When beloved Houston beer joint Kay’s Lounge closed for good after 77 years of operation in 2016, a young reporter named Pooja Lodhia showed KTRK viewers around the place, highlighting its ancient cigarette machine and gigantic table in the shape of Texas. Newscast anchor Melanie Lawson cited Dr. Red Duke—the uber-Texan trauma surgeon who brought a Wild West gunfighter vibe to his role as KTRK’s nationally renowned medical correspondent—as a Kay’s regular and even recollected his favorite order (a Shiner and a pizza), but she oddly didn’t mention Kay’s even more locally famous longtime patron: Dave Ward.
By the time Ward retired as an evening news anchor at KTRK, in 2017 at the age of 78, he’d set a Guinness World Record for fifty years of continuously holding such a job at the same station. He’d possessed the required instincts for navigating a long life on television, and he was perfectly suited to Houston—a city that grew substantially in the last half of the twentieth century as droves of small-town, blue-collar people arrived there seeking opportunities to prosper.
Reading Ward’s new memoir, Good Evening, Friends: A Broadcaster Shares His Life, is like sitting down with him as he reminisces at Kay’s, which was only a dozen blocks or so east of the KTRK studio. “Our Channel 13 crew ended up going down there almost every night right after the 10 o’clock news,” he writes. “Part of the folklore around Kay’s maintains that Red and I were occasionally seen dancing together on the tables at Kay’s. I can’t confirm that … but then again, I cannot deny it either.”
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The book is a pleasant, conversational memoir, filled with photographs of Ward and short on analysis. You are his friend, he constantly told his viewers and now tells his readers, and he is yours.
Ward’s chosen remembrances make it plain that he likes driving fast cars, flying airplanes, extolling NASA missions, the Astros, the Houston Oilers and Bum Phillips, and the Houston rodeo parade, which he covered 49 times. When he broke his ass on a motorcycle race in the Astrodome and badly wrecked a gaudy Cadillac, Duke patched him up. Ward drove a Chevrolet souped-up by race car driver A.J. Foyt that he says would go 130 miles per hour on the Houston freeways. He would dress up in goofy costumes, sometimes in drag, for a good cause. And he seems to have only admired one politician: Houston’s own George H.W. Bush. (Ward’s co-writer, Jim McGrath, was the former president’s longtime spokesman.)
One night in 1995, Ward was arrested for drunken driving. At the time, he’d purposefully let his driver license expire, on the questionable advice of a lawyer who knew Ward’s penchant for driving after having had a few beers. He spent the night in jail and had to apologize to his friends, the viewers, on the 5, 6, and 10 p.m. newscasts the following day.
“Getting arrested with such a high blood volume of alcohol stopped me cold and made me think about the way my life was going,” he writes. “That’s when I began paying attention to the amount I drank and respecting my limits. And that’s when I stopped driving after drinking. I could no longer deny that something in my life had to change, and that something was me.” Yet relatively few viewers seemed to hold the incident against him. His ratings continued to lead the Houston market.
Ward is open as well about his regrets that he worked so much that he ignored two wives and sets of children. He finally married a woman who saved his life twice; she helped him sober up and got him to the hospital when she realized he was having a heart attack. When the doctors told him he needed to attempt walking to begin his physical therapy, Houston Astros legend Jeff Bagwell showed up and pulled him out of the hospital bed. “Jeff and the physical therapist walked me up and down that damn hospital hallway three or four times,” Ward writes. “When I complained at one point about getting tired, Jeff shot back, ‘I’ll be the judge of that. I think you can walk some more.’ So onward we went.”
The son of a small-town Baptist minister, Ward broke into broadcasting in 1959 as a Waco disc jockey. At the urging of a consultant, he listened carefully to records of his own speech and whittled away at his East Texas drawl to retain the warm sheen of a bass-baritone voice. He was already married with a baby and had gone only a year or two to junior college in Tyler. He may have lacked an education, but he had an instinct for social media before the phrase was invented, as when he added a segment he dubbed “Gossip Column” to his show.
“The idea was kids could mail me their written comments—whatever they wanted to get on the air—and I would read them every day at 4:15 p.m.,” he writes. “I’d put a soft music bed on under me and read whatever silly comments I received: ‘Susie and Johnny are lovers’ or ‘Billy Bob sure does love Sally,’ or whatever.” It was a hit with teenagers and advertisers, and Ward got a bonus of twenty-five dollars.
Much later, as anchor on Houston’s only one-hour newscast, he served as calm foil to two loud personalities, investigative reporter Wayne Dolcefino and restaurant inspector Marvin Zindler. Ward insists throughout the book that broadcasting the news isn’t show business, but for 34 years his ratings success stemmed in large part from Zindler, who absolutely thought he was in show business—deploying white wigs, blue eyeglasses, white suits, and his battle cry: “Slime in the ice machine!”
KTRK’s broadcasts took on a carnival aspect, even as they did important work. Dolcefino and Zindler would rant, rave, and spew vitriol. Yet when the camera cut back to the staid Ward, he’d arch an eyebrow, perhaps offer a bemused chuckle, and say simply, “Thank you, Marvin.”
“I have had a lot of people accuse me of having a smirk on my face after Marvin finished one of his reports,” Ward writes. “And I always told them: ‘If you were sitting there next to this wonderful but crazy guy, you’d have a smirk on your face, too!’”
KTRK dominated the Houston ratings for decades—from the heady days of the Apollo program through the fat years of the seventies and the Urban Cowboy/Luv Ya Blue era, the lean years of the oil bust, Houston’s comeback with a bona fide local occupying the White House (and later his son), the meteoric rise and operatic downfall of Enron, and the ongoing evolution of Houston from overgrown Southern boomtown to truly international city. Zindler kept right on hounding sleazy small businessmen until just before cancer claimed him, broadcasting his last restaurant report from his deathbed at MD Anderson on July 20, 2007. He passed away nine days later. To say Houston’s local TV news has never been the same is an understatement, though Ward anchored away for another nine years.
In retrospect, the closure of Kay’s signaled the end was nigh. By then with both Duke (who died in 2015) and Zindler gone to their heavenly rewards, and Dolcefino (plus longtime co-anchor Shara Fryer) employed elsewhere, Ward was the sole survivor of a bygone Bayou City broadcast news era.
Still, Ward didn’t want to retire. His denials that he ever worked in show business are somewhat contradicted when he writes that he thought he was still “performing” well in his final years. Nevertheless, management took the ten o’clock show away, and then eventually the six o’clock too, bringing down the curtain on his long run, term of service, post, “show,” or whatever you want to call it.
About the same time that Ward was breaking into television during the mid-sixties, media theorist Marshall McLuhan declared that the nature of the medium is more important than the message. Ward instinctively understood this. He might have been reading the news, but as the title of his memoir indicates, he focused his long career on making his viewers his friends.