Hugh Downs is old now.
It has been many years since the dreams of an Ohio railroad man’s son bloomed into an unparalleled broadcasting career that leapt from one pinnacle to the next, decade after decade, until one day it was mostly in the past, and he was old.
His hair is white, his face lined, his posture slightly stooped and his gait just slightly unsure. These are things you would expect in a man well into his 83rd year.
He is not dismayed by this, however. He is somewhat surprised, yes. Occasionally he is even startled by it. But he is not dismayed. Rather, he is fascinated by it, just as he is fascinated by almost everything else in the universe.
He is fascinated by a new great-grandson, by flying and sailing, by politics, by music, by medicine, by energy and the environment, by the media, by the endless, wary tango of science and religion, and by the problems and promise of the East Valley to which he has given much of his heart and soul. Perhaps it is this fascination with things, his boundless curiosity and his joy at having already learned so much, that explains the geniality that seems permanently written on his face.
He belongs to the world, really, but he is our neighbor. He chose to settle in Carefree and later Paradise Valley when he could have lived anywhere else. Now in retirement — if you can call it that — he is sinking his roots all the more deeply into the community he has called home for more than 30 years.
“We fell in love with the place when we first came out here,” Downs said. “And then that’s been reinforced. It’s not like we were disappointed. It’s been even more so, particularly the people we’ve met.”
Among his earliest friends here were the late Paradise Valley philanthropists Robert and Katherine Herberger. Their son, Gary, maintains close ties with Downs and his wife, Ruth.
“He is the same person in private as he is in public,” Herberger said. “He couldn’t be nicer to people who come up to him and ask to shake his hand and ask to have their picture taken with him. He’s very generous.”
Bill Shover, a longtime Valley community leader who first invited Downs to town for a speaking engagement in 1968, agreed.
“I regard him as one of the finest men I’ve ever known,” Shover said. “He has values you just don’t see in people who have the highest form of living and get adulation constantly. He’s humble.”
Downs’ humility, Shover said, springs from his Ohio upbringing and a remarkable father.
“I knew his dad,” Shover said. “He came from a humble life, a very modest man in Ohio. His father was a railroader ... For being a common person, his father had the ability to be concerned about the good things of life — the arts, music and so forth.”
But while it’s one thing to grow up humble, it’s another to stay that way after a lifetime in the public eye and a career that nearly two decades ago had already placed him in the Guinness Book of World Records as the man who had been on television more hours than anyone who ever lived.
His TV work began about the time the medium barged big-time into America’s living rooms, as an announcer for the kiddie show “Kukla, Fran and Ollie” in 1949. Several other TV gigs followed in the 1950s, including a stint with Sid Caesar and five years with late-night pioneer Jack Paar. He hosted the game show “Concentration” for 10 years, “The Today Show” for another 10 and “20/20” for more than two decades.
Along the way he has rubbed elbows with almost everyone who was anyone in American public life. He has written music for Yo Yo Ma. He took, and passed, astronaut training — at the age of 77, no less — while his friend John Glenn prepared for his famous geriatric ride into orbit. He even has ventured into movies, playing a newscaster (what else?) in the 1980 George Burns vehicle “Oh God! Book II.”
Downs said his TV career was “quite accidental,” the offspring of childhood aspirations in radio.
“There were some big-name radio announcers,” Downs said, “and they were relatively famous, and they apparently made some good money, and my ambition was to become like them, have some big program.
“I didn’t have any idea that there would be a new medium in the offing . . . so it all just kind of stumbled into place.”
CONVERSANT WITH EINSTEIN
Far from being a mere talking head, however, Downs owns an intellect his friends say is nothing less than awesome. Not that you can actually get him to talk about how smart he is. While Shover and Herberger called him a “renaissance man,” Downs dismisses the term.
“If being a renaissance man means you are intensely interested in all these things, then yes,” Downs said. “But the real renaissance man is expert in all of them, and I am not.”
Others would dispute that.
Downs knows enough about music, for example, to have had several compositions published. One, titled “Windows for Cello and Orchestra,” was performed last fall by the Phoenix Symphony — one of the numerous Valley organizations to which he donates his time and talents.
He knows enough about science to have carried on a long-term correspondence with noted astrophysicist Robert Jastrow — an exchange of letters that Jastrow’s publisher would like to turn into a book on the conflict and coexistence of science and religion.
“That’s a heavy thing,” Downs said.
“There are some people that can maintain scientific integrity and have something meaningful to say about theology. I think we can . . . We don’t see eye to eye, exactly. He describes himself as a materialist productionist. And I keep asking, what is the material we’re talking about?”
As scientists grapple with questions about the basic nature of things, Downs said, “It empties out into a kind of never-never land and weirder than what we think of as reality.”
From there, Downs moseys into the realms of quantum mechanics, the Big Bang theory, Lobachevskian geometry and the theology of Albert Einstein.
He speaks about these things as naturally as most guys talk about baseball scores.
But sports, in fact, is one of the few areas Downs’ mind does not eagerly embrace, Shover said. “He’s not big for baseball or football or the usual things like that.”
