Stand by on the Set . . . for Bill Brubaker

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Here’s a guy from our television past who was a natural communicator. He was a warm and welcome guest on our living room TVs. And yet, Bill Brubaker took his skills and ambitions far beyond the television news set at KOMO television Channel 4. We’ll get to that.

Bill wasn’t always a news anchor, though that’s what most of us may remember. He was a 25-year voice and face at KOMO –- reporter, writer, editor, news producer and, in his early TV days, a floor manager and production assistant.

Did you know Bru, as his friends call him, is also a published author, licensed pilot, retired U. S. Naval Reserve Captain (that’s equal to a full-bird Colonel, for you Army types), former Snohomish County Council member and one-time head of the Aviation Division as Assistant Secretary of Transportation for the State of Washington? This man is at least twice the citizen.

A Spokane native, Bill graduated Lewis & Clark High School and enrolled at Washington State College, forerunner of WSU, in Pullman. While his Cougar undergrad time was important, he’ll tell you to this day that his real broadcasting career started while working a summer radio intern job in 1959 in Roseburg, Oregon. That’s where on August 7 a truck driver parked a 6-ton load of explosives overnight on a city street just before a fire broke out nearby. The truck caught fire and its load exploded. The blast leveled at least a dozen city blocks — carving out a 20-by-50-foot crater and destroying nearly 100 buildings — resulting in 14 fatalities and 120 injuries.

Young Bill and two fellow college interns were at the time working for Roseburg radio station KRXL, which — unlike two competing stations — wasn’t destroyed by the blast. For several days the three budding broadcasters kept the station on the air, providing the only local information and community broadcast support. Below Bill Brubaker recalls the significance of the event . . .

Brubaker on Roseburg explosion of ’59 (Running Time :44)

His broadcasting interests energized by the Roseburg experience, Bru returned to his Pullman studies. Then, a year later, he landed a summer deejay job at Spokane’s KXLY radio. When the station went to a rock format, his on-air name was “Bashful” Billy Brubaker. In this 1960 photo at the right, “Bashful Billy” is presenting a box of giveaway record albums to a happy on-air contest winner.

Bill left WSC with his undergraduate degree in 1961, then briefly held a news job at Portland’s KPOJ radio. His critical career break came in 1962 – the year of the Seattle World’s Fair — when he began his long run at KOMO. He started on the radio side where he sharpened his news gathering chops working with Seattle broadcast legend Bryan Johnson (left photo). Brubaker did well, gaining seven Sigma Delta Chi Excellence in Journalism awards. Johnson retired in 2012, capping a phenomenal 53-year KOMO radio and television career.  Brubaker enjoys telling a story about his unintended career faux pas just weeks after starting his job at KOMO.

Brubaker unknowingly tosses his boss out of the KOMO building (Running Time 1:48)

The man Bru removed was Oliver David Fisher, corporate executive of Fisher Broadcasting. By 1965, Bill wanted to shift his news skills to KOMO’s TV news operation. Starting in the TV Production Department and as a studio floor director, he got his first news reporting opportunity — again, this was the kind of assignment few reporters would ever get. In late July of ‘65, he anchored a five-day remote broadcast aboard a boat during the then-famous transit to Seattle of Namu, the first live captive killer whale.

At right: unbelievable whale-riding photo of Ted Griffin and Namu near Seattle’s Pier 56 in 1965. Griffin, who built Seattle Public Aquarium, towed the Orca 400 miles from Canadian waters where fishermen found it in their nets. Griffin paid $8,000 for Namu, who, amidst sizable public controversy, died a year later. But Griffin profited from advance movie production rights, while pursuing and capturing other Orcas in later years.

By the end of ’65, Bill’s news career was blossoming. He’d been named anchor and producer of the 11 o’clock News Final at Channel 4. A few months later his on-air role expanded into a co-anchor slot on the 5 o’clock news as well. And, if that wasn’t enough, in the months that followed Bru simultaneously continued working toward his Master’s Degree in Communications at the University of Washington, which he completed in 1968.

Power Trio (L-R):  Brubaker, Ramsey, King

Meanwhile, KOMO execs continued hiring other strong on-air talent. In 1965, Ray Ramsey, another Spokane native, was brought in from a disc jockey stint at KOL radio to become Channel 4 and KOMO radio’s prime weathercaster. Brubaker and Ramsey became a natural match, though Brubaker initially had reservations about Ramsey’s fast talking, wisecracking style.

Brubaker on Ray Ramsey (Running Time :50)

By the way, Ramsey remained KOMO’s weather guy for 20 years. In 1968, KOMO added sports anchor Bruce King, whose high-energy presentation was almost infectious. He rolled up 30+ years at KOMO and was four times voted the state’s sportscaster of the year. The Brubaker-Ramsey-King “power Trio” put Channel 4 on top in the city’s hot late-evening TV news ratings race for 13 years.

Before leaving KOMO-TV in 1987, Brubaker scored five more Sigma Delta Chi Excellence in Journalism Awards, and one Emmy for spot news reporting. In 1991, he was awarded the Freedom Foundation’s George Washington Medal for Public Communication.

His after-broadcasting career was nearly as illustrious as his high-profile TV standing. He went into public service, accepting a political appointment to an unexpired term on the Snohomish County Council. A Republican, he served more than two terms, was elected twice, and was President of the Puget Sound Regional Council, co-chair of the Regional Transit Authority and chairman of the Snohomish Transportation Authority.

In 1994, halfway through his second County Council term, he jumped at another opportunity — this one very close to his heart. His demonstrated leadership in transportation issues and life-long interest in aviation led to a state aeronautics position. He served as Washington’s Director of Aviation in the post of Assistant Secretary of Transportation. After the County Council, he worked briefly for the engineering firm CH2Mhill.

Captain Bill Brubaker was also career invested in the U. S. Naval Reserve, completing several commanding officer assignments. He logged 36 years of military service, and remains close to his love of airplanes and the Navy.

There were more accolades in recent years, and Bill put his writing skills to work. He authored/co-authored three books — one about his radio-TV life, another Navy-related and a third about undersea seamounts off the coast of Washington.

He sometimes consults on aviation, the Navy, journalism and broadcasting, and stays active with his WSU alma mater. He’s an Associate Member, the Murrow College Professional Advisory Board. He’s also Project Ambassador for WSU’s Hall of Radio History, and in 2017 was inducted into the Edward R. Murrow College of Communications Hall of Achievement.

Bru has “retired” to enjoy more time with his wife, Marlene, their grown children and many faithful friends. Now hear this !! What a career !!!

 

If this post was interesting to you, here’s a link to a related story about another former Seattle TV news anchor — Jim Harriott: Life Before and After Seattle

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Ronald DeHart

Author: Ronald DeHart

Ron DeHart is a former newspaper and broadcast journalist and a retired Public Affairs Officer from both the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Navy/Naval Reserve. His historical accounts of Pacific Northwest broadcasting are published by Puget Sound Media.  

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