Date of interview: March 2001
To most residents of northeast Ohio, Del Donahoo is as familiar a fixture as the Terminal Tower. The features reporter has worked for WKYC TV-3 in many capacities since 1968, including general assignment reporter, news anchor and co-host of the local morning show, "Today in Cleveland."
He is arguably the most people-oriented reporter on television today, featuring notable restaurants, shops and people on his "Del's Folks" news segment. In 1988, he was honored by 116 mayors from throughout northeast Ohio, who proclaimed his 65th birthday to be Del Donahoo Day.
Raised on a farm, Del brought a stalwart work ethic to Cleveland. He rises at 3 a.m. to start work at 5 a.m., often not leaving until 5 p.m. He has been married for 53 years to Martha. The couple has two children and four grandsons. We recently spoke to Del to get learn his recipes for happiness and successful aging.
Tell us a little bit about your younger years.
I was born on a cold, stormy night (chuckles) in Moravia, Iowa on November 15, 1923. I grew up on an Iowa farm. I'm the baby of three children. My brother and sister are still living. We actually lived similarly to the Amish. My mother cooked on a wood-burning stove. I studied by kerosene lamp, because electricity wasn't available in southern Iowa until the early 1930s. It was a hard way of life, but a good way of life. There was an optimism that I think is missing in many people's lives today.
How do you think your childhood made you into the person you are today?
I have that optimism I mentioned. I can get very discouraged, but I always bounce back. I think I get that from my mother. My mother was a worrier, but she never gave up. She knew there was something better for us, and insisted we get an education. My father made a difference as well. He was always working on the farm. He was very good at what he did. But it was always my dream to be on the radio. I just kept that dream. I acted in all the plays in high school. I think I must have gotten that need to show off (laughs) from my great uncle, a circuit minister, who was an inspiration to me.
How did you start out?
After a year of junior college, in 1943, I taught in a one-room, country schoolhouse. Grades one throught eighth, 18 students. We had a big pot belly stove, and I would bank that thing with coal in the winter. I had to do my own janitor work. I made $75 a month. But I had a great year there. I'd stay after school, and I taught a child to read. The students were sure I was going off to be a hero in the war, but I served on the "homefront" (laughs). I have a shortened leg, so I couldn't serve in the armed forces.
Then I attended the University of Iowa, and I became a staff announcer for its radio station, WSUI. Then I went to work at WMT Radio in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I wanted to get a job in the northwest, so I paraded around the northwest for awhile. Finally, I got a job in Denver. I wasn't too keen on that station. I went back to Iowa, this time to a town called Ottumwa, and got a job at KBIZ radio. I was there five years, directing the news, sports and programs. I did a live man-on-the-street show there-you couldn't do that today!
During that time, I was rooming with a couple, a doctor and his wife. They were wonderful people. That was how I met Martha, they were her aunt and uncle. Martha and I got married in 1948.
Then I landed my dream job: WHO radio in Des Moines. I was brought up on that station. It's where Ronald Reagan got his start. They had live music, national sponsors. I started doing features there. In 1954, I conducted a 40-day tour in Europe, Africa and Asia; we covered 20,000 miles. We went to Rome, Capri, Cairo, Damascus, Jerusalem. I'd interview the travelers as we went to different places, then I'd send back audio tapes and silent film to the WHO people. I loved working there; I thought I'd stay there forever. But then television came along, and I left the station. I went to WOW TV in Omaha. I just missed working with Johnny Carson by six months. That was his first television show.
What was one of your most memorable assignments?
I was working at WDAF Radio in Kansas City. That was an interesting job. Harry Truman was still very active there. He had a wonderful Presidential library, and a mini-Oval Office. I called up his secretary, had a visit with him and he was just tremendous. You could just feel his electricity. You'd ask him a question and he'd be just as quick to answer. Then I was assigned to write his obituary. This was before he died. What a task! I had the hardest time getting started on it, but I talked to several of his cronies. And when Truman read it, he leaned back in his chair, and-smiling all the while-said, "Looks like it'll be a hell of a fine show. The only thing is, I won't be around to enjoy the damn thing!"
How many former presidents have you met?
I met Herbert Hoover at WHO. I had to set his watch so he'd be on network time. And then there was Truman. I met Lyndon B. Johnson during his presidency at Harry Truman's house. Looking straight at Mr. Johnson, I asked, "Mr. President, what is the nature of your visit?" and Harry Truman said to me, "Why don't you ask the President?" (laughs). Dwight Eisenhower waved to me personally. I took a back road because I had heard President Eisenhower was in town and all the streets would be blocked off. I was the only car on this road, and suddenly this motorcade comes along. There was Ike in an open car. I waved to him and he waved back!
I've had the chance to meet several celebrities. But what I find is big name people are usually regular people. Once I interviewed Perry Como in the VIP room of the Kansas City airport. He had come to town to play at the state fair. I asked him to share his secret about being so calm, cool and collected. He said to me, "You say I'm calm. But you're not inside of me."
Is there anyone you'd like to meet but haven't?
George Foreman. Our kids got us a George Foreman grill for Christmas. It's great for making steaks. I'd like to meet him. I'd also like to meet Dave Thomas of Wendy's hamburgers.
What makes you want to meet people?
My parents were not particularly outgoing. I think I got it from my Uncle Par, short for Parmetus, the one who inspired me to go into radio. I love to meet anyone. I love going out on personal appearances, it gives me a chance to meet a lot of people. Everybody's a story. I like to wave to people from my van, which says, "Del's Folks" on it. My mailbox at home also says, "Del's Folks."
You've been married for 53 years. Any secrets you'd like to share for a successful marriage?
Martha has always had her own life. She was a teacher, and had worked for her dad's seed company. Now she gives piano lessons, belongs to PEO (a secret society) and goes bowling. How she does all these things amazes me, because taking care of me is a full-time job in itself! (laughs)
Every Friday night is homemade pizza night. And we go out to the restaurants I review. Work is my hobby; I enjoy my work. She's always been supportive of that. She gets up with me every morning at 3:15 a.m. and makes me breakfast. That makes it so much easier to get up.
You've been employed by WKYC for 32 years. Have you thought of retiring?
You can't stay in one place 32 years without people doing nice things for you. Channel 3 has been terrific to me. The whole area has been terrific to me! It's a great place. I never thought I'd be working in a market like this-my heart couldn't have stood it. I feel fortunate they've allowed me to do the types of stories they've let me do. I've never felt anyone has ever done me wrong. As for retiring, I've thought a lot about it. I know my days are numbered. But as long as Martha and I are well, it's nice to keep going to work.
What is your attitude about aging?
I feel privileged to have had this many years. I don't like to think of myself as being old. But I don't worry about getting old. I think death is going to be o.k. I believe in the hereafter.
I keep my mind busy. I don't allow myself to fall into the trap of being pessimistic. For me, continuing to work is one of the best ways to do that. I believe in the adage: "Age is mind over matter."
What advice would you give to someone on aging successfully?
Keep on keepin' on!