by Rhonda Oaks
Through the years KTRE-TV has had many employees. Some moved on to other careers, while others capitalized on the invaluable training they received from the station that resulted in the opening of their own businesses. However, some built their careers with KTRE and worked there almost a life-time. The following is an account of just a few of those who gave a portion of their lives to KTRE. If you have a fond memory about KTRE, or if you are a former or current employee, please share your memories with us.
Mary Ann Christopher Mewbourn, now retired, spent 34 years of her life working for KTRE-TV. While never general manager, Mrs. Mewbourn worked in almost every department. Beginning her career at KTRE radio in January, 1955, she made the transition to television working as the bookkeeper, then in the traffic department, also the office manager and secretary. Before her retirement, she would also serve as administrative assistant to most of the general managers. Former General Manager Bill Carter said while he carried the title, it was Mrs. Mewbourn who was “the real general manager,” adding that she, many times, would be the person who trained all new employees.
“I was known as Mom around the station because I had been there longer than anyone,” Mrs. Mewbourn said. “The kids were young and they would learn their jobs and then move on to bigger stations.”
Mrs. Mewbourn said the station always had a family atmosphere and everyone genuinely cared and worked together to make the station a success. She recalled one wintry day when the whole crew decided to have some fun.
“We had a snowstorm, I don’t remember what year it was,” she said. “But we just shut the station down and went outside and had a snowball fight. They took turns staying inside to answer the phones. I don’t guess the big bosses ever knew about that, but we all had more fun that day. We always had a lot of fun.”
Mrs. Mewbourn said during her tenure at KTRE the station progressed from having all second-hand equipment, being short-staffed and working long hours, to advanced color television with new, more sophisticated video equipment and employees who knew their crafts. She quickly added, “I loved every minute of it.”
KTRE also served as a spring-board to a successful career for Brett Shipp. While working at KTRE from 1983-84, Shipp attended classes at Stephen F. Austin State University. Shipp worked only a year at KTRE, but he was quick to say it was the single most important year in his career.
Shipp, 46, is now an investigative reporter at WFAA-TV in Dallas. Having received many awards in broadcast journalism, Shipp said he is most proud of the Alfred I. dupont Silver Baton award from Columbia University in New York for his series of investigative reports of a fake drug scandal at the Dallas Police Department. The Silver Baton is widely regarded as the highest honor awarded in broadcast journalism. The drug scandal series, consisting of more than 40 reports, also merited the 2002 Legacy Award from the Press Club of Dallas, the Stephen Philbin Grand Prize awarded by the Dallas Bar Association and the George Foster Peabody Award. Shipp reported information that proved certain officers were planting illegal drugs on mostly Hispanics, resulting in jail sentences for some, while others were deported. Shipp said the officers performed the illegal acts in order to receive accolades for themselves and their department.
Shipp was also awarded the Silver Baton when he was able to prove legally injured workers were being denied their rightful benefits from workers compensation in the state of Texas. As a result, the Texas Legislature overhauled the entire worker’s compensation system.
Shipp was also the first reporter from Dallas on the scene at the World Trade Center bombings on 9-11 and at the crash of Flight 587 outside New York City.
Murphy Martin said he believed Shipp has won more awards in broadcast journalism than anyone in the United States. While Shipp was humbled by the statement and referred to Martin as a “legend” in journalism, he could not confirm the number of awards he has received. Shipp said his work at WFAA-TV has been a dream fulfilled.
“I was only at KTRE for one year, but that was the most important year of my career,” Shipp said. “I learned everything I needed to know. I shot my own film, edited it and anchored the news. It was truly a hands-on, trial-by-fire experience. There has to be a KTRE for every young reporter.”
Kathy Brown served as personnel/traffic manager at KTRE from 1974 to 2004 when she left to open her own business in Lufkin. She said the memories from working there are some of her most treasured.
“I didn’t have a family when I started to work there,” Mrs. Brown said. “My kids just grew up with KTRE. I have so many memories and I met a lot of wonderful people while I was there. It was exciting, challenging, rewarding and ever-changing with all the new technology that we all worked to keep up with.”
Mrs. Brown is a cancer survivor and recalled her struggle with the disease and how the staff supported her during the exhaustive chemotherapy treatments.
“They were all my friends,” she said. “They made the ordeal easier for me. They were my support group and were always there for me. KTRE has been a big part of my life. Keep up the good work KTRE, and congratulations on your 50-year anniversary.”
Jake Armstrong , owner of HOP&S Graphics in Lufkin, began his 12-year career with KTRE as a cameraman when the station first went on the air. Armstrong, 73, also worked in production and film editing and built most of the station’s props by hand.
Armstrong also had his own show, Jake’s General Store. He was 24-years-old at the time, but for the show, he would dress as an old man. He said most of the viewer’s did not recognize him. His familiar “Howdy folks” would open each show that featured guests and topics of local interests.
“We got shoe boxes full of mail every week,” Armstrong said. “The la-de-da’s around town didn’t really like the show. They thought I was making fun of East Texas. But most of the people loved it. I was also known as Jake the Cameraman. I even built the set for the HH Ranch Show.”
Armstrong said while that early bunch of employees had a lot of fun and pulled a few pranks on one another, he was serious when it came to photography. Armstrong said he was one of the first photographers to record the devastation left behind from hurricane Carla in the 1960’s that would provide East Texans an up-close look at the destruction.
When Chuck and Mavis Hancock opened their own advertising agency in Nacogdoches after insuring a successful beginning of the KTRE satellite office in Nacogdoches in the mid-70s, Mrs. Hancock said she believed she “blazed the trail” for many a female saleswoman in the marketing and advertising business.
“Working with KTRE was just such a unique experience and a rather exciting time for us,” she said. “We were proud to be a part of it. I believe I was the first advertising saleslady in East Texas at the time. I remember Mr. Buford walking into my office one day and telling me that he believed I had a nicer office than he did. He was very pleased with the way things turned out in Nacogdoches. I can’t believe it has been 50 years since KTRE went on the air.”
Angel San Juan worked at KTRE for seven years in the mid-90s as a field reporter. It was his first job as a television journalist. By the time he left he would be a weekend anchor. San Juan is now on staff at KSBM, Channel 6 in Beaumont.
San Juan said the camaraderie among employees at KTRE is one of the reasons he remains so fond of East Texas and KTRE.
“We were a family,” San Juan said. “The station is such a part of the community. I don’t think Lufkin and Nacogdoches would be the same without KTRE.”
San Juan said he was a “one-man-band,” having to interview and shoot his own film. He credits long-time employee Jimmy Cloonan for teaching him the ropes of photography.
“Looking back at some of those old stories, I was pretty bad,” he said. “Jimmy really helped me out and taught me how to shoot film. I guess Tina Alexander could have fired me, but instead she sent me to classes where I could learn to become better. After that, I really gained a lot of experience and could feel myself maturing in my career. Folks in Lufkin really took me in, and KTRE was, and is, a really big part of my life.”
The opinions expressed through quotes in this story are not necessarily the opinions of Liberty Corporation or KTRE-TV.
Rhonda Oaks is a journalist and freelance writer who lives and works in Lufkin, Texas.