A 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 years.

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 Stephen Hawking.

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," he says.

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.