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Veteran newsman Garrick Utley, Chicago native, dies at 74

Garrick Utley.

Garrick Utley.

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Garrick Utley newscast, Jan. 22, 1973
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Updated: March 23, 2014 6:09AM



Garrick Utley was a foreign correspondent during the gilded era of network news, a time of limitless budgets stoked by boundless advertising income, when NBC kept private planes at Meigs Field or Midway Airport to send swashbuckling reporters — or sometimes, just a container of film — around the globe at a moment’s notice.

The patrician Mr. Utley, a University of Chicago Lab School alum who started his career as a Sun-Times copy boy, was both intelligent and elegant. He spoke five languages and covered news in an estimated 75 countries. Starting in 1963, he reported and anchored 30 years for NBC. He later worked for ABC, CNN, PBS and National Public Radio.

It would be difficult to pinpoint his finest hour. There were many.

But he was at his unflappable best on Jan. 22, 1973. As he explained the U.S. Supreme Court decision that day legalizing abortion, he took a phone call at the anchor desk signifying breaking news.

“We have just received a bulletin from the Associated Press from Texas that reports that former President Lyndon Johnson is dead,” he said. Mr. Utley informed viewers that the 64-year-old Johnson collapsed at his ranch.

Without missing a beat, he continued, “The other major story today aside from the death of Lyndon Johnson, the tragic death and the hopes for peace in Vietnam, is the decision of the United States Supreme Court. It handed down a historic decision about abortion. The court said in a 7-2 decision that in the first three months of pregnancy, only the woman and her physician may decide whether she may have an abortion. In the second three months, all the state may do is regulate abortion procedures. And only in the final three months of pregnancy, can the state forbid abortion.”

At 23, he began his reporting career in Brussels. At 24, he was riding sampans through the muddy waters of the Mekong Delta as NBC’s first Saigon bureau chief, back when the Vietnam War had not yet become a morass that turned the U.S. inside out. At 6 feet 6, Mr. Utley stuck out from the pack, and some worried he might become a target of the Viet Cong.

For many Baby Boomers, his voice brought body counts and assorted hotspots into the nation’s rec rooms. He was stationed in Paris, Berlin and London. He covered political conventions, the Middle East, presidential campaigns, the Vatican and the space race.

He died Thursday at his Manhattan home after a two-year battle with an aggressive form of prostate cancer. He was 74.

His profession was a natural fit. Mr. Utley grew up on Chicago’s Blackstone Avenue in a broadcasting family.

His father, Clifton Utley, did radio and TV anchoring and commentary, capturing an astonishing 60 percent of market share. He worked for WNBQ, later to become WMAQ. He also wrote a column for the Sun-Times. Mr. Utley’s mother, Frayn Garrick Utley, stepped in to replace her husband on the radio for two years after he collapsed from an embolism. She moderated a CBS radio current-events show in the early 1940s.

In his autobiography, “You Should Have Been Here Yesterday,” Mr. Utley described knowing early on what his father did. A family friend asked him where his daddy was. “Apparently I ran as quickly as my three-year-old legs could carry me to the large mahogany console radio that stood at one end of the room, pointed at it, and said, ‘He is in there.’ ’’

His parents met at the University of Chicago. They raised three sons — Garrick was in the middle — and threw scintillating Hyde Park dinner parties with guests like the poet Robert Frost.

Mr. Utley, who was fluent in French, Spanish, German, Russian and English, was first exposed to foreign languages at home. His mother took in three French refugee children during the war, and two Japanese-American women who might otherwise have been sent to internment camps.

The family enjoyed weekends in the Indiana Dunes. They stayed at the Wieboldt-Rostone House, one of the demonstration homes built for the 1933-1934 Century of Progress World’s Fair. The buildings were brought to the dunes by barge after the fair closed.

Mr. Utley attended Carleton College, where the Institute of International Education reported that he faced off on the soccer field against Kofi Annan, a Macalester College student who would become Secretary-General of the United Nations.

During summers, Mr. Utley traveled to Montana and worked as a wrangler. “That’s where he developed his love of country music, and wanted to become Hank Williams,” said his sister-in-law Carol Marin, a journalist with the Chicago Sun-Times and WMAQ.

Clifton Utley once hired TV newsman John Chancellor to be his copy boy, Marin said. The young Garrick got his start when Chancellor hired him to do research in Europe.

He anchored the NBC weekend news twice, in the early 1970s and from 1988 to 1993. From 1989 to 1991, he hosted the nation’s longest-running TV program, “Meet the Press.” In 1993, he joined ABC. He became a CNN correspondent in 1997.

He resigned in 2002 to build the Levin Institute at the State University of New York. In 2011, he joined SUNY Oswego as a journalism professor.

Mr. Utley also hosted the PBS series “Live from the Met.” “He loved the opera,” Marin said. “He would walk around the house singing opera.”

He also loved ice cream, and considered it an acceptable breakfast, lunch or dinner.

He and his wife of 40 years, Picasso scholar and author Gertje R. Utley, loved to entertain.

NBC staffers remembered him on air Friday as they reported from the Olympics. “He was a big, big guy, but also intellectually,” said Matt Lauer.

Judy Woodruff of PBS tweeted he was “a great journalist and a true gentleman.”

NBC’s Tom Brokaw paid tribute, calling the versatile Mr. Utley “a man for all seasons” and “always the complete gentleman.”

Mr. Utley is also survived by his brothers, David, and Marin’s husband, Jonathan; two godchildren, a niece and four nephews. A New York City memorial service is being planned.

Email: modonnell@suntimes.com

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