Stan Atkinson, one of the Arden area’s more notable residents, continued his discussions about his storied career in television during a recent interview with this publication.
After spending two years working in television in Spokane, Wash., Stan and his wife at that time were experiencing a bit of California dreaming, Stan explained.
“My wife and I had both grown up in Southern California,” Stan said. “We were not crazy about the snow. We had a real bad winter up there (in Spokane). So we decided we were going to California and get the first job we could find. So, we took off in our little VW and drove to California and stopped in Redding to get some gas. And I asked one of the guys in the gas station, ‘Are there any TV stations around here?’ And he said, “Yeah, there’s one (KVIP Channel 7) that just opened up by the junior college.’”
Stan explained that he quickly made his way to that station and found that the people who were working there were in the midst of a crisis, as a snow storm had blanked out part of the signal between the studio and the transmitter, which was located on about a 6,000-foot peak above Redding.
“I walked in and everyone was beside themselves with this crisis they were dealing with,” Stan recalled. “So, they were kind of annoyed when I walked in the door. ‘What do you want?’ (he was asked). I said, “I want a job.” And they said, ‘What do you mean you want a job?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ve been working at the ABC affiliate in Spokane for two years.’ And, they said, ‘You’ve been in television for two years?’ And I said, ‘Yeah,’ and I was hired on the spot.”
Among the employees of KVIP-TV at that time was Jon S. Kelly, who was one of the sons of Ewing Cole “Gene” Kelly, a founder of KCRA-TV in Sacramento.
Stan said that it was upon the recommendation of Jon to people at KCRA-TV that led to his hiring at that Sacramento station in 1957.
In describing an early experience he had at KCRA-TV, Stan said, “What happened, when I got hired, I looked like I was about 15 years old. So, the legend is that after my first night on the air doing the news, Gene Kelly came into the managers’ meeting the next morning and said, ‘Who in the blankety blank hired that blankety blank kid?’ He wasn’t involved in my hiring process. And at the same time, somebody had made note of all the phone calls that had been made the night before in the following morning, in response to my first night on the air. They were mostly from elderly ladies, who said, ‘Who is that young, sweet boy you have doing the news? We just think he is terrific. We’ll be watching him every time.’ So, I’ve always said it was the blue hairs who saved my career.”
Because television business was not compartmentalized like it is today, Stan’s early work with KCRA-TV was quite diversified.
Stan noted that he became involved in documentary work, including Channel 3’s first documentary, “Black Harvest,” which focused on a huge forest fire. He also worked on a documentary about the transient population in Old Sacramento.
In about 1959, Stan dedicated himself to working on a documentary pertaining to mental patients who had died under the responsibility of psychiatric technicians at the DeWitt Hospital in Auburn.
Stan explained that that the project led to a unique experience in his life.
“(The documentary) won a national award, the Albert Lasker Award for medical journalism,” Stan said. “There were four award winners and we were all presented the awards in New York by Lyndon Johnson, who was vice president then, and Mrs. (Mary Woodard) Lasker. Johnson invited us to go on this trip he was about to take around the world (in May 1961). And I went with one of our cameramen, THE LATE Ed Sweetman. And it was an amazing, amazing awakening for me to see what the rest of the world was like.
“We went around the world. The target really was Vietnam. President (John F.) Kennedy wanted Johnson to access the situation there. We had 500 American soldiers there who were training in the South Vietnamese army in the battle against the Northerners, which had started a few years before.
“It was really the precursor to upping the American investment of men and machines in Vietnam, because it was clear that the efforts from the North were dedicated to taking over the South and that the Army of the South simply wasn’t up to the task. The trip also went to India, Pakistan, Greece and Italy. I was really intrigued by the time we had in Saigon.”
Stan eventually returned to Vietnam after convincing KCRA’s owners to allow him to produce the documentary, “The Village that Refuses to Die.” The documentary focused on Father Nguyen Lac Hoa, the “fighting priest,” who led an anticommunist militia in the Ca Mau Peninsula in the southernmost section of Vietnam.
In 1963, Stan left KCRA-TV to join David Wolper (1928-2010), the major independent producer of documentaries in the United States, in making documentaries.
During his time with Wolper, who was later the executive producer of the television miniseries, “Roots,” Stan worked on three series, including specials about actress Bette Davis and singer and actor Bing Crosby.
After departing from his work with Wolper, Stan joined a friend in establishing a production company.
Stan noted that he eventually opted to return to daily news.
“I decided to come back to work (in television), and I did, first at KTVU Channel 2 in Oakland, then I got a Ford journalism fellowship at Stanford (University), and then from Stanford, I went to KNBC and NBC News in Burbank,” Stan said. “That was a great experience in a top-of-the-line, incredible facility. It was a huge news machine. In those days, it was just amazing the work we did do and the people you worked with. And that was during the time that I covered the (Charles) Manson case, and that became the hallmark of my career there. It was 16 months and going to court every day and doing a lot of investigative stuff on the side to try to develop more about what had actually happened, which mostly came out in court. There were other diversions that took place in that case that you would want to pursue as a reporter. Also, it was the drudgery of sitting in court each and every day trying to glean something out that was newsworthy to put on the news that night. Manson and his girls would act up in court from time to time.”
Stan said that he later left KNBC to establish television station KFTY Channel 50 in Santa Rosa with a couple of his friends from KNBC.
“We put the station on the air (in about 1972),” Stan said. “We got clobbered by a huge recession and we just didn’t have enough money up front to sustain the two years that we needed to get on our feet financially. And after one year, we went under.”
After the collapse of Channel 50, Stan briefly took a different direction in his life, as he planted a vineyard in Sebastopol and taught journalism classes in a summer graduate program at Stanford University.
Stan’s time teaching at Stanford and his thoughts about the sudden closure of KFTY caused him to reevaluate his life, and he returned to television, first as a reporter with KGO-TV in San Francisco.
That experience led to his rehiring at KTVU Channel 2 in 1973.
Three years later, Stan left his work as an anchor at KTVU, as he was presented with an opportunity to return to KCRA Channel 3.
In recalling that moment, Stan said, “I knew that (KCRA) is where I always wanted to be. I loved the time that I’d been here in the early days. I always had a feeling I’d come back, always did, even from when I left before. I was so glad to be back, and of course the station was the best in the market. Everything was first class and professional and (the station had a) great gang of people to work with and work for. And the best part was I got a chance to not just anchor, but to go about and do some serious reporting a couple times every year on a major assignment somewhere in the world. I think there was something like 18 or 20 assignments in 30 different countries.”
After spending 18 years in his second stint with KCRA, Stan was hired to work as an anchor at KOVR Channel 13.
In explaining why he left Channel 3 to work for Channel 13, Stan said, “It was a bit of a contract dispute and (KOVR) found out about it. They had just changed ownership (at KOVR) and so they came after me and wanted me to come to work for them. The timing was perfect and I said, ‘Sure.’ It was a great time for me (at KCRA) and it was wonderful. I never had a regret about it, but I figured maybe after all that time, it was good to make a change. And it was good.”
Stan ended his lengthy career with a special edition of the 10 p.m. news on July 30, 1999. Following the broadcast, KOVR aired a special, hour-long program, entitled “Stan Atkinson: A Career to Remember.”
After being asked to summarize his career, Stan, who is enjoying his retirement years with his wife, Kristen, said, “I had 46 years of working in radio and television. I loved it on the last day as much as I did the first day. There isn’t much I would ever change. Overall, I was one lucky duck.”