WBAL anchor remembered for serious approach to news

Presented evening report in Baltimore for 15 years

Rolf Hertsgaard : 1922-2004

May 02, 2004|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

Rolf Hertsgaard, who delivered the news with an authoritative and calm demeanor on WBAL-TV for 15 years, died Friday night at Oak Crest Village retirement home in Parkville after an 11-year battle with prostate cancer. He was 81.

Five nights a week from 1958 to 1973, he was Channel 11's evening anchorman, writing and reporting stories including President John F. Kennedy's assassination, urban riots and the resignation of vice president and former Maryland governor Spiro Agnew.

He closed his early-evening newscast with a tagline familiar to Baltimore audiences: "Until 11, on 11, that's the news in sight."

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions incorrectly described Lawrence J. Shehan as Baltimore's first Roman Catholic cardinal. In fact, the first was James Gibbons, who was named to the College of Cardinals in 1886.

"My father was one of the last generation who regarded broadcast news as a public trust, not a profit center," said his son Mark Hertsgaard, a San-Francisco based author. He and his half-brother Dan Hertsgaard of Elk River, Minn., followed their father into journalism. He said their father's news philosophy was influenced by CBS television legend Edward R. Murrow.

Mr. Hertsgaard was born in Minneapolis to first-generation Norwegian-Americans. He attended St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., and by his early 20s he had gone into broadcasting. He worked at WCCO-AM in Minneapolis until 1955.

Invited to head the radio and TV news division of the National Lutheran Council, he moved to New York City in 1956. Two years later, WBAL-TV hired him as a news anchor.

He won the Albert Lasker Award for medical journalism in 1962 for The Dark Corner, a documentary he reported, wrote and narrated about the treatment of mentally retarded people in Maryland.

He also was host of Camera 11, a program featuring interviews with guests who ranged from former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to stripper Blaze Starr.

Mr. Hertsgaard counted being sent to Rome in 1965 to cover the installation of Baltimore's first Roman Catholic cardinal, Lawrence J. Shehan, as one of his most profound experiences.

Some of his WBAL colleagues were able to bring out the lighter side of his personality.

"We loved to break him up. It was just our favorite thing to do," said Rhea Feiken, part of a weather team that included Cal Schumann and "J.P.," a hand puppet. "Rolf was a very serious news person and a serious person generally. But when the puppet screamed `Good Night, Rolf!" Rolf would shake his head and laugh."

In between newscasts and after work, he was a regular at Jimmy Wu's New China Inn on Charles Street.

Former WMAR-TV anchorwoman Susan White-Bowden remembered Mr. Hertsgaard as a defining influence in her news career, which began with a brief stint at WBAL in 1967.

Her first story was about students spending a snow day skiing. She nervously submitted her copy to Mr. Hertsgaard, who read it during his newscast. "Rolf was very stern and serious. He told me he always rewrites everything he read on the air," she recalled. "But by the end of the newscast he's reading the snow story and he was reading my words - full sentences he'd left complete. He used my closing. Even after 22 years of a career, it was one of the finest moments in it."

"He was the anchorman at that time," Ms. White-Bowden said. "It was pretty cool. Everybody knew when Rolf read the news it was factual."

In 1973, a shift to "happy talk" ended his career at WBAL.

"Happy talk is what you see now, where all the news readers are talking to one another by first names and chit-chatting," said Mark Hertsgaard. "The whole point of it was to make the viewers feel like the on-air personality was part of family. My dad did not respect that nor was he able to do it. He would not engage in that meaningless banter."

He did free-lance work in TV commercials but returned to radio news at WITH-AM as a morning news announcer for three years. He also spent a decade as a Waverly franchisee for the Polock Johnny's fast-food chain.

Mark Hertsgaard said that his father, a recovered alcoholic, regarded his nearly two decades of sobriety as one of his greatest personal achievements.

After a brief retirement in Pennsylvania, Mr. Hertsgaard moved to a Pikesville condominium and then into Oak Crest in 1999. He delivered in-house news broadcasts, sang in the chorus and acted in stage plays written by other residents.

"He was so happy to make us laugh. He wasn't feeling sorry for himself," said his daughter Holly Hertsgaard of Westminster. "He went out with gusto."

A memorial service is tentatively planned for the week of May 10 at Oak Crest.

In addition to his sons and daughter, he is survived by three other sons, David Hertsgaard of Morristown, N.J., Barry Hertsgaard of Virginia Beach, Va., and Peter Hertsgaard of Baltimore; another daughter, Heidi Hertsgaard of Monkton; his sister Gudrun Hertsgaard of Minneapolis; nine grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. His marriages to Phyllis Moudry and Lynne Ballard ended in divorce.

Contributions can be made to the Oak Crest Village Theater Group or public radio station WBJC-FM.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.