Friday, December 15, 2017
News Roundup

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 [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.

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