Perfect Shade of Hugh
In a recent interview with The Scottsdale Times,
the former 20/20 host and American icon talked about his family,
his career and his love for the Valley.
"You've never met me, but I've met you a thousand
times," a middle-aged gentleman tells Hugh Downs as he enters El
Charro Lodge on a recent Friday evening. The retired television
personality responds cordially, accustomed to eager handshakes.
In person, Downs is even more affable than on screen. His demeanor
puts nervous onlookers who recognize him at ease. At least three
generations recognize him as he makes his way to a small table for
two. Some know him from his days on The Today Show in the '50s.
Others recognize him as the host of Concentration, and most remember
his long run with counterpart Barbara Walters on ABC's 20/20..
Downs, a Valley resident of 35 years, actually landed Walters her
first on-camera position when she was writing scripts for The Today
Show in 1962.
Great Oaks From Little Acorns Grow
In 1941 Downs attempted to join the Navy after the attack on Pearl
Harbor, but his colorblindness caused the Navy to reject his application.
Unable to find a better job, he began work as a radio announcer.
"Great oaks from little acorns grow," the producer at the radio
station had told Downs after a mildly-successful first audition.
"Getting a job in that day in the Midwest was an exercise in futility,"
Downs relates in his familiar baritone voice. "They would literally
laugh and slam the door in your face."
Downs was drafted into the Army during World War II. He jokes, "I
don't think they cared if I could see at all." After the Army, Downs
returned to the U.S. to do the only thing he knew, radio announcing.
So began a storied broadcast career that would span more than 60
America gained an insightful voice and a familiar face. Despite
his success, the Paradise Valley resident says he never allowed
his broadcasting career to dictate his life and sets one thing straight
from the beginning: Broadcasting was a way to make a living; it
was never his life. So when he retired from 20/20 in 1999, he had
what most with similarly successful careers don't: a life rich with
hobbies, interests and family.
"For broadcasting, I like it, and it was good to me. But that wasn't
what my life was about. I broadcast because I made a living doing
it, and that living enhanced my real life."
Fame and Family
Millions of Americans recognize Downs' calm face and baritone voice.
But to his great grandson Downs is "Barcelona," the human horse
on hands and knees. The same Barcelona that Downs' two children
and grandchildren have been riding for about 55 years.
Asked about his greatest accomplishment, Downs, 83, mentions his
family and being Barcelona. "I'm still considered a complete horse,
and I have to take that as a compliment," he said.
Downs says it's unfortunate that our American minds immediately
jump to our careers when we think of accomplishment. "Unfortunately,
with our Horatio Alger mindset, our work is the only thing that
counts," he says. "Family and hobbies are secondary.
"In Switzerland you ask a young man what he does, and he says he
writes poetry and climbs mountains. Later you find he works for
a bank," he said.
In 1968 Downs and his wife Ruth visited Arizona to speak to the
Phoenix Executives Club. "It was our first time to the state, and
we both loved it," he says. "It's been our legal and voting residence
ever since." Unlike others who "flee the heat," Downs considers
Paradise Valley his year-round "headquarters."
"You know, there's a lot of cliché statements about the low humidity,"
Downs says, "and they're all true."
During the course of the one-hour interview, Downs effortlessly
quotes six different authors and philosophers at appropriate times
as the conversation artfully wanders from music to history to art
to politics and religion. His eclectic nature, Downs says, is one
reason why he was a good fit for 20/20.
"My wife calls me the world's champion dilettante," he jokes, "and
she's right. I'm really a generalist. My wife's definition of a
generalist is somebody who comes to know less and less about more
and more until he knows nothing about everything," Downs adds. "As
the American critic Alexander Wolcott once said, 'I am interested
in everything except incest and folk dancing.'"
A Rich Life Past
When asked about his most memorable interviews, Downs says it's
a tossup between Dr. Martin Luther King and theoretical physicist
In the early '60s Downs met Dr. Martin Luther King in a rat-infested,
lead-painted ghetto where King was protesting. "I went there once
to talk to him, and during that interview I made the discovery that
Martin Luther King was not working for the Black race. He was working
for the human race. And I put him in a class with Gandhi."
Downs' diversity of interest and expertise is demonstrated in his
choices of most-memorable interviews. Aside from the great social
reformer, Downs most treasures four evenings he spent with Stephen
Hawking. "I got a glimpse into that caldron of a mind."
A Rich Life Present
When it comes to enjoying life, Downs has a number of interesting
hobbies, including scuba diving, hang gliding and listening to music.
He also exhibits an eclecticism of talent rarely scene in the 21st
Century. Recently, the St. Louis Symphony Yo Yo Ma premiered a cello
piece Downs had composed. "I felt like a Chihuahua at a convention
of Saint Bernards," Downs says of his mingling with composers.
Downs has made notable contributions as a philosopher, scientist,
artist, antiques collector and author, and despite his retirement
his popularity has hardly waned.
"The funny thing is I'm more in demand as a speaker than I was when
I was doing 20/20," he says.
Downs' most recent accomplishment is his revealing and insightful
eighth book, Letter To a Great Grandson.
"That book started out as a letter," Downs says. "What would I give
for a document like that from one of my grandfathers or great grandfathers?"
By the time a friend talked him into publishing it, Downs says it
was too late to tone down much of the family-style content. "It
has a lot stuff in it I would not have unleashed, but I didn't think
it right to change it after the fact."
Downs can get excited about anything, his mind so naturally inquisitive.
But nothing excites him like the talk of his great grandson. "Though
I may have some predisposed prejudices," he confesses.
"You never know how much you can love until you have children. Then
you have grandchildren, and you somehow manage to love them more,"
Tonight Hugh Downs anticipates being the four-legged Barcelona for
his great grandson and says he expects to be around to meet his
great, great grandchildren.