On Friday, July 25, 1986, Dennis Phillips, after having been away from WBTV for 11 years, returned for a day-long visit to the station, spending time with old friends and colleagues who were still on the staff, particularly Vivian Harris in Creative Services, Rick Frye in the art department, photographers John Steed and Tom Landon...and with Jim Patterson. It was ironic that he timed the visit when he did, for only four days later Dennis, back in Florida, got a tearful phone call from Vivian. She had shocking, terrible news.
The day she called, Tuesday, July 29, Bob Inman read these words on a WBTV broadcast:
"Jim Patterson died last night in an auto accident in south Charlotte. His car went out of control on Providence Road and overturned, and he was killed instantly".
"Jim was synonymous with WBTV, the announcer who signed the station on the air in 1949, and became one of the most familiar and best-loved broadcasters in the Carolinas. Jim was an Asheville native, and began his broadcasting career with WISE radio in Asheville as a teenager. He joined WBTV in 1949. Jim is survived by his wife, Julia, and four children. Jim was 62 years old."
After talking to Vivian, Dennis wrote her this long, emotional letter about his visit, how the station had changed, and about his last conversation with Jim.
It was really a joy to visit with you and my old friends at WBTV last week: I never really felt that I had left. Francis had a few messages for me on the spindle, and just like the old days she was looking for me. Of course, just like the old days I was downstairs with Jim Patterson or Rick Frye. And there you were, contemplating a few lines of copy at your desk. And quite suddenly I was back. All of you were warm and misty eyed as the years melted away and we each caught up with each other. For a few minutes I was "family" again.
But, I could feel the changes. I could feel what time had wrought. The halls were less crowded. All of you were working harder. The Grand Lady, WBTV, was older, leaner, quieter and a lot more serious. The glass case in the lobby spoke of our years together in the first part of the 70s that were the glory years. I looked at the awards from that era... Oh how things had changed! It was as if I had gone back to the old home place only to find that Mom (Pat [Lee]) had passed on a few years before and Dad (Jim [Patterson]) was thinner and a lot more serious. Most of my brothers and sisters had gone on to find their fortunes and a few were still at the old home place. Some of the furniture was there but the rooms had been changed around and things just weren't the way they used to be. I didn't want to accept the thought at first but all last week in my quiet moments in the deep times that grip the soul I had to tell myself that the old home place just didn't exist anymore. 0h, I know there are still a few who care about the Grand Lady, and about me and our mutual memories but the tides of change and time have carved a new reality.
This truth hit me hard! Last week was rough psychologically. I kept shaking my head telling Cindy, "It's all changed". "Cindy, they closed JP, they closed the big studio, there isn't any more local stuff except news, it's all so different:" ..."and Cindy, they closed Jeffersonics: John Steed hasn't shot a roll of EFB in years!" In a consoling tone my dear wife asked "Well, who's there?"..."Well, Vivian and she's looking great ... she has short hair and she and Parker built a place and she still has the shepherds"..."Not, so fast. Who else?"..."Well, Jim Patterson, he's lost a lot of weight and he gave me a bear hug when he saw me, we talked for almost an hour"..."Who else?"..."Frances Harkey, she was glad to see me and she was really happy to know that we have been married 15 years"... "Anyone else?"... "Yes, John Steed has a beard now and Tom Landon and Rick Frye have gray hair and Cliff Whitney and Bobby Lawing, and"...
For a few brief moments I was "family" again. I could say 'tempus fugit' with the poets...or as Ovid would say, 'tempus edax rerum' : "time Flies" and "time devours all things."
All last week I plotted a letter. I would write to Jim Patterson and thank him for his precious moments and warm loving welcome. I would send a letter to Vivian and Frances with a picture of Cindy and the Kids and a catalog from Allied Costumes showing them my work. I would drop a note to Cliff in engineering and tell him about my ham radios. I would write to Rick Frye and tell him about my art shop and my staff artists. Maybe I would send a letter to John Steed showing him some of my recent movie work for
"D.A.R.Y.L." and "Jaws 3" or Steed would love to see what we are going to be doing in film.