Yet that did not stop Downs from helping Valley leaders seeking to convince NFL owners to send another Super Bowl our way. Downs got a standing ovation, Shover said, when he made a presentation to the league’s bigwigs this past March; several of the wealthy men, in fact, asked for his autograph.
ON GROWING OLDER
Over the years, and long before he began sprouting gray hair, Downs became an expert on human aging.
“I did a special when I was 30 years old on NBC prime time called ‘How Long Can You Live?’ ” he said. “It was a geriatric medical special on human life span. Not life expectancy, life span. I found that so fascinating that my interest stayed. I began reading more and more, and finally got into the technical journals and whatnot. And that is still one of the most fascinating things I know.
“And really, the more time goes by, the closer I move toward becoming my own laboratory!”
From there, Downs moves into another scientific discourse, this one on the process whereby cells divide and age and eventually die. This should go on long enough, he said, for healthy people to generally reach the age of about 120.
That he is 38 years shy of that is a source of continual surprise.
“To this day, if I’m in a strange city or something, walking down a sidewalk and there’s an angled storefront window and I know I’m going to see my reflection in it, I always expect to see a 35-year-old guy looking at me,” Downs said. “And I see gray hair, and it always jars me. I never get over that, because inside I don’t feel that way, you know.”
Nevertheless, aging has been a happy process.
“The 50s were very good, and the 60s were better than the 50s, and the 70s were better than the 60s, I swear to God.
“I can do everything I want to do, and the quality of my life is better than it’s ever been.”
A LETTER TO THE FUTURE
His family is an integral part of that quality of life.
“Both Ruth and Hugh are wonderful,” Herberger said. “She’s very modest and lets Hugh take the limelight, but she certainly is his mentor and helpmate all the way along.”
The couple will celebrate their 60th anniversary in February.
“I think we were both brought up to believe that marriage was a real commitment and that divorce would be not only a last resort, if you couldn’t stand to be married, but divorce is kind of like surgery,” Downs said. “You know, it’s unpleasant.”
Downs credits his wife with making some of the larger sacrifices to keep their marriage intact over the years, at one point abandoning a thriving needlepoint business in the north East Valley.
The couple have a son, a daughter, two grandchildren and an infant great-grandson.
It is to the new baby that Downs is dedicating his next writing project, a book to be published in the fall called “Letter to a Great-Grandson.” It will contain personal reflections and some speculation as to what the world of the future will be like.
“When I think of what I would give if my grandfather or great-grandfather had rendered a document like that to me about his life and the world at the time . . . this is why I hope this kid reads this,” Downs said.
“I’d like him to read it when he’s a young man, and when he’s middle-aged, and when he’s my age now. And it will mean more to him at each stage.”
Downs lived in the East Valley and commuted cross-country during the latter decades of his broadcast career, which ended for the most part in 1999 when he left “20/20” after 21 years. His community involvement ranges from the mundane to what some might call grand.
Shover said Downs is a fellow member at Christ Church of the Ascension, an Episcopal congregation in Paradise Valley. “If he does the reading on Sunday he prepares himself,” Shover said. “If he talks to a Boy Scout troop, he prepares himself.”
Maryellen Gleason, director of the Phoenix Symphony, said Downs recently became an honorary trustee for the orchestra, resuming an affiliation that began many years ago when he was on the board of directors.
“He is very passionate about our success,” Gleason said. “He’s a wonderful guy.”
Herberger said Downs is a founding member of a 2-year-old Valley group called the Men’s Anti-Violence Network.
“We realized that men who abuse women should hear from men who don’t agree with men who do that to women,” Herberger said. Downs has helped produce the group’s anti-violence videos. “He’s helped us a lot,” Herberger said.
Downs is reluctant to talk about his charitable efforts, with one passionate exception: The Hugh Downs School of Human Communication at Arizona State University.
The project sprang, Downs said, from a 1972 invitation to speak at the university on the topic of television. Shortly thereafter he had outlined a course addressing various forms of human interaction, and in 1999 his name was formally attached to ASU’s communications program.
While fellow broadcasting giant Walter Cronkite also has an ASU program named after him, Downs said the schools differ. The Cronkite curriculum focuses on journalism, while the Downs program addresses all the ways humans connect with one another, from marital communication to humor to nonverbal expressions.
“He spends quite a bit of time over there, teaching and mentoring students,” Herberger said.
Shover said Downs has been involved in other charitable efforts, sometimes on the national level. “He gives so much of himself to people,” Shover said. “If anything, people can take advantage of him.”
IN LOVE WITH THE VALLEY
In 1968, when he was invited to speak in the Valley, that changed his life, Downs said.
“When I first saw it, I guess, there was something about the climate that got to me, and I instantly liked the mystique of the desert. Not all people understand.”
He believes the Valley has coped well with its astonishing growth, and that Arizona has matured since he arrived.
“There were undoubtedly some neo-Stone Age politics out here,” he said. “And we had a couple governors that were embarrassments. And I think (now) we’ve got a really good one.”
He thinks new high-tech research facilities at the state’s universities will help propel Arizona into a new era of prosperity.
“It seems to me the state has recovered a lot of prestige and is going to take its place as one of the best states in the United States. It’s moving in that direction.
“That means a lot to me.”