The legacy of WOOD TV’s pioneer, then and now

February 24th, 2010 at 4:27 am by under Inside WOOD TV8, News
schroeder
I spent hours going through the archives at WOOD-TV-8 following the death of a pioneer in television, a man who ran this station shortly after it signed on the air 60-years ago until he left in 1977. Willard Schroeder (pronounced shray-der) died Tuesday at his East Grand Rapids home. He was 96. His wife, Barbara, preceded him in death.  Schroeder’s four children were with him at his home.  His daughter Chris told me his last words to them were, “Wow, what a gang.”

Willard Schroeder created and developed live t.v. programming in West Michigan in the ’50, ’60s and ’70s, innovated local t.v. news and set the standard for it, and guided the station through decades of technological wonders. He shepherded local t.v.’s transition from black and white to color; from felt weather boards to radar; handwritten cue cards to teleprompter; film to videotape to microwave. He lived to see it go way beyond all of that to doppler radar and computers, satellite, digital, HDTV, and live streaming on the web. And he saw it go from one to three to hundreds of channels.

Of the early days, Schroeder said, “Nobody knew anything about television. You give it a shot and go with what you had.”  The hardest part, he said, was coming up with programming 18-hours a day, 7-days a week. “Early on, we decided to go live. We had some challenges as to what kind of programming. Anything goes,” he remembered.Much of his programming proved to be a big success.  West Michigan audiences growing up in the 50′s and 60′s will remember Miss Jean and Romper Room, the Singing Cowboy Ray Overholt, Buck Barry and the Buckaroos, Captain Woody and his sidekick Sydney, Carol Duvall who could make anything out of everything, and the Buck Matthews Show.

Willard Schroeder was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1913 and graduated from the Missouri School of Journalism in 1934.  He was a newsman at heart and an advertising man by skill and training. He started in the newspaper business eventually selling ad space. He made the move to radio sales and management, and then on to television. In 1951, he became General Manager of WOOD-TV.  He knew, “If television as an invention could be perfected to the degree that it was convenient not only in your home but in the car, on an airplane, it had to be the number one communication device.”  He spent the prime of his life, 27-years at the helm of WOOD-TV ensuring just that. After television, he returned to radio, purchasing several stations including WOOD Radio in Grand Rapids. He eventually sold them.

Schroeder was a respected leader in a burgeoning industry.  He was chairman and president of broadcasting’s most influential national and state boards and associations.  He also was a mover and shaker in the Grand Rapids community serving on hospital, college, and charitable boards.

As President and General Manager of WOOD-TV, Schroeder believed women could work in a man’s world and hold their own, and he proved it.  He was the first in this area to promote a woman to the most visible position in the community: prime time television news anchor.  I didn’t know at the time when Mr. Schroeder gave me the coveted job as anchor of WOOD-TV’s 6pm and 11pm newscasts that he was such a strong supporter of women. His wife, Barbara, was an intelligent, spirited, impressive woman who in her early days worked as a radio producer.  One of their daughters, Christine Woodward Duncan, became a broadcaster as well following in her father’s footsteps managing stations.

I interviewed my former boss, Willard Schroeder, just over a year ago.  He was in declining health and I told him I wanted to talk with him for posterity, to preserve on videotape his recollections of those revolutionary days in television.  He told me he piloted his plane until the age of 89 and rode his bike until 90. He was donating his home in East Grand Rapids to the city.  Upon his death, his house is to be razed and the expansive property used as a park.

Mr. Schroeder, as I always called him even when he told me to call him Bill, confided in me, “I miss WOOD-TV. I never had so much fun in my life.”  It was so much fun working for him.  He was respectful of his employees and supportive, generous to us, and he threw great company parties always including our spouses and our children.

Willard Schroeder was handsome, physically fit, had a quick wit and comfortable way about him.  Every Monday, for the past many years, he would have lunch with a group of his peers, people like entrepreneurs Fred Meijer and Peter Cook.  They call themselves The Improvement Association.

As I was combing through WOOD-TV memorabilia files on Mr. Schroeder, I came across a speech he wrote nearly 50-years ago.  It described his management style: “Make it clear to the fellow working for you that you expect him to make quite a few mistakes as well as right moves.  When he makes an honest mistake, back him up  fully. When he does something right, give him credit for it.  Some people describe this philosophy categorically as offering loyalty to your employees.  I think that’s right; I also think it’s the only way you can expect to get, in turn, the loyalty from them you want and need.”

What an amazing man.  What an incredible boss.  All the years Willard Schroeder ran WOOD-TV, the station was number one in the ratings, hugely successful in revenues, prestigious in the community, and revered by so many of us who worked here.  It’s no wonder.  Willard Schroeder wasn’t afraid to chart a new course, to experiment and take chances, to be bold with content and technology. He was a pioneer in so many ways– just what the industry needed then and what it still needs now.

3 Responses to “The legacy of WOOD TV’s pioneer, then and now”

  1. Dave Bolton says:

    Bill Schroeder was the best boss, leader, manager I ever worked for. He was a wonderful human being. My respect for him is boundless. It was an honor and privilege working for the man! My condolences to his family.

  2. JEROME WADE says:

    I, AND THE BAND THAT I PLAYED IN,”THE PATTERNS” APPEARD ON THE BUCK MATTHEWS SHOW IN THE YEAR 1970 OR 1971. IS THERE ANY CHANCE THAT TAPES OF THE SHOW STILL AROUND?

  3. grant says:

    so sad

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