TV cameraman filmed slice of state history
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Through the lens of his video camera, he watched nearly 45 years of West Virginia history unfold.
He rubbed elbows with presidents and governors, filmed Martin Luther King Jr., Drew Pearson, Jimmy Hoffa, VIPs galore. He photographed fires, floods, plane crashes, bridge collapses, criminals, car wrecks, mine disasters, all those calamities and catastrophes that are the heart of TV news. Parades, political rallies, festivals, groundbreakings and social fetes tempered the burden of misery.
Once dubbed the dean of television photojournalists, Emil Varney spent 21 years at WSAZ and another 13 years at WOWK, capturing the exploits of shakers and movers and extraordinary events that called him out at all hours to every nook and cranny of the state.
He's a small man, gentle, soft spoken and unassuming. But he made a big mark. Even JFK called him by name. In October, he earned induction into the West Virginia Broadcasters Hall of Fame.
At 76, after focusing so long on chaotic aberrations of everyday life, he enjoys the serenity of retirement in Cross Lanes and the opportunity to photograph the most appealing of all subjects -- his family.
"I grew up in Mingo County, Red Jacket. My dad was a coal miner. When I was 9, we came over to Charleston because my dad wanted to get out of the mines.
"At first, I wanted to be an FBI guy. Then I tried to join the Marines, but I'm a diabetic, and they wouldn't accept me.
"My parents got me a Keystone camera for my 16th birthday, and I started taking pictures. Bill Kelley worked for Channel 3. I saw him around wrecks and things, and I thought that would be interesting.
"In 1958, after I graduated from Stonewall, I applied at Channel 3 and they hired me. We had to process all our film ourselves on huge, thick reels. In the dark, you put the film on the reel. On some of these news videos, you see scratches because we were in a hurry.
"We got our first video camera in 1976, a TK-76. I didn't think I was ever going to learn the complications of this electronic stuff. We carried 50 pounds of gear. We had a recorder on our side and this big camera on our shoulder. I tell everybody I used to be as tall as Bob Brunner -- he's 6-foot-4 -- but carrying that heavy equipment dropped me down to 5-foot-6.
"Finally, they combined the tape in with the camera, all one piece, but the camera didn't get any smaller.
"One of the first things I covered was the Wertz Avenue flood. Neil Boggs, a reporter, had me go up to South Hills. For some reason, there was a lot of damage up there. I got the film and processed it and headed home. We were renting a house on Route 21. By the time I got out there, the flood had flooded our house. I didn't have a camera with me. We were stranded. Our house was still on the foundation, but it ruined everything we had.
"I would always call my wife at lunchtime to see how her day was going. One day, the phone kept ringing and she wouldn't answer. I called my neighbor and she said my house was burning. So I jumped in the car without a camera and rushed home. WCHS showed up. I got scooped on my own fire.
"I lost a lot of stuff in that fire that I wish I had today. JFK, after he won the election, he sent me a personal letter thanking me for covering his campaign. I lost that in the fire.
"He was campaigning in Cedar Grove on the back of a flatbed truck on the railroad track. There was a train coming slowly on that track. This gentleman asked him, 'Senator, what are you going to do when that train gets closer?' He said, 'I'm going to get off this truck.' Everybody laughed.
"I rode on the bus a lot with him. He called me Emil. He called everybody by their first name.
"I was walking down the hall at the station one day, and it came across the air that JFK had been shot in Dallas and killed. They sent me to the Capitol to get an interview with Wally Barron. Barron and Kennedy were good friends.
"I photographed President Johnson in Summersville, covered a news conference with Reagan, and Nixon was at the station one time. I was at the Forest Festival with Carter, filming him in a parade on the back of a truck. I covered George Bush Sr. at a school and during an interview in Morgantown. Ford was in Charleston, and I covered him.
