Friday, March 6, 2009

"O" What A Night!

I had the extreme pleasure last night of attending the surprise 80th birthday party for my good friend, Andy Ockershausen. Andy has had more influence on my career than anyone else, and he is still influencing the lives of many, many people in the Washington area. But more on that coming up.

So who is Andy Ockershausen? He is a homegrown native of Washington, DC, and for the past sixty years, a major player in the Washington media landscape. He worked for, and at various times, ran WMAL Radio and Television (now WJLA-TV, Channel 7) for 37 years, then spent five years with Channel 50, and for the past 15 years, has been working in sales at Comcast SportsNet.

But Andy's local legacy runs much deeper than his career. He was a community organizer for 50 years before Barack Obama made it cool. He has raised money for every single charity of note in the DC area. As a member of the DC Board of Trade's executive committee, he helped run the city before DC received home rule. As a board chairman of the National Association of Broadcasters, he helped rewrite more than 500 archaic government broadcasting regulations. And his activist editorial campaigns helped to shape the DC area's gun control and drunk driving laws.

But none of those plaudits alone would merit throwing a massive party for one man AND to turn it into a TV special,. No, Andy Ockershausen was being honored because he's a character and a throwback. A man who owns the room the moment he walks into it. A guy with a wisecrack at the ready for every guy, and a warm pat on the tush for every gal. A man who is as comfortable chatting up the President of the United States as he is the parking attendant outside.

More than 250 people showed up at the Imagination Stage in Bethesda to pay tribute to Andy O. - and it was a star-studded crowd, including four Redskins Hall-of -Famers, many local TV celebrities, all of the living WMAL air personalities from the Andy O. administration and others. Those who couldn't be there sent video tributes, including Charlie Gibson, Willard Scott, Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser.

So how did I come to be involved in all of this? Well - as I told you, Andy has had a huge influence on my life. First of all - Andy O. - as he has with so many others - basically gave me my career. He gave me an internship at WMAL as a favor to my father, who was one of Andy's tennis buddies. That was in 1982.

Many years later, on September 11th, 2001, 15 years after leaving WMAL, Andy called our newsroom (where I was News Director) to let us know he had just seen a plane hit the Pentagon. He stayed on the scene as our reporter for the next several hours. WMAL went on that year to win the National Edward R. Murrow award as America's best radio news operation, thanks in large part to Andy's service.

And last summer, as I was looking for work, Andy's wife, Janice (who actually hired me at WMAL), called me and asked me to write a biography of Andy... A biography that would be used as the base for a Comcast SportsNet TV special on the life and times of Andy Ockershausen.

I spent all of last fall researching and writing that biography - interviewing Andy's friends and learning far more about the man than I ever thought I'd know. I am thankful for the experience on so many levels. Not only did it provide me with a source of income, but it gave me an opportunity to try long-form writing. I have spent my whole career writing stories that had to be told in 20 seconds or less. It was a rewarding challenge to see if I could write more expansively. And I guess I succeeded. The final product was fifty pages long! I have since "published" the biography and turned it into a hard-cover book, which you can review (and even purchase) here.

I also had the opportunity to try my hand at writing for video - something else I have never done. One of my scripts ended up being used in the show, and will be seen in the TV special as well. The special will air Sunday night, March 15th at 9 pm on Comcast SportsNet!

And most of all, I had the honor and privilege to get to know Andy Ockershausen, the man, a lot better. As he was honored on stage last night, Andy told the crowd the best part of his life has been spent helping the community - That by lending a hand, he got back far more in satisfaction than he had ever given in sweat. And it was clear that Andy's words were sincere - and true... Even at 80, Andy was younger than just about anyone else in the room!

I am so happy to finally be able to share this on my blog. I had to keep the project under wraps for so long because we were keeping it as a surprise for Andy O.

But when I look back at this dark period of underemployment in my life, I know the memories of worry and regret are going to be overshadowed by the thrill of being involved in this loving and well-deserved project.

I want to thank Janice Ockershausen, as well as Rebecca Schulte at Comcast SportsNet, for believing in me and giving me the opportunity to work on this wonderful labor of love.

And thank you, Andy Ockershausen - you wonderful, loving, sarcastic, dirty old man!


randalla said...

What a wonderful commentary, John! I had the pleasure of knowing Andy from having worked with him while at Channel 50 in Rockville. And also being able to later to work with his wife Janice while employed at WMAL for 5 years. Andy would frequently stop by the Traffic office to greet us in typical Andy fashion! Andy and Janice are truly a remarkable couple and also have left me with many fond memories! Randy Utter

Shari said...

O What a night it was! I feel so lucky to have attended such a special night. They just don't make em like Andy anymore do they??!!

John you have amazing talent -- how wonderful that you were able to work on such an obvious labor of love. I'm sure "Jandy" (they must have one name now) wouldn't have had anyone else work on the event or this book. I can't wait for you to complete it! -- I am going online now to read the preview. Today -- 50 pages - Tomorrow War & Peace...You have it in you - you know you do...oxoxo