Though they both worked on air for Fort Wayne TV station WPTA, the careers of Don Chevillet and Marti Wright never overlapped, Wright said.
Thursday in Auburn, they sat side by side at a table inside Carbaugh Jewelers — owned by Chevillet’s son-in-law, Mike Littlejohn — greeting fans and autographing copies of “Television in Fort Wayne 1953-2018,” a new book that includes both of their careers.
Former Congressman Mark Souder and longtime TV news anchors Melissa Long and Heather Herron produced the book of nearly 300 large-format pages. At the jewelry store, a steady stream of nostalgia buffs bought copies and chatted about their memories.
“I remember listening to you, years and years ago,” one fan told Chevillet.
“Add a couple more years to that, and you’ll be right,” said Chevillet, who spent the afternoon joking about his age of 93.
“I’m still here. At my age, that’s quite an accomplishment,” he quipped.
“Let me be you at that age,” Wright responded, admiring the vitality of Chevillet, who looked dapper in his blue blazer and a “21 Alive” ball cap.
Chevillet recalled how he started his broadcast career at WNDU in South Bend in 1955. Four years later, powerful WOWO radio of Fort Wayne offered him a job.
“You didn’t turn that down,” he said. Chevillet became a member of what the station promoted as its Fabulous Four, also including hockey announcer Bob Chase, Jack Underwood and genial morning host Bob Sievers.
In 1974, Chevillet moved to WPTA-TV to be part of a format change it was promoting as “21 Alive,” a rebranding that has lasted 47 years.
“I got to travel everywhere and meet all the famous people in the world,” during his career, he said.
Chevillet brought with him a folder full of photos from those encounters, taking special pride in one showing him with Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon.
The TV book’s authors were thrilled to find the hundreds of photos Chevillet had saved.
Souder said they quickly discovered that station owners had discarded most of the archival footage of old local programs. Much of what still existed was in obsolete formats with no way to view it.
Instead, the authors relied on the memorabilia collections of people who had worked in Fort Wayne TV, such as Chevillet, who also contributed his gift as a storyteller. Chevillet loaned about 100 of the book’s 500 historic images and a tale about the time WPTA asked him to get drunk on camera for a story demonstrating the dangers of driving while inebriated.
“I’ve always been fascinated with media, especially television, and I love Fort Wayne history,” Souder said about his choice of the book’s topic. In examining local history, he wanted to “tell it through the eyes of TV.”
“Television tightened the ties of the whole region,” Souder said. During the heyday of local TV news, “If something happened in our area and it wasn’t on television, did it really happen?”
But even as work on the book continued over the past three years, ratings for local TV programs have been plummeting because of changes in people’s viewing habits, Souder said.
A homegrown contributor to Fort Wayne TV history, Wright spent Thursday greeting classmates from her Concordia High School class of 1975, who had come to the signing session.
As the first black TV news anchor in Fort Wayne, Wright’s story represents a serious side of the book. She was working for the city’s WMEE radio in 1981, when a job opened at WPTA-TV. A colleague encouraged her to apply, and she suggested that he should be the one to go after the job.
“They are looking for a black woman,” he told her.
“I never thought that I would be in television,” Wright said. “How was a black person going to be in television in Fort Wayne, with no one who looked like her?”
Souder said on one hand, it could be asked why it took so long for a black journalist to appear on a Fort Wayne screen.
On the other hand, Souder credits WPTA’s general manager at the time, the late Edwin C. Metcalfe, for taking a big risk. At the time he hired Wright, Fort Wayne’s black population was smaller than today, and the black audience in the entire viewing region was less than 1%.
“It was a gamble” for WPTA to hire Wright, Souder said. For her part, Wright — like baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson — faced pressure to be perfect.
“I got the job because I was a black woman,” Wright conceded Thursday, “but I didn’t keep it 20 years because I was a black woman.”
DAVE KURTZ can be contacted email@example.com.