"Gov. Underwood was in office when I started. I got to know Wally Barron a lot. When we had my daughter, Robin, he came in the reception room for a news conference, and he got $5 out of his billfold and said to give it to my daughter. He seemed down to earth and we got along real well.
"I've seen too much horror. Kids getting burned up in fires. Everything. I was at Farmington in 1968. All those miners, 78 of them, were sealed in the mine. Charlie Ryan and I were there for days. We stayed in A.J. Manchin's house.
"You hung around with those people in this big country store and waited. We interviewed them, but we didn't push them because we knew they were in a strain because of their loved ones in a coal mine. My granddad was killed in a coal mine. We had to be there, and they realized that it was a news story, and they put up with us, but you had to be careful.
"I was home when I first heard about the Marshall crash. The next day, [reporter] Ken Kurtz called me. He had worked here but was in Fort Wayne then. He asked if I could get some footage for them. I went to Huntington the next day. I saw a Bell and Howell camera in the wreckage. It had Channel 13 on it. Keith Morehouse from Channel 13 was on that plane.
"In 1972, I went with Gov. Moore to Buffalo Creek. The devastation was beyond anything I could have imagined.
"I covered the Silver Bridge collapse. It was Dec. 15. I was listening to the scanner in the newsroom and heard about the bridge collapsing in Point Pleasant. I took pictures for Ken Kurtz.
"I covered Mothman with Charlie Ryan. We were one of the first reporter-photographer teams there when people said they saw this monster.
"In '92, when I was working for 13, there was an apartment fire in Cross Lanes. The whole place was on fire, and a puppy was trapped. I went in with the fireman to find it with the light on my camera, and we found it behind a chair, breathing but unconscious. Code Three did a story on it and played my video of the fireman getting the puppy and giving it CPR. The video went overseas. CNN used it all over the country.
"I used to take a still camera with me different places, and when they didn't have a photographer at the places I went, they would use my pictures and AP and United Press bought pictures from me when they didn't have photographers around. They would pay me $15 for a picture, so I made some extra money.
"I got an AP award for a big warehouse fire in Charleston in the '60s, one of the biggest fires Charleston had.
"I got called out a lot. We had a beeper and when it beeped we went to find a phone. Before that, if we went to the movies, we had to tell the usher where we were sitting and to get me if I got a call. I'd let the station know where I was.
"When Elvis was here, I was sent to the Daniel Boone Hotel. I was talking to Tom Parker, his manager. I went behind the hotel because I found out that's where he was coming. I waited and waited, and his limo came up, and Elvis got out. I was filming with my Bell and Howell and talking back and forth at the same time. He was there maybe 15 seconds then went up to his room. We were about 15 feet away. So I can say I talked to Elvis.
"Martin Sheen, the actor, was in Charleston for several days to do a scene for 'California Kid' down on Route 35 at a truck stop. I went to film them shooting that scene. They had a light go out, and I asked if I could fill in with my light from my camera. I've got the movie downstairs.
"Elliott Gould was here for the camp for asthma kids, and he did an interview at the station. I set up my own light and grabbed the tripod, and I couldn't let go. There was juice going all through me. Elliott Gould ran over and unplugged the light. My light had a short in the cord, and a live wire was touching the tripod. I was just frozen there. So he more or less saved my life.
"Bernard McDonough lived in Parkersburg. He's a multimillionaire and bought this castle in Ireland. The station wanted to do a story on it. He paid for everything for us to go over. It was 1965, black and white film, a 30-minute documentary. We were there five days. McDonough was on the plane when we left. I saw him coming down the aisle, and he was a little tipsy. He didn't have any money on him and we had to pay for his food at Kennedy Airport.
"I miss the old days. I wouldn't have met as many people as I have doing anything else.
"When I retired, I got a computer and a digital camera. I take pictures of my family. I have great-grandkids. I make discs all the time with music with them and do videos on all the holidays."
Reach Sandy Wells at email@example.com or 304-348-5173.