Dave McElhatton, the veteran Bay Area broadcaster known for his easygoing manner, wry sense of humor and steady professionalism, died Monday from a stroke-related illness, colleagues said. He was 81.
Mr. McElhatton spent his 50-year career in Bay Area media, split evenly between KCBS and KPIX, before retiring in 2000. His move from radio to television in 1975 was considered high-risk at the time, but Mr. McElhatton eventually became one of the most recognizable faces on local TV, bringing ratings success to the station while developing a special connection with viewers.
Longtime co-anchor Wendy Tokuda said Mr. McElhatton’s everyman persona wasn’t an act. Known to friends – and more than a few viewers – simply as “Mac,” Tokuda said Mr. McElhatton “loved where he lived,” was not competitive with his co-workers and didn’t openly covet bigger network jobs.
“That was never Mac. He was as down to earth as you can get,” said Tokuda, who shared the anchor desk with Mr. McElhatton from 1980-91. “When he was telling you news stories, they were about his neighborhood, his town, his world. He was in his place, and he was the Bay Area’s anchorman.”
Mr. McElhatton, an Oakland native, went to Fremont High School in Oakland and San Francisco State University , getting his first job at KCBS radio just weeks after graduating in 1951. He was a disc jockey and talk show host before helping to steer KCBS toward its current all-news format. Among Mr. McElhatton’s KCBS jobs was hosting “Viewpoint,” the first local telephone call-in talk show.
“He was my best friend, just a wonderful guy,” said Al Hart, who started working with Mr. McElhatton at KCBS in 1966, once working as his producer. “He was always willing to help everybody.”
Mr. McElhatton’s move to KPIX was turbulent at first, as he adjusted to a different role. But the station stuck with the newsman, whose chemistry with his colleagues was an immediate asset. He rose to the top of the market working with Tokuda, and had 10 more successful years co-anchoring with Kate Kelly. Among other high-profile events, Mr. McElhatton was on air for the 1978 assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, and the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
Mr. McElhatton departed quietly by lead anchor standards, announcing his retirement the day before he went off the air in November 2000.
“It’s been a wonderful 50 years doing what I always wanted to do – work in broadcasting,” he said during his final newscast. “And the frosting on the cake was to find out it was even better than I dared hope.”
Tokuda and Kelly, who both still work at KPIX, tell similar stories of being put at ease on their first days anchoring with Mr. McElhatton. Kelly said she was so nervous she was shaking, and botched one of her first lines, referring to “Nightcast” as “Nicecast.”
“He came back (after the break) and said ‘Good evening, Wendy Tokuda is off, Kate Kelly is sitting in. And topping Nicecast …’ ” Kelly said. “He said it on purpose with a twinkle in his eye – to put me at ease and kind of acknowledge that I had misspoken but he was there with me.
“He just had that kind of empathy for you. He was a very special man.”
Tokuda remembers when one new young employee complimented Mr. McElhatton’s tie, which was designed by Jerry Garcia. The next day the employee found two of the ties, with no note, on his desk.
Tokuda said Mr. McElhatton admitted he was a shy child, who developed his confidence after he picked up a magic kit. He was a pilot, enjoyed telling stories and talking about all things San Francisco. (Among other local Mr. McElhatton trivia: He played a radio announcer in a short scene that was cut from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.”)
“We had so much fun, it was just ridiculous,” she said. “He was a born storyteller. And he used to talk about how much he loved his job all the time.”
Mr. McElhatton had been spending his retirement years in Rancho Mirage (Riverside County), with Karen, his wife of 18 years. He was also married to Bay Area radio personality Bonnie Chastain, who died of complications related to breast cancer in 1988. He is survived by two children and eight grandchildren. Mr. McElhatton’s son, Terry, who was once a Bay Area television station news director, died of a heart attack in 2008.
A date for a public memorial service has not been announced. In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that donations be made to the Dave McElhatton Scholarship in Broadcast Journalism at San Francisco State University.
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