Great reporters are a breed apart. They thrill to the hunt of facts and relish the challenge of translating complex material into tight paragraphs, spoken or written, the punchier the better.
Bill Elder, the longtime WWL-TV anchorman who died last week at 65, was a journalist who used television better than most in the business today. TV news doesn't get much better -- or more aggressive -- than "Facing Reality," Elder's 30-piece series that exposed sleazy practices at a drug-rehab clinic that utilized lavish federal funds and enriched owners -- including then-state Rep. Sherman Copelin. Elder's interviews with junkies, still addicted after "treatment," were wrenching to watch. One man was murdered before the series finished. Elder won a Peabody, the highest broadcast award, for the series. He also was a two-time winner of the Edward R. Murrow Award, named for the pioneering CBS journalist.
Elder had the serious demeanor of a war correspondent, but his persona was laced with charm. He had a natural ease on camera, turning on a dime for the terse delivery of news. He personified an era quickly passing in TV news when serious reporters spoke well because they wrote well.
There was an intensity to Bill Elder that I have not known in many people. He loved karate, boxing, flew his own airplane and was fascinated by survivalist cults (forerunners of the militia movement). I think he envied the life-on-the-edge quality of those survivalists, if not their agenda.
We became friends in 1989 when I did some research work for the station. In later years, we socialized occasionally, traded information by phone, shared lunches on the fly. We were good friends though not close buddies.
One morning -- not long after we met -- he called in a prickly mood. His first marriage had ended. He was living alone in an Uptown Victorian shotgun house. "I came in last night and these bastards were trying to steal my stereo," he fumed. "I shot at 'em. But they got away."
He had seen the burglars when he pulled into the driveway. Instead of honking or asking help of neighbors, he entered through the back, pistol in hand, and started blasting. That was vintage Bill. Shoot the bastards and wait for the cops. When NOPD arrived, the thieves were gone. He never mentioned it again.
Elder grew up in Opelousas, and his first reporting job was with his hometown paper, the Opelousas Daily World. From there he moved to The Daily Advertiser in Lafayette, and in the early 1960s landed at KATC-TV, the CBS affiliate in Lafayette. That's where he caught the eye of then-WWL-TV station manager Mike Early and news director Bill Reed, who hired him. There, Elder developed a signature line when he signed off the 5 p.m. news: Allll right now ... we stop ... and take you live and direct ... to Dan Rather and the CBS Evening News."
Once he asked me to read a short story he had written based on an anecdote he'd heard as a child. It was about a man who discovered his wife cheating on him. They were at some sort of party out in a camp on a bayou. The husband arrives with a shotgun, makes everybody strip naked, and then marches them into town. I told him it was a hell of an ending. "That part really happened," he chuckled.
Elder got the first footage of Edwin Edwards at a Las Vegas gambling table. With his typical pluck, he asked the governor straight-out if he could take a camera crew and follow him to Vegas. He told me that Edwards agreed on the condition that the camera not get any footage of his girlfriend (he was still married to Elaine at the time) and that Elder not make any reference to his latest conquest.
"I didn't care about the girlfriend," Elder told me. "I wanted to get him at the crap tables." And so he did.
He was a happier man in the mid-90s, after his marriage to Carolyn Guidry. I periodically saw them jogging together in Audubon Park. After learning in late 1998 that he had a brain tumor, Elder in typical fashion announced on the news that he would be undergoing brain surgery and hoped to return. He insisted that his treatment be covered as a news story. He managed to resume his broadcasts after the procedure, but had to retire in 2000.
The last three years must have been unimaginably difficult for a man of his talent. Although he was able to understand what was said to him, at least in the beginning, he suffered memory loss and had trouble getting out the words. Carolyn stood by him, employing a home-care attendant while she worked.
The last time I saw him was at the opening reception for the W Hotel. He was no longer on the air; he was gaunt and had trouble talking. I sat with him and chatted, despite being gripped by an overwhelming sadness. Looking back, I prefer to think of him in the spirit with which he confided to me about one of the toughest stories he pursued.
For years he had wanted an exclusive interview with Fats Domino. For all of his celebrity and 110 million record sales, Fats is a rather shy man, almost an anti-celebrity in his baronial mansion in the Lower Ninth Ward. He doesn't go on TV. He didn't go to the White House when President Clinton awarded him the National Medal of the Arts. He sent his daughter instead. That is shy.
Elder managed to get the unlisted number. Fats answered the phone. "Oh, Bill Elder! Bill, my wife and I love your show. We watch every day."
Elder told him how he had grown up listening to "The Fat Man" and those other classics, he loved his music and wanted to do a long interview. Fats said no, offering some vague excuse. Elder kept calling. Fats kept saying no. Finally, Elder got a TV crew in the van to follow him down to the big house in the Lower Nine. Elder knew, of course, that you do not ambush Fats Domino at his home. The van waited down the street for Elder to press a beeper. He walked up to the front door, standing on the inlaid dominoes, rang the bell.
Fats opened the door. "Honey, " he called to his wife. "It's Bill Elder!"
After an exchange of pleasantries with Mrs. Domino, Elder tried to work his way into the house, hoping to sit down, strike a dialogue and then say, "Hey, my camera guys are around the corner, how about it, Fats?"
Fats would not let him in. He said: "Bill, I want you to meet my neighbor."
Elder was confused, but followed Fats next door to an ancient shotgun house. Domino said, "When my neighbor opens the door, I want you to give him your sign-off line, you know, when you hand it off to Dan."
"Sure," shrugged Elder.
Fats rang the bell. An elderly black man opened the door. "Hey, Fats."
Domino beamed. "This is my friend Bill Elder."
Elder gazed into the old man's eyes and said: "Allll right now ... we stop ... and take you live and direct ... to Dan Rather and the CBS Evening News."
With that they left the porch. Elder was hungry for the interview, but Fats took him to another house. "Do it again, Bill."
Next house, same drill. A lady opens the door. "This my friend, Bill Elder," said Domino.
And once again, Bill Elder gave his signature line. They went to several other houses in the Lower Ninth Ward that day, Elder and Domino.
Bill never got the interview.