SCOTTSDALE, Ariz — Hugh Downs, who proudly called Lima his hometown and went on to become a legend in television, died Wednesday at his home in Scottsdale, Ariz, his family confirmed Thursday. He was 99.
In a broadcasting career that began in 1939 in Lima at age 18 when he landed a job as an announcer at 100-watt WLOK radio, Downs moved into television as an announcer for the NBC-owned station in Chicago in 1950.
More than three decades later, the Guinness Book of Records certified that Downs held the Guinness Record for on-air national commercial television time, with nearly 10,000 hours as of 1985. His total of more than 15,000 hours was surpassed by Regis Philbin in 2004.
Downs was a likable and reassuring presences during his five-decade career. It included serving as Jack Paar’s late-night announcer-sidekick, and hosting the NBC’s “Today” and ABC’s newsmagazine “20/20.” The long run on award-winning “20/20” began in 1978 alongside Barbara Walters. He took over as host a week after the show’s disastrous premiere with dual hosts (Harold Hayes and Robert Hughes). Downs stepped down in 1999, when he was 78.
“Hugh had the easiness that made people comfortable in the morning,” former NBC News president and ABC News executive Dick Wald said in a 2011 interview. “His wide range of interests gave him a little bit of knowledge about almost everything under the sun; and a general pleasant demeanor that made everybody feel comfortable. He was really the everyman of that business.”
The Lima days
The eldest of three brothers, Downs was born Feb. 14, 1921, in Akron. His family moved to a farm outside Lima when he was 2 and later moved into town. He went to Horace Mann Elementary School and graduated in 1938 from Shawnee High School. The high school’s auditorium bears his name.
Perhaps Bluffton College’s most famous dropout — he had to drop out after a year for financial reasons and his father suggested he get a job — Downs landed a job as announcer at the tiny Lima radio station, where he initially worked seven days a week for $12.50 a week. That began his path to New York City, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Reached in June 2007 by The Lima News, Downs was in town for the Shawnee High School Class of 1938’s 69th reunion. He returned for these reunions often.
Then 86 years old, Downs offered advice:
• “You have to laugh at stuff or you’ll go crazy. When you look at history, there have been plenty of bad times, but we lived through it. We’ve hearty enough. I think we’ll survive even what we have now.”
• “Almost all marriages that fail, fail because they fail to communicate. You could save a lot of marriages if you could just get them to do that. The old thought that you don’t have to tell her you love her, that she knows that, well that’s not the case. You have to say it or she’ll start to doubt it’s true.”
• “In truth, I have mixed feelings about biting the hand that fed me for decades. But journalism has, by and large, struck out. I would like to have seen the mainstream media remain more in the forefront of letting people know what’s going on. That hasn’t happened.”
At the beginning of his television career at the NBC affiliate in Chicago, Downs was the announcer for the classic “Kukla, Fran & Ollie” puppet show and the soap opera “Hawkins Falls.” He moved to New York City in 1954 to announce NBC’s “The Home Show,” a new morning program starring Arlene Francis.
Downs went on to be the announcer for the last season of “Caesar’s Hour” on NBC before Paar tapped him to be his announcer for the debut of the network’s new “Tonight” show in 1957.
“Tonight” turned Paar into a national TV sensation and made Downs a TV personality in his own right after Paar began asking him to sit on the panel on a regular basis, and he became Paar’s frequent replacement host.
Their banter before the first guests came out led to Downs displaying his knowledge of music, psychology, astronomy, skin diving and other subjects.
His diverse knowledge amused Paar, who loved to ask him questions and dubbed him a “walking encyclopedia.”
“Tonight,” Paar once joked on air, “Hugh is going to do a medley of famous Supreme Court decisions.”
In a 2001 interview with the Indianapolis Star, Downs said working with the mercurial “Tonight” show host “was like riding a bronco.”
“And,” he said, “it made almost everything else I did in television seem a little bit tame, because you never knew what was going to happen - and it happened every night.”
That was never more so than on a night in February 1960 when Paar quit the show and walked off the stage the day after NBC censored his telling of a humorous story featuring a “WC” (the abbreviation for water closet) without telling him.
That left Downs to host the remainder of that night’s show.
“Jack frequently does things he regrets,” he told the audience. “but I’d like to think that this is not final - and that Jack will be back.”
Paar returned to the show 25 days after his dramatic departure, and Downs continued as announcer until Paar left the show for good in 1962 and Johnny Carson became the “Tonight” show host with Ed McMahon as his announcer.
Hosting ‘Today.’ ‘20/20”
While continuing his hosting duties on “Concentration,” Downs became the new host of the “Today” show in 1962, a job he held until 1971.
For segments of the “Today” show, he rode a killer whale at Sea World in San Diego, went through training to get his private pilot’s license and drove a Formula A racing car.
For “20/20,” he traveled to the South Pole and participated in an underwater search for a lost Spanish galleon in the British Virgin Islands.
For fun and another challenge, he once sailed his own boat (with his son and a crew) on a five-month voyage across the Pacific.
Looking back, he recalled in a 1997 interview for the Archive of American Television, he wondered why he stayed in radio.
“I had the worst case of mike fright of anybody I ever even read about,” he said. “My blood turned to ice water and my knees to jelly. It never showed in my voice, but I was terrified when I would go on the air.
“Why I didn’t quit, I don’t know. But I was just determined to be a broadcaster, and I got over that after a while.”
Downs’ wife of 75 years, Ruth Shaheen, died in 2017. He is survived by a daughter, Deirdre, and a son Hugh Raymond, known as H.R., two grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.