This week, we’ve been remembering Robert Wilson, who led KERA during its early years. He died at age 75 May 5 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Wilson introduced American TV audiences to Jim Lehrer and Monty Python. Lee Cullum worked with him during that period and remained friends afterward. She shares her memories.
Bob Wilson has not been available to us for many, many months. There have been dinner parties at his wonderful long table, with his wife Laura presiding, gracefully, stylishly, carrying on as he would wish. But no Bob to regale us with the acuity of his opinions, the unforgiving accuracy of his insights, the bracing force of his enthusiasm.
So I went looking for the Bob Wilson I knew from our time together at KERA, doing a program called Newsroom, and during his highly productive years that followed. I found him especially in his four books, and they told me things about him I had never full understood before.
Bob, for example, for all his ebullience, always out there, or so it seemed, kept his most important feelings to himself. Once when Laura asked him playfully, “Do you love me?” His reply, also playful, was, in effect, no comment. It wasn’t until the third book that he dedicated a work to her and their boys, Andrew, Owen and Luke. The first was for his sister, Beth Floor, in all capital letters, heavy emphasis for Bob. Among those recognized in the second was Sheila Cunningham, Laura’s sister, who died too young and left her books to Bob, an inheritance that meant a great deal to him. He loved books, and the library of Sheila Cunningham, he knew, contained a remarkable mind, plus her unmatchable wit, laced with irony, equal to his own.
Avowedly independent, Bob never allowed anybody else to do his thinking for him, and he was prescient. He included in American Greats, edited with Stanley Marcus, a sympathetic chapter on populists and their struggle “to make a living… without losing every shred of human dignity.” A few pages later his close friend, Mike Ritchey, once a reporter on Newsroom, added a dazzling piece on “romance with the road” in which he derided “claustrophobic convention.”
Mike Ritchey might have been speaking for Bob Wilson who lived a paradoxical life—unconventional in a strait-laced city, within the structure of a family he treasured; adventuresome while ever mindful of obligations; a loner deeply attached to friends who adored him, creative in a context of necessary business acumen.
Bob Wilson was at his core an impresario. His genius was in connecting people, projects, ideas and energies. To dedicate this piece to him, there is no better place to look than Virginia Woolf’s second novel and this paraphrase: For Robert Andrew Wilson, and searching for a phrase I could find none to stand beside your name.
Lee Cullum is a veteran journalist and host of KERA TV’s “CEO”. She interviewed Wilson for a documentary called “Bob Wilson and the Early Years of KERA.”
KERA-TV will air the half-hour special Friday, May 12 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, May 14 at 10:30 a.m.
Correction: An earlier version of this commentary stated that Wilson died Aug. 5. He died May 5.