Chem Terry, My Daddy

One morning, over breakfast, Mama and I were sharing memories of my daddy, Chem Terry. I brought up several memories: of helping Daddy pick out the cookies for our camping trips, of playing a duet with him on my piano, and of seeing his beaming smile at my recitals.

“You know, Kimmie,” my mother said, “you remember things about your daddy that I had totally forgotten.”

In Spring, 1998, the RetroFest committee at Tarrant County College invited me to speak on my father, a local radio-and-television personality. That assignment in mind, Mama summoned her own memories.

It was September 1945. The Big Bomb had put an end to World War II. The boys were coming home. My daddy, Chem Terry, stepped out of the elevator on the eighteenth floor of the Medical Arts Building and into my mother’s life. It was her first week at WBAP, and his first day back after a long weekend in Dallas, his home. My mother says she heard his booming baritone voice before the elevator doors opened, and she thinks that was the moment she fell in love with him.

Daddy had graduated from Texas Tech in 1942, where he had planned to major in journalism, but was soon discovered by the Radio Speech scouts and put to work. He had gone from college announcer to staff announcer on KFYO, Lubbock to program director and announcer at KBST in Big Spring, and then to chief announcer for KTBC in Austin. Now, he was an old pro in a big market — the 50,000-watt station, WBAP, Fort Worth, Texas.

During the accelerated years, Daddy had seen many of his best buddies off to win the war, and he had tried hard to tag along, but because he had infantile paralysis before it was called polio and because he wore a thirteen-pound steel brace on his right leg, he could not qualify. He did manage to get his merchant seaman’s papers. He had hitchhiked  from Lubbock to Galveston, taken all the tests, and filled out all the papers. He was proud of those papers. They were still in his desk, among other treasured mementos.

By the time Mama arrived in Fort Worth, Daddy had established himself as a staff announcer and radio personality. Mama had returned earlier from an exciting wartime experience of her own. After graduating from Abilene Christian College, she had toured the U.S. as an actress with Claire Tree Major’s Children’s Theatre of New York. Mrs. Major was “veddy English,” and she required pure English diction — quite a feat for a Lamesa, Texas gal! Although gasoline and tires were strictly rationed, Mrs. Major had no trouble sending Mama’s Cinderella troupe, automobile following truck with scenery and costumes, because Claire Tree Major’s husband was a Colonel in Washington, D.C.

Mama’s roommate on the tour, Ellen Deming, later played Meta Bauer on The Guiding Light. She almost panicked, Mama told me, when the acting company had to stop for inspection at the U.S.-Canada border. Ellen’s real name was Ellen Weber, and her uncle was an officer in the German (Nazi) Army.

By September of ’46, Mama and Daddy were a team. She had been stolen from Daddy’s station to work for the handsome and talented Parker Willson in his new advertising agency. Daddy had to read the commercials Mama wrote, and that was a test of their love! They passed it, I’m happy to say — and I was born one day before their first anniversary.

An announcer’s life was different, then. One difference was money — or the lack of it. When her boss, in the production department of WBAP, heard of Mama and Daddy’s plans to marry, she took Mama aside and said, “Are you sure you ought to do this? Announcers don’t make much money,” and “It’s a young man’s game!”. There was no future in it.

The Payola scandal came later, but Daddy always said it never did get as far as Texas — unless you could count the homemade cookies and chocolate fudge, and an occasional turkey at Thanksgiving. I did have one of the first Tiny Tears dolls from his sponsors — but maybe I should keep quiet about it.

One of Daddy’s early successes was a radio show called “Terrible Terry’s Stompin’ Ground,” at 11:30, nearly midnight. The powerful station attracted a large audience of college students from every state and several foreign countries. They sent cards and letters, in record-breaking numbers. Would you believe the station canceled the program because a mistaken executive decided, “College kids don’t spend money.” (Tell that to their parents!) Later, on Daddy’s big- budget television show, “Time for Terry,” he got to wear a king’s crown, and give away expensive prizes — like key chains and shoe-shine kits.