That is where it was Tuesday Morning and then I heard ...about Jim.
I can not express the empty feeling in my stomach. It is as if someone reached inside my chest and grabbed my heart. It's a hard lump in my throat. I think my first words were,"Oh, god! I don't need to hear this"...Not Jim, it is not supposed to be like this...not Uncle Jim.
Just last Monday... I told him, "Look Jim, let's don't make it 11 years next time. You come see me in Orlando!...you know what he said? He said, "I hope it won't be 11" ...and he gave me the "Hi" sign .... The "Hi" sign was his special little greeting. (Knuckles under the chin and wiggle the fingers in a silly little wave.)
I'm numb...I can't cope with it now....the truth hasn't set in yet.
Jim was my very special friend and co-worker. (I know that he was to everyone). He was WBTV. The flashy anchormen would come and go but Jim was there. The Whiz bang salesman would come and go but Jim was there. The hot shot programmers would flash through but Jim was there. Actually WBTV was like a daughter to Jim. He watched her being born and he raised her up. He uttered those first words at Spencer Mountain in 1949 - This is WBT V in Charlotte, The first Television Station in the Carolinas- He was proud of his 'little girl! She was a little girl in the 50's as the co-ax came in and she outgrew her room at the Wilder Building. True, she started in the crib on the top of Spencer's Mountain. but her real house was at Number One Julian Price Place! In the 60's she came of age arid in the 70's she was the Grand Lady. She flirted with others but she always had a deep spot in her heart for Daddy Jim.
Jim understood change, he knew his little girl was growing up and would leave him. He never resented that. He just wanted his little girl to be the woman she should. Jim loved WBT AM radio and I never heard a complaint about all of it's changes. He accepted it. I remember one instance in 1972 and it had to do with a fake Elvis interview on WBT. Jim looked at me and said, "Well, this kind of thing puts us down there in the mud with the rest of them!" One of the very few times I saw him angry was on this issue of integrity. We had to be a cut above the rest in order for Jim to be happy.
I don't know why Pat Lee chose me to do the 25th Anniversary show. I think maybe Pat saw how close I was to Jim. Maybe she saw our rapport on 'Whistle Stop.' Anyway, Pat called me into her office early in 1974 and she said, "Dennis, you are the one to do the 25th Anniversary Show. You are close to Jim Patterson and I know that you have an engineering as well as radio background. You are always all over this building absorbing our history and mood. This job is for you." Pat got a cutesy little smile on her face as only Pat could. She lowered her voice, "Now, Dennis what I want you to do is follow Jim Patterson around for a while. Jim is the soul of this place. Probe him gently. Let's don't do a show on history or facts. I want feeling and mood. Work the ideas out of Jim's feelings. Dennis, this is a great 'opportunity' for you!" (Opportunity was one of Pat's favorite words!)
And so, I followed Pat's advice.
Jim told me about sign-on day and how he was almost late. Names like Bob Bean and Nelson Benton surfaced....
It was all there....The days in the Wilder Building...names, times, dates....
A pall of sadness descended on Jim as a name, Alan Newcomb, was mentioned. Jim dropped his chin, "He died rather suddenly, what a man he was..."
It was all there...Arthur Smith and the CrackerJacks, Big Bill Ward, Bozo.
I followed Jim around, yes I did, to the Pine Terrace, in the lounge, through the halls. He was a walking history of his Lady. She was his girl and he knew her so well and he loved her. He loved her with a deep abiding love!
You can see the results of my efforts on the 25th Anniversary show. Some of the thoughts were Jim's and some were mine. It was our show.
