Bob Hite's baritone is familiar to us; the broadcast business has always been familiar to him. His father, now 86, was a radio announcer, newsman, Cronkite crony and teacher to his progeny.
A generation before the arrival of Bob Hite, the WFLA-Ch. 8 television landmark, there was another Bob Hite, father of the one we know.
The voice of that earlier Hite came out of CBS in New York and swept over the country, dispensing news, entertainment, and all the fun and flackery and lethal seriousness of America in the middle years of the 20th century.
On radio, Hite's announcing jobs ranged from the unequaled CBS World News Roundup to this ultimate message to a relieved and thankful nation:
"Four-twenty-five, Eastern War Time. Bob Hite reporting. In a little more than an hour and a half, the last German forces in Europe will lay down their arms, and the fighting will be officially over."
With no difficulty at all, Hite could take a 90-degree turn from history to such bloodless crises as the Green Hornet's latest confrontation with Wickedness to an on-scene account of young Frank Sinatra, all skin and bones and Adam's apple, making his first appearance with the Tommy Dorsey band.
Hite rendered sounds that have never been forgotten:
"Out of the past," he used to tell us, "come the thundering hoofbeats of the great horse Silver." A century ago, Barrymore himself could not have put more feeling, more pronunciation time into the name of the Lone Ranger's trusty transportation.
In their early years, radio and television made up their rules as they went along. It was not until the 1960s that the line separating announcers and news reporters was more or less firmly drawn.
When the first Bob Hite got into radio back in Detroit, just before World War II, everyone was hired as an announcer. Later, and usually as a mark of favor, some were assigned to news programs.
Hite never saw a program he couldn't join. For years, he moved casually from introducing (and bantering with) comedians, to shilling for soap and soups and whatever else was in the electronic larder, to "calling in" Edward R. Murrow for on-scene reports of the war over London.
After the war, the four Hite children learned journalism as the offspring of artisans who once learned to be tinkers, blacksmiths, seamstresses. They learned at home and from watching a parent on the job.
"Dad would bring news scripts home and coach me as I read them," Channel 8's Bob Hite recalls. "He would take me to broadcasts and have me watch and listen _ and keep quiet.
" "When that little red light turns on,' he told me, "it means Daddy is talking to people all over country. And you're not to make a sound!' "
At 19, the younger Hite made his first broadcast on his first job at a Philadelphia station. Moments before air time, he felt calm and confident of what he was going to say. Then ... disaster.
"The red light went on, and suddenly I could hear my father's voice telling me not to make a sound. And I didn't. Couldn't. Nothing would come out of my mouth. I croaked, I wheezed. Finally I absolutely spat out the words, and then I was all right."
The younger Hite met most of the famous names in electronic journalism, which later gave him an unexpected advantage. "I'm hard to impress _ a good trait in this job," he says.
"Once driving home from high school, I turned into the driveway of our house in Greenwich, Conn., and saw my father standing there talking with two men. One was Walter Cronkite, the other I didn't recognize. I got out of the car, came up to them, and Dad introduced Wally Schirra, the astronaut. That was one visitor who awed me."
Then as now, commercials paid the bills. Hite's great organ of a voice took on the richness of gravy on chicken-fried steak as he extolled the one institution purer than American womanhood: Ivory soap. The voice became knowledgeable, trustworthy, describing the healing properties of Anacin; it took on boardroom solidity as it prodded investors toward Household Finance.
Later after the war, after Murrow's death, Walter Cronkite became the CBS news leader and symbol. He had arrived at WCBS New York shortly after Hite, and the two young reporters became friends.
"It started with boats," Hite says. "He had a 15-footer and talked about it a lot. I had a 17-footer and did my share of talking, too. So one Sunday he and his wife came to our place in Greenwich, Conn., for a day of sailing. Walter decided my extra 2 feet of boat made all the difference in the world."
The two men sailed together for years. "Then we got old," Hite says.
He goes silent for a moment. "Things stop," he says.
His daughter, Cindy, leans over him with a small scissors. "Don't go trimming my eyebrows," he tells her.
"Daddy, you're having your picture taken. They're too long."
The old man goes defensive. "I saw a picture of Walter the other day. His eyebrows were too long, too."
Hite, now 86, lives in a retirement home in West Palm Beach. Still tall, strong-looking, with a Mount Rushmore head, lean, bony, full of character.
In a large room nearby, six very old people sit in wheelchairs drawn into a circle. Five of them slump sideward, sleeping.
A sixth, thin and peppy in a wide-brimmed straw hat, 94 years old, glances around, lively as a bird. She catches sight of Hite, stands, slides her walker toward the old broadcaster.
He looks up glumly. She tries to hug him, to kiss his cheek. He glowers. He doesn't like being played with.
The old lady smiles blithely. "That man," she declares, "is the best thing to come into this place in years."
Smiling tolerantly, even hugging the old lady, Cindy Hite escorts her out of the room. Cindy is in the business, too. She works for Clear Channels radio in West Palm Beach and is a frequent television and radio reporter and anchor. After a Sarasota retirement home did not work out for her father, she and her brother, Bob, moved him to a home in West Palm where Cindy could drop in to see him every day. Their ailing mother, Nancy, is not yet ready to leave the family home in Sarasota.
Cindy has memories (not all happy ones) of being taken to early television shows to watch her father rehearse:
"We went to Arthur Godfrey's great big office to talk over substituting for Tony Marvin as announcer. My father got called away suddenly and had to leave me for about 20 minutes _ with Godfrey as babysitter.
"There I was, a little tow-headed 6-year-old in her best dress, wearing patent leather shoes, little white socks, little white gloves. Sitting in a big chair opposite his huge desk. My feet straight out, not touching the floor. Nobody else in the office.
"I sat there till my father came back for me, keeping as silent as I could. Godfrey worked at his desk, just as silent.
"He never talked to me. He never even looked at me. I thought to myself, "He sure must not like little girls.' "
+ + +
Late afternoon in the retirement home. Five old people still sit, drowsy, cat-napping, in their wheelchairs in the day room.
The peppy old lady in the straw hat is with them again, staring around again, wishing for someone to hug or at least talk to.
In his room the old announcer, tired from all the remembering, naps away the afternoon. Retired since the '70s, no longer famous. Other voices do the news now, and do it shorter.
The Lone Ranger doesn't have much appeal to the new generations.