Robert F. Schenkkan, a giant in public broadcasting, dies
Former UT professor laid foundation for PBS and NPR.
Robert F. Schenkkan, a founding father and tireless defender of public broadcasting, spent five decades nurturing public radio and television in Austin. He also served with distinction in the U.S. Navy in World War II and inspired thousands of students at the University of Texas' College of Communications during his more than two decades as a professor and mentor.
Schenkkan, a soft-spoken man of powerful passions, died in Austin on Wednesday at age 93. He suffered from dementia, according to his widow, Phyllis Schenkkan. He leaves behind a rich and profound broadcast legacy.
"He was the first to understand the immediate meaning and ultimate importance of public broadcasting. He really got it," said Jim Lehrer, anchor and editor of PBS' "NewsHour." "It was 'educational' TV when he started, and he realized it could be so much more. He also believed very strongly that if public broadcast was going to deal with news and public affairs, it couldn't be seen as a political branch of government or special interest. He protected that from all who might have thought otherwise and did so stridently, eloquently and repeatedly."
Recruited by UT from the University of North Carolina in 1955, Schenkkan helped launch KUT radio in 1958 and KLRU television in 1962. He became a national force in organizing educational TV stations into the PBS network and worked with President Lyndon Johnson on passing the Public Broadcasting Act in 1967 that established congressional funding.
"Only Bob could have persuaded LBJ to see that it was a good thing for Austin to have a noncommercial television station, even though it would compete with Johnson's own KTBC," said veteran TV news journalist Bill Moyers. "But Bob was a visionary in his quiet-spoken way, and he had this talent for persuading people without any histrionics — because he made such sense, was so principled and sought nothing for himself from the outcome. I've never known anyone more dedicated to the community's interest. ... And others fell behind him from sheer admiration."
In what became a heated and dramatic public battle, Schenkkan locked horns with the White House in the waning days of President Richard Nixon's troubled presidency. Nixon felt threatened by PBS and some of its tough journalists, so he loaded the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (the body created by Congress that funds PBS) with partisan appointees who threatened to stop money for public affairs programming.
"Bob really got his dander up, and thank God he did," Lehrer said. "He was forceful, and he had credibility. He was a natural defender against the onslaught. Our defense against the Nixons of the world is that we're instruments of nobody — not Nixon or any other administration."
Born in New York of Dutch immigrant parents, Schenkkan studied drama at the University of Virginia and earned a graduate degree from the University of North Carolina after fighting at Guadalcanal during World War II. His arrival in Austin launched the beginning of public broadcasting in Central Texas.
"Bob Schenkkan was a quiet warrior for an independent press," said Roderick P. Hart, dean of UT's College of Communication. "He stood among a few men and women who helped create the public broadcasting system we know today, including PBS and NPR. His leadership role continued as he helped preserve a national treasure when political forces tried to dismantle the public broadcasting system. Children-friendly television, including the beloved 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood,' owes a special debt to Bob Schenkkan. As one of the three founding administrators of the College of Communication, Bob Schenkkan's legacy has been etched for the ages at U T -Austin."
For Schenkkan's 90th birthday in 2007, KLRU and KUT hosted a tribute that brought together 150 friends and family. Written and filmed accolades included messages from Moyers, Lehrer, former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton Minow and legendary public TV and radio executive Ward Chamberlin .
"Bob Schenkkan's vision for KLRU not only helped create the station, but his constant support and advice over the decades have played a major role in the station's continuing growth and success," said KLRU General Manager Bill Stotesbery. "We owe Bob a great debt of thanks."
While he was on leave from the Navy, Schenkkan married his college sweetheart, Jean McKenzie, and the couple had four sons: Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan Jr. (who saluted his father when he won a Writers Guild Award on Saturday for the teleplay of "The Pacific: Part Eight"); Gerard "Tex" Schenkkan, an executive with the San Francisco firm Digidesign , which makes hardware and software for the music business; Pieter "Pete" Schenkkan, a lawyer in Austin ; and Dirk Schenkkan, a lawyer in San Francisco .
Schenkkan was by Jean's side when she died in 1985. Four years later he married Phyllis Rothgeb, and they traveled and enjoyed life until Schenkkan, who is also survived by Phyllis and her sons John Reese Rothgeb Jr. and David Rothgeb, became too frail.
Schenkkan joked that he retired from UT in 1976 "but it didn't take." He was recruited by the Agency for International Development in Washington, D.C., and promoted educational television in developing nations. But he ended his career for good when Jean became ill.
"When my brothers and I were boys, my father took us fishing and camping," Pete Schenkkan recalled. "We waded in shallow Texas Hill Country rivers. We canoed in the Quetico (in Ontario, Canada). He taught us to see and hear the natural world. And my father listened to us. He had strong views and deep knowledge, and yet still wanted to hear what you thought, and why. My father made the world better. KUT and NPR, KLRU and PBS — these are great achievements of 20th-century Austin and America. He led in each, constructively and creatively. My father aged and died the same way he lived, with unforced dignity and decency."
Among Schenkkan's grandchildren is Pete's son, actor Benjamin McKenzie ("The O.C.," "Junebug," "Southland"), who grew up in Austin before heading to the University of Virginia and, after a brief stint in New York, to Hollywood. Family loyalty, acting, writing, law and academics permeate the Schenkkan clan.
"At family gatherings, over terrific food, my grandfather and his grown sons and daughters-in-law and his grandchildren would discuss, well, everything," McKenzie recalled. "Politics, religion, philosophy and the arts were just some of the subjects. We'd bicker and argue — Schenkkans love to argue — but mostly we'd laugh. My grandfather had a big, genuine laugh that showed deep, honest pleasure. When I said something that made him laugh, it made me feel like the most important child on Earth."
Plans for a memorial service are pending.
Additional material from American-Statesman television writer Dale Roe.