in 1966. More than 50 years later, Ward is recognized as a Houston treasure — a pure newscaster who literally has seen and reported it all. While the book awaits finishing touches, I caught up with Ward at Gow Media headquarters, where he is recording the audio book version of Good Evening, Friends.
CultureMap: A couple of years ago, I was watching the news, and you introduced yourself as “David” Ward. What the heck was that about?
Dave Ward: That didn’t last long, did it? I got to thinking, Barack Obama was called Barry in his youth, but used his real full name when he was president. My real name is David. I thought, if the president uses his real first name, I should, too. So I went on the air and said, ‘Good evening, friends, I’m David Ward.’
My co-anchor Shara Fryer asked me during a break, ‘What’s with “David?” Three days later, the general manager told me, ‘We have you under contract as “Dave” Ward. We don’t want to hear “David’ anymore. So I went back to being Dave Ward. Then you wrote an article with the headline, ‘David Ward, we hardly knew ye.’ I’ll never forget that one.
CM: Television news can be treacherous for career longevity. Anchors, reporters, weather forecasters come and go like the wind. I’ll bet you’ve worked with 200 different on-air people at Channel 13 during your career. How did you manage to survive in one market, at one station, for half a century?
DW: I worked very hard at getting the facts right, the information right. I have to tell you the truth, one big reason I was able to stay so long was Marvin Zindler. It was my idea for the station to hire Marvin and put him on the air as the first consumer reporter anywhere in the U.S. Marvin really hit the ground running.
That put us into ratings territory during the ’70s that no one ever had before and may never again. Marvin was unique. He could come on the air and say, ‘It’s hell to be poor!” and you’d swear he knew what it was like to be poor. The fact is, he came from one of the wealthiest families in Houston. His father owned all of the Zindler clothing stores and probably half of Bellaire at one time.
CM: Writing an autobiography can be a difficult, cathartic experience. What did you learn about yourself?
DW: I learned that I’ve been far from perfect in my personal life. I’m on my third marriage now. The lady I’m married to now is the love of my life. I’ve dedicated this book to her, to my wife Laura. I had to write in there about my heart attack, my hernia surgery, my heart surgery — just a whole bunch of stuff that I’ve never talked about on television.
CM: What was the most difficult thing to write about?
DW: That DWI was the toughest. I had to admit that I drove intoxicated. Here’s what happened. I had lunch with Percy Foreman, the famous criminal attorney at the Rice Hotel. I mentioned that I had to go to the driver’s license place to get another license, I had lost it or something. He said, ‘You don’t need a driver’s license.’ Huh? He said if you have a driver’s license and you get arrested for DWI, they suspend your license. And if you get arrested for driving on a suspended license, you go straight to jail. But if you don’t have a driver’s license, they can’t suspend it. Driver’s licenses are just a way for the state to get money from you and keep track of you.’ I figured that Percy Foreman knows what he’s talking about. So I drove without a license for several years.
So one night — it was after midnight — I was driving to a friend’s house from Kay’s Lounge, which was on Bissonnet, very close to the TV station. There was a big pot hole on the left side of the street, and I veered right to avoid it. Then I veered left to avoid another pot hole. Well, the police lights came on behind me. It was a police woman and she said, ‘Let me see your driver’s license, please.’ I told her that I didn’t have a license. She called a supervisor, who made me blow into a Breathalyzer and I went to jail.
A lawyer bailed me at around 5 am. When I got to work the next day, the general manager called me into his office and said, ‘Ward, you blew .34. You weren’t drunk, you were comatose.’ I had to go on the air and apologize during the 5 o’clock, the 6 o’clock and 10 o’clock news. After the 10 o’clock, Shara Fryer reached over and patted my hand and said, ‘That’s enough.’ I never should have listened to Percy Foreman. I do have a driver’s license now.
CM: Who is your broadcast news hero?
DW: My real hero early on was Walter Cronkite. I thought he was the epitome of what a television anchor should be. He’s the one who coined the term ‘anchor.’ It doesn’t mean that you’re the big honcho, it means that once you are assigned to that chair, you are anchored to it. Watching him on the air, you would have thought he was a conservative, a little to the right. In real life, he was a flaming liberal. I really admired him.
CM: You’re famous for your disdain of technology. I remember asking for your email address, and you laughed at me. How did you write this book … on a Royal typewriter?
DW: I wrote down things in a notebook, events I remembered from my early years. Jim McGrath got with me, and I bought a tape recorder. I just told stories about my life into that tape recorder, and then Jim talked to people and filled out the book. We spent a year and a half on this book. It’s 30 chapters. The book starts with my heart attack and thoughts about my career coming to an end. After that, it goes in chronological order.
CM: Did you ever consider moving to another city, another TV market?
DW: Never. I grew up in Huntsville, just north of here. Houston is my home. Since I moved here in 1962. I had no desire to go anywhere else, and I did have some offers from other markets. I wasn’t interested. I had enough to do here.
CM: What are the best and worst things about Houston?
DW: The best is easy, it’s the people. Nolan Ryan is from Alvin, and he knows about this area and stayed here. Dan Pastorini came here from California. He fell in love with Houston and how friendly the people are. Houston is like a whole bunch of small towns right next to each other. The worst part is easy, too. The biggest problem is the damn streets. The streets are constantly under repair. I have no idea how much money they spend on all these street repairs, but it must be enormous.
CM: What was your first job in broadcasting?
DW: I started out as a rock ‘n’ roll disc jockey, and I was not a very good one at all. I started in Tyler, at a station called KGKB, kinda good, kinda bad. I was on the air from 5 to 7 pm. My pay was $1.25 an hour, or $12.50 a week. I was attending Tyler Junior College at the time on a band scholarship. I played the trumpet. That’s when I went by Dave Ward for the first time. The general manager thought David sounded too biblical. He told me to shorten it to Dave, which he said was more jaunty. I didn’t even know what jaunty meant, but if it could get a job indoors where it's air-conditioned, and I can sit down, I’ll be Dave — and I’ll be jaunty.
CM: Is the media the enemy of the people?
DW: Media is the friend of the people. Journalists have to be objective and give people the truth. The truth is the most important thing. That’s why we have an amendment ensuring freedom of the press, which makes us different from most other countries in the world. It’s so important for journalists to be free to report the truth.
News and journalism should be totally objective with no opinions. Tell the people what’s going on. We do well with the who, what, where and when. It’s the why that gets in the way. That’s where reporters go astray.
Ward will host an signing of Good Evening, Friends: A Broadcaster Shares His Life on May 6. The event will be held at the Dave Ward Building at Crime Stoppers of Houston, 3001 Main St., from 11:30 am-2:30 pm. The public is invited to join Ward in celebrating his 80th birthday as he launches his long-awaited memoir.