NISKAYUNA — Early broadcasting pioneer Ernie Tetrault — “the” anchorman at WRGB Channel 6 to many people who watched TV news in the Capital Region from the 1970s into the 1990s — was recalled Friday as a friend, colleague and dedicated newsman.
Tetrault died Thursday night at a Schenectady nursing home. He was 94 and had been in declining health.
The CBS affiliate station, which is based on Balltown Road in Niskayuna, broke the news early Friday. Tetrault remains a legend there, and in the public mind, though it has been nearly 30 years since he regularly appeared on a newscast.
After anchoring the 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. weeknight broadcasts for decades, Tetrault retired in 1993. He spent his entire 42-year career at the station. In 2006, he was inducted into the inaugural class of the New York State Broadcasters Hall of Fame.
“As a broadcaster, he really showed all of us how it was done,” said retired WRGB newsman Jack Aernecke, who worked with Tetrault for the first 20 years of his career. “For him it was learning by doing, as so much as early television was.”
Tetrault had hosted other shows earlier in his career, but was news anchor by the time Aernecke arrived in 1972. “He had an easy way of telling a story and relating to the person in their living room,” Aernecke recalled. “The other thing he had was great curiosity. He could sit down with anybody and talk with them, and he could be asking them questions for a couple of hours.”
After retirement, Tetrault remained a presence on Capital Region airwaves as a commercial spokesman, “Test Driver” Tetrault for Ford dealers, and in ads aimed at helping the hearing-impaired. He was a community booster for Schenectady, and a lively storyteller, often telling tales about the early days of television.
“Schenectady has got one hell of a story to tell,” Tetrault said in a 2007 interview with The Daily Gazette. “You know, there’s not another city in the world that can say television started here. This world-shaking invention started right here; it’s a shame that we don’t have a broadcast museum.”
The world’s first television station was located in Schenectady because of the early research on television broadcasting done locally by General Electric. That was a lucky break for a kid who grew up in the Capital Region.
“I think I was phenomenally lucky,” Tetrault said of his career in 2007. “I was at the right place at the right time so many different times.”
He had such classic news anchor looks and delivery that in 1992 he was cast to play a TV anchor in the Robert Redford movie “Sneakers.” Writer-director Phil Alden Robinson had attended Union College and watched Tetrault during his college years.
Current Channel 6 anchor Liz Bishop said on Facebook that she grew up watching Tetrault, who was “already a legend,” and was paired with him when she was young and freshly transferred to the news anchor desk from covering sports. Despite the differences in age and experience, he treated her kindly and they became friends, she said.
“A legendary newsman for 43 years whose real gift was empathy and listening and a fierce commitment to honest reporting,” Bishop wrote on Twitter. “Ernie loved his work, and it showed! And we loved him!”
“Ernie Tetrault will always be a legendary figure in local broadcast news here in the Capital Region, and across the broadcast television industry”, said Vince Nelson, WRGB’s vice president and general manager. “All of us at CBS 6 were saddened to learn earlier today of Mr. Tetrault’s passing at the age of 94; he really set the tone for local news, for so many anchors and reporters in the years that followed. Our sincere condolences go out to Mrs. Tetrault and their family.”
Tetrault’s death comes a year and a half after that of his long-time broadcasting partner, Ed Dague, who would later move from Channel 6 to Channel 13. Dague, who was Tetrault’s younger partner from 1976 to 1984 and became a broadcast legend in his own right, was 76 when he died, having retired early due to a severe arthritic condition.
Tetrault was born in Watervliet on July 12, 1926, and he grew up in Troy. He started his broadcasting career as a radio announcer at WTRY while he was still in high school.
After serving in the Naval Air Corps during World War II and then attending Siena College as a night student, Ernie began his television career in 1951, when he became a page at what was the world’s first television station. He quickly moved up and shifted into on-camera roles in live television. His first show was called “Hospitality House,” but there were others.
“It was the early morning show he hosted with Eileen Flynn called ‘Home Fare’ that brought big-name guests like Jimmy Durante, Ginger Rogers, Groucho Marx, Debbie Reynolds and Ronald Reagan into local viewers’ living rooms,” according to a tribute the station posted online.
By the late 1960s, local television stations were starting to devote resources to local news coverage, and Tetrault became an anchor and reporter. As a reporter, Tetrault covered everything from political conventions to battlefields, including a trip to Vietnam during which he sent back messages from local soldiers. Years later, he would become the first local news anchor to fly to Saudi Arabia with American troops to report on local residents’ involvement in the first Gulf War.
He is also remembered at Channel 6 for the time he went undercover on the streets of Albany in 1988 with a hidden camera to show the plight of the homeless.
“His honest reporting, his obvious love for the Capital Region, his sense of fair play and responsibility to his audience made Ernie Tetrault the most trusted newsman of his day,” said the station’s tribute, which was composed by Bishop.
Outside the newsroom, Tetrault loved flying. He was a licensed pilot whose passion for aviation was instrumental in the founding of the Empire State Aerosciences Museum in Glenville, at the Schenectady County Airport.
He is survived by his wife, Ann. They had two children, Ernest Jr. and Ellen. There was no word as of late Friday on funeral arrangements.