"John Facenda dies; eminent anchorman."There are people, though they age, are of a unique class and so we can't imagine life without them. For lifelong Philadelphians like me, John Facenda was such a man. If you are reading this in Philadelphia, you must remember that John Facenda was the very model of a newsman. Honest. Reliable. Most of all, believable, as in "trustworthy" rather than merely "persuasive," as you might be fooled into thinking a disingenuous person is credible. Put another way, Mr. Facenda was to Philadelphia what Walter Cronkite was to the entire nation. As local writer Clark DeLeon wrote in his tribute to Mr. Facenda 26 years ago, "He brought a dignity to the (broadcasting) industry in its infancy, a dignity we can appreciate better now (at the time of his passing) that we can hardly remember their names six months later."
Has so little really changed in those ensuing 26 years? It seems so. It seems we still have many more Keith Obermanns and Bill O'Reillys and fewer Ed Murrows; more Contessa Brewers and fewer Katherine Grahams.
If you are reading this across the nation, you probably know Mr. Facenda as the first narrator of NFL Films. It is a cliche to say that he was known as "the voice of God." Yet the sobriquet sticks, because no one has come along to supplant him. Indeed, he has proved to be irreplaceable. Legend has it that one night in 1965, Mr. Facenda was watching the slow-motion game sequences on the TV, where happened to be produced by NFL Films, a local firm near Philadelphia. Mr. Facenda was rhapsodizing just how beautiful the visuals were, and he started to improvise narration to go with it.
Ed Sabol, founder of NFL Films, happened to be at the bar. Mr. Facenda recalled that Sabol came up to him and said, "If I give you a script, could you repeat what you just did?"
Mr. Facenda said he would try. And so began his association with NFL Films, which would end 19 years later with his death. (Witness this example in is this clip in which he pays homage to "The Quarterback.")
I was privileged to know John Facenda and work with him. As a communications student at Temple University, I interned at WCAU-TV, Mr. Facenda's station. I worked with him on "Sunday Edition," a local public affairs program. He was unfailingly courtly and always professional. Just hearing him say hello was like listening to a symphony of the voice. He was magnificent. But I must admit that I related to him as a fellow Italian American. In those days, our people did not always have positive role models, especially in the media. Most portrayals of Italians consisted of thick-tongued thugs in gangster movies. But Mr. Facenda represented the best of us who appreciate language, especially the English language that his father drilled into him and his siblings with flash cards around the kitchen table. It was there he learned his elocution that served him so well.
This begged an inevitable question from me. "John," I was once asked him, "you came into the business when everyone's name was homogenized. But you kept your ethnic name. Were you ever asked to change it?"
His eyes flared and his demeanor changed to one I had never seen. "Yes, Pat, they DID want me to change my name." His usually controlled voice began to rise in indignation over a long-ago insult that was suddenly remembered. "They want me to change my name to John Foster. John Foster! Can you imagine that, Pat? And that's when I told them in no uncertain terms to go fuck themselves!"
My jaw dropped. I had never heard John say "damn" or "hell," so the F-bomb was unimaginable. But that was indicative of his pride in his Italian heritage. My own first name is Pasquale, and though I use "Pat" for the ease of pronunciation, I never shrink from acknowledging my real name. So Mr. Facenda's own pride struck a chord that resonates with me today.
In the 26 years since he departed us, I think of him often. I remember him as a nobly professional co-worker who gave magic to whatever feeble words this callow young man gave him to say. I remember him as the authoritative voice who ruled, first, the local airwaves and, later, the cinematic gridiron. But most of all, I remember his avuncular warmth, which came through the image orthicon tubes that sat in countless Philadelphia homes. He ended every broadcast with his signature sign-off: "Have a nice night tonight and a good day tomorrow. Goodnight, all."
Think of him whenever you see local and national anchors missing cues and inserting themselves into the news they are covering. Then think about just how much we have lost over the last 26 years, and probably for ever more.