Upon my return Monday a week ago, Pat lee's words echoed in my minds "Jim Patterson is the soul of this place. As I finished the interview on "Top of the Day" there was Jim with a big bear hug. "My goodness, Dennis, you haven't changed a bit! How have you been?" I choked back the words... "Oh. I'm doing great Jim. It's so good to see you and to be back!"
Pat Lee's words were there....Yes, Just like WBTV, Jim was leaner and though still warm and loving there was a deepness in his eyes. He was much more serious and contemplative. The roly-poly days of '70-'76 were gone.
We strolled into the prop room. "Well, Dennis, things are different here now. Everything is less than 4 minutes. We just don't do the local production like we did."
For the first time he didn't speak of a long future with his Lady. "Dennis, I have a couple of years left and I think I am going to study some philosophy and sociology." Deep in his eyes was a sadness, "We have been cutting back and cutting back." I know he accepted the data and the economics. Anything so that his little Lady would survive. He said it in a way that any daddy would when he gave away his bride. WBTV just wasn't his anymore.
For the first time I could see that Jim was planning a life away from WBTV. But this was unthinkable for me.
I brought out the glory days. "Hey Jim, remember the time that Reno Bailey was on the Morning scene as a yo-yoing tap dancing skater and you interviewed him totally straight?" Jim's eyes sprang to life! "Yes...and I still have the tape of it. What a funny bit that was."
With a bit of seriousness he began, "You know a few years ago on the morning show, Cullie [Tarleton] told us that we weren't doing the time often enough. So the next morning we gave the time every other minute! Well, Cullie called me in his office and was really mad and he asked me what I was doing and why I was making a fool out of his TV station. In all these years I never came that close to being fired. I told Cullie that foolishness was what the morning show was all about! We always acted that way." I could see that the event had upset him but he continued, "You know, Dennis, I wasn't afraid of being fired because there is only one man that could ever fire me from this place and that is Charlie Crutchfield and he ain't around here anymore so I can't be fired!"
I want to tell you I almost rolled in the floor with laughter!
Jim recalled the sad time of Pat Lee's goodbye speech at Charlie Crutchfield's dinner. "Oh, she shined, Dennis, I don't know where she got the strength!"
I asked the question, "Jim, why haven't you gone into sales or something?" He didn't give me a direct answer other than the fact that it wasn't his thing. But, I know why. Jim couldn't sell his Lady, he couldn't even try to manage or control his girl. All he could do was love her and serve her! If others grabbed her attention with words like 'bottom line' or 'demographics' then all Jim could do was love his little lady and give his soul to her.
Jim found the old Whistle Stop mailbox in the prop room and I dug an old picture out of my file I had brought and we both laughed and had a good tear over it.
And then I bid goodbye to Jim. I affected him. I know I did. He came alive in our short time together.
What a marvelous man he was! We had done so much together. Jim used to do the 5 am to 6 am spot on WBT (AM) and a few mornings I would come in and carry on with some foolishness on the radio. I always used to crack him up with my rock-jock impression. We did Park N Shop TV spots and commercials and many specials and that weekly spot of Whistle Stop.
I just can't accept WBTV without him!
In our lives in this day and age of rapid change we need rocks and pillars. Naisbett mentions this in "Megatrends" He shows that High-Tech will demand High-Touch. I think that maybe Jim was a popular High-Touch factor at WBTV.
Words fail me at a time like this. I am so sorry for Jim and his family. I am sorry for all of you.
I suppose the best thing is to say that I am here, I care and love all of you. If there is anything that I can do...tell me.
It will hurt for a long time, but the fond memories are forever.
Somewhere deep in the heart of God there is a special place for people like Jim Patterson. He was a true servant. He always took joy in being the second fiddle. Others would get to ride Calico while Jim was happy to just hold the reins. He labored in love for the station he loved.
Thanks to all of you for a few wonderful years in my life....years that I will always feel are special ones.
Thank you for thinking enough about me to call. I hope you can feel my emotions in this letter. This has been a tearful task.
Love to all,
Dennis W. Phillips