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James C. Dowdle, who expanded Tribune broadcasting division and recruited Harry Caray, dies at 79

Jim Dowdle

Jim Dowdle

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Updated: March 21, 2014 3:55PM



James C. Dowdle was a 22-year-old U.S. Marine who had only one year of legal training under his belt when he began helping defend men and women who’d gone AWOL.

Often, the young Marines he represented were more keen on a night of drinking or a hot date — and sometimes both — than getting back to the Quantico base in Virginia.

With his warm personality, quick mind and radio-quality voice, the young Mr. Dowdle unspooled an unbroken winning streak.

“He got everybody off,” said Sally, his wife of 57 years. “He had a fabulous reputation.”

His persuasive skills and leadership later built Tribune Broadcasting Company. It grew logarithmically through savvy acquisitions and strategies when he was its chief.

Mr. Dowdle, president and CEO of Tribune Broadcasting from its founding in 1981 to 1997, was key to the Tribune’s purchase of the Chicago Cubs, said Dennis J. FitzSimons, former chairman and CEO of Tribune Company.

That brought a three-hour daily block of fresh programming to WGN-TV.

“It grew into national status,” said Shaun Sheehan, the Tribune’s vice president of governmental affairs.

Mr. Dowdle, 79, died Monday of congestive heart failure at his Wilmette home.

A South Shore native from a family of White Sox fans, he used to tell friends, “Thank God my father is in Calvary Cemetery. If he knew I was among those who bought the Chicago Cubs, he’d never speak to me.”

And he brought Harry Caray from the old White Sox arena, Comiskey Park, to be the Cubs announcer at Wrigley Field.

More conservative Tribune execs weren’t enthusiastic about hiring Caray, who had a Falstaffian reputation.

“I think other people in the Tribune Tower did not see what Jim saw,” said broadcaster Bob Sirott of WGN-AM 720. “He knew that the entertainment value would be a big draw for the team, for the ballpark, for the stations ... knowing full well that he was getting the ‘Mayor of Rush Street.’ ’’

“Jim created tremendous value for Tribune shareholders,” said John W. Madigan, retired chairman and CEO of Tribune Company, “both in the people that he brought into the company and developed and mentored, and in the successful execution of the vision that he had for Tribune Broadcasting.”

During Mr. Dowdle’s era, Tribune Broadcasting expanded from a handful of broadcast outlets to an estimated 23 TV stations, including WPIX in New York and KTLA in Los Angeles.

“That made us the only company outside of the Big Three networks to have VHF stations in the top three markets, so that made us a much bigger player as a buyer of programming and creator of programming,” FitzSimons said. “Jim created Tribune Entertainment.”

Another dazzling success of his tenure was a $19 million Tribune investment in the Food Network. “That $19 million grew to well over a billion dollars in value,” FitzSimons said. A partnership with Warner Bros. started the WB network and led to fresh programming, including “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Dawson’s Creek,” that lured wealthy advertisers, he said.

Mr. Dowdle attended St. Philip Neri grade school and took the L or hitchhiked to attend high school at Loyola Academy, which at that time was in Rogers Park.

He was only in third or fourth grade when he met Sally Sayers, who used to stop in at his family two-flat to visit her grandmother on the second floor. When the other little boys barred girls from their games, “This nice boy, this little Jimmy Dowdle, would say ‘Well, she can play with us,’ ” she said.

Later, she ran into him when they were both teens. “I thought, ‘Oh, who is that?’ They were all playing football, and he was so cute.’ ”

They started dating and never parted, marrying weeks after he graduated from the University of Notre Dame.

They spent a few years in Virginia while he was stationed at Quantico. Babies soon followed. He wanted a job with growth potential, so he entered the TV business.

Mr. Dowdle started as an ad salesman for the Tribune before landing a job as a sales rep for the Edward Petry media advertising firm. His Marine training got him hired. During interviews, he was the only applicant who said ‘Yes, Sir’ and ‘No, Sir.’ ”

Mr. Dowdle did stints as a national sales manager at TV stations in Oklahoma City and Minneapolis-St. Paul before becoming vice president and general manager of WTOG-TV in Tampa.

He was an early supporter of talk shows featuring entertainers Dinah Shore and Joan Rivers, as well as journalist Geraldo Rivera, Sally Dowdle said.

His relationship with Caray was built on trust. “Once a year they’d meet at the Ambassador East [hotel] at Booth Number One [in the Pump Room] and they’d have lunch and they would shake hands on another contract,” she said.

Mr. Dowdle delivered a eulogy at the funeral of WGN radio host Bob Collins, who died in a 2000 plane crash. He said he never minded that Collins called him “Mr. Doodle” on the air.

“You have to understand the spirit in which it’s said,” he said. “In fact, I really would worry if Bob ever called me Mr. Dowdle.”

He loved to golf. His favorite country club was Castle Pines in Colorado.

Mr. Dowdle remained an active supporter of Loyola Academy, where his grandson, Conor Dwyer, blossomed into a champion swimmer who won a gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics and is training on the U.S. national swim team.

Mr. Dowdle also served as a member of the board of directors of the Tribune Company and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation. He retired in 1999 from his post as a Tribune Company executive vice president.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by his daughters Colleen Burke, Jeanne Dwyer and Sarah Tyrrell; his son, Jim, and 18 grandchildren. His daughter Pati Lehman died in 1993 after a car struck her bike.

Visitation is 3 to 9 p.m. Friday at Donnellan Family Funeral Home, 10045 Skokie Blvd., Skokie. The funeral is at 10 a.m. Saturday at Saints Faith, Hope & Charity church, 191 Linden, Winnetka.

Email: modonnell@suntimes.com

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