Saying Goodbye To Bob Sevey

Bob Jones
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Wednesday - September 10, 2008
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Bob Sevey was in town two weekends ago.

For those of you of the only-the-Internet generation, Sevey was the news director and principal news anchor at KGMB-9 from 1966 until his precipitous “I quit” in 1986. He lives near Olympia, Wash., has terminal cancer that spread from his lungs (major smoker) to elsewhere in his body. He has stopped chemotherapy, is in a wheelchair, often in much pain and in an in-home hospice program.

Earlier this year, in an optimistic mood, he told PBS-Hawaii’s Leslie Wilcox in an interview that “I’m still buying green bananas.” When I asked him on this visit for a reunion of KGMB oldtimers if that still held true, he said “ah, no, not much anymore.”

Sevey was the best news writer I’ve ever known, and that’s odd because he’d never been a newspaper reporter or a shoe-leather journalist. He’s done radio announcing, advertising agency time buying and TV newscasting. When I asked him where his news-writing talent came from, he pondered about four seconds and answered: “I really don’t know.”

Sevey made an indelible mark on TV news in Hawaii. He was constant and not flashy. Authoritative is the word used in the industry. Trustworthy to viewers who liked his gravitas. But he also could be light on his feet on the air. When a backdrop set once collapsed on him during a newscast, he picked himself up and adlibbed: “Well, the sets are coming down, but the stock market went up today.”

He assembled by far the best cast of TV reporters ever seen in Hawaii, mainly because KGMB’s then-owner Cec Heftel never gave Sevey a budget. He just paid the newsroom bills. Sevey’s desk drawer was full of job applications from those who worked at other Hawaii stations. He hired Joe Moore and Gary Sprinkle.

But there are downsides to us all, right? He long resisted hiring women. “People aren’t ready to hear a woman’s voice on television news,” he said. But KHVHTV (now KITV) had hired Linda Coble and she was a hit. Within the year, Sevey hired Bambi Weil, a super-sleuth reporter who is now Circuit Judge Eden Hifo. He’d later hire Coble, Leslie Wilcox, Lynnette Lo Tom, Jade Moon, Elisa Yadao and Tina Shelton.

He didn’t want to hire me from the Advertiser‘s Vietnam bureau in ‘66. Cec Heftel did. Heftel told me Sevey said I would be too brash and hard to control.

Sevey had come to KGMB out of the Fawcett-McDermott ad agency and would seldom be comfortable with our “scoops” on businesspeople crossing the legal and ethical lines. But he did give Weil full rein to break the Big Story of businessman and earlier GOP gubernatorial candidate Randolph Crossley’s frauds at THC Financial Corporation. Crossley wasn’t a Sevey friend. I think Sevey was more sensitive about those he’d known in his ad agency time.

About his quitting. I demur on the accepted tale it was because a news director who had replaced him ordered him during a newscast to go multiple times to a “live” shot of a meaningless tire fire at Goo’s Golden Tire on Nimitz Highway. He resigned right after that 6 p.m. newscast and left the premises. That news director’s call made sense to me. Big, black smoke pouring into the air not far from the airport. People coming to their hillside homes after work would see it and wonder if it was a plane crash. Sevey says he thought it was excessive use of one of our new “toys,” the live-TV transmission truck.

My read is that Sevey was looking for a reason to quit, just as I would eight years later. Heftel was gone and KGMB was owned by the Lee Enterprises newspaper and (then) TV conglomerate in Davenport, Iowa. The owners felt our news product was old-fashioned and stale. It was. Sevey was old school. News is news. No pictures? No problem. Just read to them. Times were a-changing. New general manager Lee Carlson said he wanted a “take no prisoners” attitude in the newsroom. That’s also when we were required to do a promotion video playing softball in uniforms - the “Team” that works and plays together. We put out toy KGMB helicopters that had to be recalled as a danger to children’s eyes. We were no longer KGMB, an iconic name, we were Newsroom 9.

Lee Enterprises had brought in a replacement news director to do all these things. He took over Sevey’s office. Sevey was moved into an alcove with his back to the newsroom. He no longer made the news-coverage decisions. He read over the scripts we gave him and then read the stuff on the air. He did not have hire and fire authority. It was a big come down for a talented man who was not known for a smallish ego.

When he quit that day in 1986 with no notice and no concession, like I eight years later to stay on for a two-month transition period, he did two things that dismayed some of us of the “purist” journalistic mode. He went to work as a promoter of Heftel for governor, and he was the on-air talent for Hawaiian Airlines commercials. Then he left Hawaii.

I kissed him goodbye the night I saw him at the reunion. He was not a man you’d have easily kissed back in the ‘70s and ‘80s. But he seemed to accept it in the spirit it was offered.

He’ll be an obituary sometime soon. Always the hard-to-control journalist, I want to get a jump on the story.

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