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North Hills Monthly

Jack Etzel, Pittsburgh Icon

Jun 01, 2015 11:29AM ● By Kelly Pernell

Jack Etzel

You know him for his two decades of appearing on television’s Etzel at Large, or the handyman segment, Jack of All Trades, or maybe recognize his name as the writer behind North Hills Monthly’s Perspective series for the past 12 years, during which he interviewed numerous newsmakers in Pittsburgh. A radio and TV reporter, writer, musician, and general Renaissance man, Jack Etzel says he’s as much a part of Pittsburgh as pierogis and pigeons. Retiring from his monthly column to pursue other interests, including writing a book and songwriting, we took a moment to appreciate all that he’s done for this magazine, and the Pittsburgh region.

NHMM: You’re such a big part of Pittsburgh history. Were you born here?
Jack Etzel: Actually, I have no geographic roots at all. I was born in Washington, DC, where I lived for five days, though my parents lived in Riverdale, Maryland, across the border. Before age 2, we moved to Thunderbolt, Georgia, a shrimping village outside of Savannah, and at 10, my family moved to Granite City, Illinois. We lived in four different houses there, including one with an outhouse. I still have flashbacks of that when it’s cold in the bathroom.

NHMM: Why did you move so much?
Jack Etzel: My dad, a Pittsburgher, started working in the mills when he was 14. He had lost his father at the age of 10. He and mom saved their money and opened a grocery store and delicatessen in Pittsburgh before I was born, but when the Great Depression hit in the late ‘20s, they and the store went  broke. They moved all over the country where he could find work. He was running a Gulf Oil gas station in Washington, DC and that’s where I was born–in Washington, not in the gas station. 

NHMM: And yet, you were able to go to college.
Jack Etzel: By the time I was 13 I was making money with a trombone. I had my own band and mostly played wedding receptions, plus the AMVETs Club on weekends. We were terrible, but we were cheap. To afford college, I needed the GI Bill and joined the Navy at 17. My trombone and I ended up visiting at least 14 countries. That was the greatest three years of my life, and ironically, I served on the U.S.S. Pittsburgh—maybe the city was calling me! I decided that I’d like to work in radio or television and went to the University of Denver because I’d seen the world, but never the western part of the country.

NHMM:  It’s interesting that you chose a career in broadcasting, despite having a speech impediment as a child.

Jack Etzel: I had a speech impediment until I was about 7 years old; I couldn’t put two consonants together. The only person who could understand me was my sister, who was my translator. I learned to read at a young age, because my mother couldn’t understand what I was saying—when I could read the words, I could say them better, because I could look at them. Reading became everything to me, and I especially like to read things that I know nothing about. I always preached that to my daughters—read about things that you don’t think might be interesting because you never know what you’ll learn. Both my mom and dad only made it through the eighth grade, which was something that they were ashamed of, but they were very smart people and greatly encouraged learning—my dad was a self-taught chemist, and even worked at the Koppers Coke Plant in Pittsburgh.

NHMM:  And how did you end up here?
Jack Etzel: I began broadcasting at various radio stations in several mid-western states, and turned to television in 1964 in Evansville, Indiana, where I became the news director and anchorman. That was followed by five years at KMOX-TV in St. Louis. I came to Pittsburgh and Channel 11 because I was tired of moving around and found my first hometown at the same time. I spent the next nearly 23 years producing some 3,600 editions of Etzel at Large features, some of which were seen on NBC and CNN. In 1989, while still doing my features, I teamed up with Channel 11’s award-winning videographer and a very creative guy, Rick Minutello, on a handyman segment called Jack of All Trades. That became a weekend television mainstay in Pittsburgh, as well as several other major markets.

NHMM:  But not all of your jobs went so smoothly.

Jack Etzel:  (Laughing) No, I worked at eight radio stations in 10 years before coming to Pittsburgh—one for three weeks, and one for an hour. When I left that job in Davenport, Iowa, the radio station manager said that I was never going to make a living in this business.

NHMM: It is pretty impressive that you had your own show for that many years.
Jack Etzel: I put my own name in the features called Etzel at Large, thinking that it would give me some job security. In television you never know how many different managers and news directors will come and go. It was sheer luck that several management types who passed my way liked my Etzel at Large features. My favorite part of doing those was the learning part—every story that I did, even if it was foolish, like having a truck run over me to show how many people in Pittsburgh jaywalked—gave the viewer and me the opportunity to learn something new.

NHMM: Has Pittsburgh changed since you’ve lived here?
Jack Etzel: Absolutely. When I first got here, I was appalled when I was driving down Rt. 28 with a photographer, and I said, ‘How can this be a highway?’ and the answer was, “If you don’t like it, go back to where you came from.’ That attitude went all the way to the top—to City Council, officials, everyone in authority. People who were born and raised here weren’t open to other opinions, but I’ve definitely seen that change. Now that CMU and Pitt and other great universities are drawing more students from outside, there’s more willingness to embrace other opinions. That’s not only good for newcomers, but for those people who were born and raised here. I love Pittsburgh. I finally found a hometown. 

NHMM: What do you think of today’s ‘news’ shows and reporters?

Jack Etzel:  While there seem to be so many more news programs today, the fact is, people are no longer getting news—they’re getting commentary and opinions. We have around-the-clock and around-the-world ‘news,’ which makes even smart, well-educated people think they’re getting news from Fox or MSNBC, but they’re not. Changes by the Supreme Court and the FCC and others have led to confusion and extremism by all parties, and unfortunately, we can’t put that genie back in the bottle.

NHMM:  Is there any way to fix it?

Jack Etzel: I would like to see a mandatory one-year course in contemporary journalism class taught at the high school level, so that future generations could learn to distinguish the difference between news and commentary. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? We need to turn out better educated students who understand mass media and who can distinguish the difference between news and commentary and politically bent information. That said, I am also appalled by the merging of politics and religion. I told my students in my mass communication classes that the earliest offspring of humanity was politics and religion, and that just as with any siblings, they should not be allowed to marry. If you have any doubts about that, just look at how the subsequent offspring are all a little loony.

NHMM: Any other advice for students today?

Jack Etzel: I would greatly encourage young people to go off and see or live with a different culture. They don’t have to join the military, as I did, but can go into the Peace Corps, VISTA or some other organization. Too many people today never learn more about the world, or even the United States.

NHMM:  So now that you’re ‘retiring’ from the magazine column, what’s on the agenda? Are you finally going to relax?

Jack Etzel:  (Laughs) The thing that takes the most time and planning in my life is trying to do nothing. So far I’ve failed miserably at it. I spend a lot of time writing music—not so much turning out more songs, but going back and improving lyrics here and there. I’m also working on a book, which is not for the public, or even anyone living today. I would have loved to have had anything from my grandparents once they were gone, so I’m writing this book for my great, great grandchildren, or even children born two or three generations later. The book will be about who I was, what I did, and most importantly, what I believe. I want the reader to learn something, even if they disagree with what I have to say.

NHMM:  Even though you are a serious newsman, you don’t seem to take yourself too seriously.

Jack Etzel: When I was in Granite City, I went to a fairly forward-looking high school, where I took a class from on humor from a woman who had written for a radio show called Archie’s Tavern. I thought I was a funny guy, and was kind of offended that she thought humor was a serious subject. But she was right. To this day, I believe that if you don’t have a sense of humor, there’s no reason you should have the other five senses, either.