Decker left long legacy of integrity

By JAIME STUDD

Recorder News Staff

ROTTERDAM -- Media personalities from throughout the Capital Region are mourning the loss of one of their own this week, but nowhere is the loss of broadcasting legend Don Decker felt more strongly than right here in Amsterdam.

A native of the city and graduate of Wilbur H. Lynch High School, Decker passed away Monday night, surrounded by family, at the age of 79. He leaves a lasting legacy of integrity, intelligence and dedication to his craft in the hearts and minds of all those whose lives he touched.

Upon his graduation from Syracuse University, Don returned to his hometown and began his career in broadcasting at WCSS radio. He would spend the remainder of his career and life working in this region, a place many said he was proud to call home.

After stints at radio stations WSNY in Schenectady and WTRY in Albany/Troy, Decker made his way to the anchor desk at television station WRGB Channel 6. He was later named news director of that station, holding the same role at the jointly owned WGY radio station.

Decker arrived at WTEN Channel 10 in the early 1990s. He retired from there in 1998.

Though Decker shared his talents at media outlets throughout the region, he raised his family in Rotterdam -- never far from his Amsterdam roots.

On Wednesday, several of Decker's former colleagues fondly remembered the man they called both a mentor and a friend.

WVTL radio personality Bob Cudmore first met Decker in 1980 when he began working at WCSS. Most recently, Decker made guest appearances on Cudmore's current radio show.

"I always thought that Don was good to me in large part because I'm from Amsterdam," said Cudmore. "He was a great booster of Amsterdam. He loved Amsterdam."

"He was very hard on you, but he was very fair," Cudmore added. "It was strictly business. He was very interested that you get the story right and tell it so that people understand it."

Former WTEN anchor Tracy Egan also recalled Decker's love of the area.

"He believed in hiring local people," Egan said. "He was always proud of his hometown and his Mohawk Valley roots."

WTEN anchor Elisa Streeter also credited Decker with shaping her broadcast career.

"He was a role model for so many of us," said Streeter, who worked under Decker for more than eight years. "I learned more from him than any other boss I've ever had. "He was demanding because it was necessary. He was very aware of the affect his job had on other people and he groomed so many young people."

Alan Chartock, formerly of WRGB Channel 6 and current president and CEO of WAMC Northeast Public Radio, was one of those people Decker saw potential in.

"I love him," Chartock said, as he recalled being turned down by three or four stations before he got the call from Decker.

"He told me two times a week, only for a couple of minutes, no pay and let's see what happens," Chartock said.

Chartock recalled the moment that temporary proposition became more of a long-term arrangement.

"The first night, we talked about Walter Mondale, I think," Chartock remembered. "The second night, Ernie Tetrault looked at me and said: 'There's a guy in New York who just pulled out two pearl handled revolvers and shot at three people who were supposedly asking him for money, although somebody had a sort of knife.' I said: 'Well, I rode that subway a lot and when they did that, you weren't being asked for money. They weren't begging, you were being robbed.

"Every phone in the place lights up and Decker comes to see me and says: 'OK, every night," Chartock continued. "And for the next, I don't know, 20 years or so, I was doing it every night. And they paid me.

"We all loved him. He gave everybody their start and he had an ethical code and a moral code that was just unrelenting," he added. "You don't see it in journalism any more."

Bob Peterson, former WTEN general manager, technically served as Decker's boss, but it was Decker, he said, who played the role of mentor.

"I didn't come from a news background. I thank God I had Don Decker there as my news director," Peterson said. "I learned more about news with Don in those first few years than I ever would have I think with anybody else."

"He was that good," he added. "He was incredibly insightful in what news was.

He understood the market really well. Yeah, you had to cover the stories of the day, the murder and the mayhem, but he always wanted you to think about what story was really going to impact people and how it was going to impact them and let's tell it from that perspective."

Decker's insight and knack for discovering and nurturing talent actually changed the course of WRGB Channel 6 Anchor Liz BIshop's life, who was working as a clerk in the sports department at the Times Union when she received a fateful call from Decker, who had read a column of hers, asking her to audition.

"This has made me go back and revisit my professional life and my early years and I remember all the things that I just admired so much about him -- his total commitment to news and to journalism," she added. "He ate, slept and thought TV news. That's what he did."

Bishop also recalled a typical day in the newsroom with Decker at the helm.

"He woke up every day and he would start putting his notes together for story ideas. He would comb through papers like nobody ever saw and he would rip little articles out of the paper and he would set them on his desk and when you would walk in you would hope there wasn't a big a wind that was blowing," Bishop laughed. "He would tell you what he wanted to cover that day and how he wanted it done. He was very exacting. He wanted the best from us because he always gave the best. So, he really held us to a very, very high standard."

Bishop also recalled Decker's unwavering commitment to the people he oversaw, recounting how Decker ignored relentless letters and phone calls from angry men who didn't believe a woman belonged behind the sports desk.

"Don just had so much confidence in the people he picked," Bishop said. "I think, somehow, he had the ability to see something special in them that maybe they weren't even aware of.

"That's what I will always treasure the most about my relationship with him is that this was a guy that invested in me both personally and professionally and I wanted to make him proud," she added. "To this very day, I feel like I owe him everything professionally and I still want to make him proud.

"I think that all the things he taught me are things that have really stayed with me and that I've never compromised on because he convinced me all those years ago how important they were to doing a good job, to being a good journalist."