Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Epilogue | James Stephen "Steve" Tyrrell

Steve Tyrrell, for decades the face of WEDU, dies at 90

ST. PETERSBURG — From its inception in 1958, WEDU-Ch. 3 has positioned itself as a hopeful alternative to privately owned television.

Operating out of studios in what was then St. Petersburg Junior College, idealistic executives designed courses, built fairy castles out of papier-mache and lugged cable across campus to broadcast basketball games in black and white.

It was the perfect kind of job for Steve Tyrrell, the public television station's longtime programming director and its most visible face during fundraising drives. The career teacher joined WEDU in 1960 and returned to the airwaves for pledge drives even after his retirement more than 30 years later.

A cerebral and upbeat man, Mr. Tyrrell seemed to consume history, poetry and baseball statistics with little effort, if only because he enjoyed those pursuits so much. His ability to weave facts into a narrative persuaded viewers to donate their cash and commodities to keep the station alive.

Mr. Tyrrell, who built WEDU's programming menu from a small televised classroom to a successful PBS affiliate, died Nov. 17, of pancreatic cancer. He was 90.

"He enjoyed being able to create something, especially if he could make something out of nothing," said his son James Tyrrell, 57.

A lover of language who studied Greek and Hebrew at Loyola University, Mr. Tyrrell usually had the right words for any occasion, complete with etymologies.

"Whenever we played Scrabble, it was always a contest for second place," his son said.

As another son, Michael Tyrrell, 61, put it, "Dad was Google before there was Google."

Born in Chicago, Mr. Tyrrell served in the Army Air Forces during World War II. In 1950 he married Grace Wakefied, a fellow teacher at Lealman Junior High. He served as assistant principal at Tyrone Junior High before moving to WEDU in its third year of existence.

It was a good fit. When the schools needed a world history course, he created one from scratch, gathered maps and props and taped the series.

He went all out, wearing buckskin and lecturing atop a buckboard wagon or playing the role of Abraham Lincoln.

Mr. Tyrrell rose to programming director for the station as it added Masterpiece classics such as Elizabeth R; Upstairs, Downstairs; and Crime and Punishment.

He retired in the early 1990s, but returned for marathon pledge drives. During breaks from The Three Tenors and other big draws, Mr. Tyrrell methodically explained why a $100 check to the station was worth a tote bag, a book or a CD.

"The number crunchers found out that the longer you stayed on air talking, the more money rolled in," said James Tyrrell. "Dad was good at keeping the words flowing."

Said Jack Conely, WEDU's vice president of content: "He could relate to older people, and was so good at reinforcing why it was important to support public television."

The signal of the station, now based in Tampa, stretches across 16 counties from Fort Myers to Crystal River and east into Central Florida.

Mr. Tyrrell weathered sadnesses at home. Grace died in 1984 of cancer. Mary Ellen, a daughter with Down syndrome, died in 1994; and a second wife, the former Regina Kenney, died in 2011. He remained active in the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle, where he was a founding member.

He also acted in plays at what is now St. Petersburg City Theatre and walked Tyrone Mall with a friend, Bill Heubaum, 76. They talked baseball, theology and politics over coffee.

Not long ago, Mr. Tyrrell brought over a video of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman talking about globalization.

"There was no way I was going to watch that left-wing stuff," Heubaum later said. But he did, and found wide areas of agreement.

Once again, Mr. Tyrrell had found the thread to reach his audience.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at or (727) 892-2248.


James Stephen "Steve'' Tyrrell

Born: Sept. 18, 1922

Died: Nov. 17, 2012

Survivors: sons, Michael, James and John Tyrrell; daughter, Stephanie Tyrrell; stepdaughters, Elaine Lowitz and Lisa Elder; stepson, John Kenney; seven grandchildren; seven stepgrandchildren.

Steve Tyrrell, for decades the face of WEDU, dies at 90 12/01/12 [Last modified: Saturday, December 1, 2012 8:46pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. No touchdown, but fun lesson for Bucs' Adam Humphries


    It didn't end up being a touchdown, but one of the Bucs' biggest hustle plays in Thursday's win over Jacksonville saw receiver Adam Humphries scoop up a loose ball just before halftime, after what looked like an incompletion but was correctly ruled a Jameis Winston fumble.

    Bucs WR Adam Humphries runs to the end zone with QB Jameis Winston trailing -- his alert play wasn't a touchdown because teammates cannot advance a fumble in the final two minutes of a half.
  2. Bucs' Demar Dotson should be back from injury next week


    The Bucs got good news on starting right tackle Demar Dotson, whose MRI showed only a mild right groin sprain and should be back at practice next week.

    Bucs tackle Demar Dotson, shown last year when he signed a three-year contract extension, should only miss a week of practice with his groin injury and can return healthy for the Bucs' season opener at Miami in three weeks. [Octavio Jones | Times]
  3. Comedy legend Jerry Lewis dead at 91


    LOS ANGELES — Jerry Lewis, the manic, rubber-faced showman who jumped and hollered to fame in a lucrative partnership with Dean Martin, settled down to become a self-conscious screen auteur and found an even greater following as the tireless, teary host of the annual muscular dystrophy telethons, has died. He was …

    In this Sept. 2, 1990, file photo, entertainer Jerry Lewis makes his opening remarks at the 25th Anniversary of the Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon fundraiser in Los Angeles. Lewis, the comedian whose fundraising telethons became as famous as his hit movies, has died according to his publicist. [Associated Press]
  4. Mastermind of lottery rigging scam that netted millions faces 25 years


    DES MOINES, Iowa — For a decade, computer programmer Eddie Tipton reliably showed up for work at the central Iowa office of the Multi-State Lottery Association and earned the confidence of his co-workers, a team of technicians entrusted to build computers used to randomly pick numbers for some of the most popular …

    FILE - In this June 29, 2017, file photo, Eddie Tipton, the former Multi-State Lottery Association information security director who admitted to masterminding a scheme to rig lottery games that paid him and others $2 million from seven fixed jackpots in five states, is seen in court in Des Moines, Iowa. Tipton is scheduled to be sentenced Tuesday, Aug. 22. (Rodney White/The Des Moines Register via AP, File) IADES501
  5. Pasco County man killed in wrong-way crash on New Jersey Turnpike


    MOUNT LAUREL, N.J. — Authorities say a Florida man driving the wrong way on the New Jersey Turnpike was killed when his SUV crashed head-on into another vehicle.