Radio & TV legend Jack McKinney, also a sportswriter and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, died on Saturday, August 10, 2002. He was diagnosed with lung cancer at the end of the previous month.
Jack McKinney was a native Philadelphian. Born and raised in Olney, McKinney was graduated from St. Joseph's Prep and the Valley Forge Military Academy. He went to work for the Philadelphia Daily News in 1953. McKinney started writing music criticism using the name J. Cartin McKinney. Dean McCollough, the late Daily News' editor who hired Jack gave him the pen name, thinking "Jack McKinney" was too unsophisticated.
Finally, McKinney moved into other areas and was able to use his real name. He did anything for a story including entering a cage of lions. He also jumped out of airplanes, sparred with Sonny Liston and raced cars at the Langhorne Speedway.
For almost five decades, Jack wrote about sports (especially boxing) to music; opera was one of his loves. However, it was his radio and television work that many people will really remember him by. His "Night Talk" show was legendary on WCAU-AM. He was also heard for a shorter time on WPEN when it was doing its telephone talk format.
In the mid-sixties through the early seventies, Jack McKinney was also a television star. He had his own program in various incarnations on WHYY-TV, WPHL-TV and WIBF-TV/WTAF-TV. He had a sort of raspy voice; not what you would expect from a broadcast personality. But that was Jack McKinney.
In 1975, a new editor arrived at the paper, Gilman Spencer. It was he whom moved McKinney from sports to being a columnist.
McKinney spent several months in dangerous Northern Ireland. He claimed friendship with Bernadette Devlin and Gerry Adams, two Catholic Irish leaders. He also served in the paper's interests in other hot spots including Latin America. He believed in what he called "advocacy journalism." He said that he didn't believe that anyone was objective. He said that he believed that anyone who claims otherwise is hypocritical and fraudulent.
Jack loved sports. About eight years after joining the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper employee picked up the sports wire and read an account of a middleweight boxing event in Ohio. The first round winner by a knockout was a fighter called Jack McKinney. Yes, it was Philly's own triumphal fighter over a guy calling himself Alvin Green. McKinney had been training in secret wanting to test himself against a professional boxer. That's the kind of guy Jack McKinney was.
In his youth, Jack loved alcohol and drank hard. He was also well known for several legendary brawls at the Pen & Pencil Club and other after hours establishments.
Jack retired from the Daily News five years before his death in 1997. His first wife, Doris Kavanaugh McKinney, who was at times a professional singer died in 1999. He later remarried, making Debbie Kordansky his bride.
McKinney lived in Lafayette Hill and passed away at a friend's home in Chestnut Hill. He had five sons; Sean, Brian, Kevin, Brendan and Bentzi and a daughter Maura. At the time of his passing, he was grandfather to eight children.
About a year after being graduated from Temple University, Broadcast Pioneers member Gerry Wilkinson ended up in a management trainee program at WIBF-TV, Channel 29.
Gerry recalls that "The Jack McKinney Show" originated live from the big "barn-like" studio at the Benson East in Jenkintown. At that time, the TV station's facilities were there along with sister FM station, WIBF-FM.
Part of this "management trainee thing" was to act as Production Assistant for Jack's show once a week. Other management trainees covered the other days. Wilkinson said: "well, one day there was this big snowstorm. Hardly anyone got in. The assistant director who was basically a timekeeper had to direct and I was thrown into the producer's role. It was the first professional television I had ever produced."
From the regular staff, there was the AD, Wilkinson, McKinney and four studio guests (there was supposed to be 60). There were no camera operators. The master control engineer got one camera up and running. It was locked into position. The audio was fed directly into master for mixing. Wilkinson said: "It looked like hell. One camera and no guests. Jack just sat there and talked for 30 minutes. It was a fantastic monologue. It had to be because the phones were down. It was my big chance and everything that could go wrong, did."
"I was a wreck by the end of the live broadcast but Jack McKinney took it in stride saying: 'Good job kid. Let's do it again tomorrow.' But that was Jack McKinney.
Wilkinson said: "Jack was a warm, intelligent guy who knew how to relate to people. His audience never thought that he was talking to them. They understood that he was talking with them. That's how Jack McKinney was."
Sean McKinney, Jack's son, e-mailed:
My brother Brian and I went down to see the show when he had Muhammad Ali on as a guest. This was when Ali was banned from boxing and he had slipped out of the public limelight. (People forget about that part of his career.) We got to meet Ali and it was a thrill.
Of course, I have other special memories of my dad in broadcasting and journalism.... My mother sang under the stage name of Doris Kavanaugh (her maiden name) from the time she was 17 until shortly before her death at age 68 in 1999. She got her start with the nationally famous Big Band of Vaughan Monroe. She also played with Henry Jerome. But after 2 years of singing national radio concerts and touring the East Coast, she got tired of full-time national show business and returned home to marry my dad.
After getting married, she sang professionally in clubs throughout the Philadelphia and South Jersey area. She was mistress of ceremonies at the Drexelbrook Club during its heyday in the 1960s. She also occasionally appeared on TV (Rex Morgan's show) and radio (WPEN). After bearing five children, she continued to sing on a part-time basis for the rest of her life.
On Friday, November 20, 2009, Jack McKinney was inducted into the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia's "Hall of Fame."
From the official archives of the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia
Photo originally donated by Charlie Higgins
Written and researched by Broadcast Pioneers historian Gerry Wilkinson
© 2009, Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia
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