Another difference — the rules:

Free speech didn’t mean talking any old way; it had to be strictly proper, educated speech. Announcers’ auditions included puzzling passages with impossible pronunciations. If an announcer said it, it had to be correct. The public knew it was true, too, because they heard it on the radio. And it had to be clean — no innuendoes, no double meanings.

Daddy didn’t tell me this, but I heard him tell Mama — one of the announcers was “asked to move on” when, during a weather report of a gully-washer rain, the forecaster used a suggestive figure of speech. It wasn’t what he said, but how he said it, that got him fired.

One story that grew funnier through the years was about a fellow announcer who bragged that he always read his news report right out of the newspaper into the microphone. One morning, someone forgot to leave the newspaper in the studio, so the enterprising professional simply ad-libbed, or made up, the entire news report. He said that show received more comments than any other program he’d ever done.

Another difference — Daddy and Mama liked to remember the close-knit family atmosphere that existed during those years. They had planned a simple wedding in a small Dallas church. But they didn’t get away with it. On a rainy Monday night in November, the house was packed with Fort Worth rooters in raincoats! The station’s string ensemble played “Always,” and their solo soprano sang Mama and Daddy’s song, “Smilin’ Through the Years.”

No honeymoon was in the plans. Apartments were almost impossible to find, but Daddy had managed to rent one from a little, old lady whose only rule was “No Children.” They were planning to get married, go home to their apartment, and go to work the next morning. But their WBAP family changed that plan. A generous sponsor provided the bridal suite of the Stoneleigh Hotel for one night, and their bosses insisted they take the rest of the week off. With pay!

In the days of radio and live t.v., an announcer had to be versatile. You name it, Daddy did it. Commercials, interviews, musical programs, news, weather, dramatic productions, rodeo, wrestling, fishing, golf, baseball. At one time, the station had Daddy doing “Old Tex Terry” (with exaggerated Texas accent) and the sophisticated host of a Big Band broadcast from the fashionable Keystone Room of the Texas Hotel. He was at home at the rodeo, with Ted Gouldy; at the wrestling matches, with Bud Sherman, and on the “Golden Couple Show” with Parker Willson, giving away Bibles to 50th Anniversary couples.

Television presented some challenges. At first, the announcers worked split shifts — half radio, half television, each with lengthy copy to be memorized. There were no teleprompters.

One Sunday afternoon, Daddy had to go back to the television show to do the perfume commercials for some program. It turned out to be the most effective selling job he’d ever done. With a great big smile, he extolled the absolutely irresistible quality of the sponsor’s product. Then, without warning, the fragile bottle slipped through his fingers and splattered all over the floor. (Mama said she jumped out of her chair and ran, shrieking, toward the t.v. set — to help him out, I guess.) But the old pro did not miss an opportunity. So smoothly, he departed from the memorized spiel, to inhale the heavenly fragrance at his feet. Then he delivered his own ad-libbed description of an elixir no red-blooded he-man could resist.

Some things are different; others stay the same. For ’40’s announcers, some habits die hard. They always look at their watches during conversations. Mama said that, as a new bride, she always asked Daddy, “How much time do I have?” Announcers live by the second hand. Time is money.

‘Forties announcers cannot talk with you when the radio or t.v. is on. They must monitor the program and write up any slip-ups, mistakes, or other discrepancies.

And ’40’s announcers are indignant — even angry at the current piling up of commercials on top of each other, some for competitive products, back to back. This was a “no-no-never-never”in their day.

Daddy loved his work. After he retired from KRLD, he continued broadcasting “The Chem Terry Show,” a taped program of the music he loved.

My daddy loved his friends and neighbors and family. The day he died had been a happy one. He and Mama had enjoyed their monthly luncheon with Channel 5 Exes, and a tour of the station’s newest facilities. He had dolled up in his Sunday suit for the occasion and had laughed with old friends at their age-old jokes.

“Who’s your date, Chem?” and “Where you gonna preach today, Chem?”

Daddy had seventy-six years of  life on earth, fifty-three of them in broadcasting. That’s a long career in any profession. In a “young man’s game,” it’s remarkable. But, then, as I see him, my daddy never really grew old. On a table in his home studio, he left a tape, ready for mailing. It was the last tape of “The Chem Terry Show.”


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