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TV newsman Brunner remembers career

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Former TV newsman Bob Brunner said the tragic flood in Buffalo Creek Hollow, which took place exactly 42 years ago Wednesday, was the most frustrating and tragic story he ever covered.

A hollow with about 5,000 residents had 125 killed and 4,000 left homeless.

"TV is a visual medium," Brunner said. "[Former Gov. Arch] Moore was effective in keeping cameras away from Buffalo Creek. I remember being at a morgue in Man with Sen. Jennings Randolph. There were 50 body bags near us."

Brunner spoke at the University of Charleston Builders luncheon Wednesday about his long and fascinating experiences as a television reporter, news director and anchor.

Brunner spent more than 20 years at WSAZ-TV in Charleston, from 1968 to 1990, when he began working as communications director for Gov. Gaston Caperton. He then returned to working as a TV news reporter in Beckley and outside West Virginia.

Brunner told stories about funny lines he heard over the years during television news reports.

"One night on the 11 o'clock news, a reporter said, 'A Big Ugly woman has been beaten to death.'" Some viewers, he said, did not realize Big Ugly is a small town in Lincoln County.

"There have been so many wonderful things covering the news since the 1960s," he said.

Brunner talked about changes in words and vocabulary over the years.

"Back in the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s, we periodically had epidemics. But we haven't had an epidemic for 15 years," he said. "Now we periodically have pandemics."

"'Global warming' changed to 'climate change,'" Brunner said. "And now we have 'polar vortexes,' which sound so much more ominous than previous storms."

Brunner said he is sad about a reduction of reporters.

"We have fewer people reporting more stories," Brunner said. "When I was news director at WSAZ, we had 30 reporters. Now there are 20. WCHS used to have 28. Now there are 20.

"When you used to walk into the Gazette newsroom, things used to be so lively. Now there may only be five people in there," Brunner said.

Asked who was his favorite politician over the years, Brunner said, "Probably A. James Manchin. He was the first politician to figure out how to respond to a 30 to 40-second sound bite. A. James understood the media."

Manchin served as secretary of state and the state's treasurer.

"I also had respect for [Gov.] Arch Moore. He was a crook. But that man knew how to run state government."

One day, when the new Culture Center was being constructed, Brunner remembered, "Tommy Knight and I were walking by. We saw a worker had carved AR into the building. A little later, he added a C and an H."

Both Knight and Brunner thought Moore was carving his first name into the concrete. "Later we realized he was writing 'ARCHIVES.'

"There was something about that guy that you have to love. Maybe he saw his corruption as the only way to beat Jay Rockefeller. He wanted to beat someone with a full pocket."

Brunner also remembered the 1968 Farmington Mine disaster that killed 78 miners and the collapse of a cooling tower at the Willow Island coal-fired power plant that killed 51 construction workers in 1978.

Brunner criticized today's state Legislature.

"We have an incredible water crisis and they have done nothing. But they work on legislation about who is going to be allowed to carry a gun and a law that says women can't get an abortion after 20 weeks -- which is superceded by federal law."

Brunner believes negative stories come out much more quickly today.

"In the old days, if a public official did something bad, most of the time we didn't hear about it until they retired," he said. "Now, people use blogs to get news out. Being in public service today requires something close to sainthood."

Brunner also met several presidents, including Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, with about 25 other reporters.

"The first president I met was Jimmy Carter. He was one of the smartest. He knew details about events in South Dakota and coal. But 22 of us did not like the guy.

"A few years later, we met Ronald Reagan. He knew coal was generally black and was aware that North Dakota was north of South Dakota. In terms of any details, he didn't have a clue, but we all liked him."

George W. Bush was somewhere in the middle.

"Carter was the class nerd. Reagan was the jock. George Bush was the fraternity president."

Brunner also remembers Bill Clinton. "I saw the boy from Arkansas going through hotel lobbies in Washington with a good-looking woman several times. But it was never the same woman."

When University of Charleston President Ed Welch asked Brunner how he gets his news today, he said, "I can't get up in the morning without my [Charleston] Gazette. Then I watch NBC. I also love Meet the Press. I do not get any of my news from the Internet."  

Brunner's book -- "Bob Brunner's Reporter's Recollections" -- is available for $15 from www.wvbookco.com. It is also sold at Taylor Books on Capitol Street in Charleston and at the Tamarack in Beckley.

UC Builders has scheduled its next Book and Author Luncheon for March 26. That program will feature Cat Pleska and Lynne Schwartz-Barker, who recently published "Fed from the Blade: Tales and Poems from the Mountains," a book with writings by 28 Mountain State authors and poets.Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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