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Originally published January 31, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 31, 2005 at 12:27 AM

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Broadcast pioneer, retired UW professor reported history

Bill Shadel, a broadcasting pioneer who covered D-Day for CBS and moderated a 1960 televised presidential debate between Richard Nixon and...

Seattle Times chief political reporter

Bill Shadel, a broadcasting pioneer who covered D-Day for CBS and moderated a 1960 televised presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy, died Saturday in Renton. He was 96.

It was a quiet end to a life that packed in careers in radio and television news before a third career as a communications professor at the University of Washington, where he pushed the practical before theory.

"He was one of those who lived the principles of our craft," former CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite said yesterday.

In recent years, Mr. Shadel's hearing faded, and his eyes could focus only for a few hours a day.

But he never forgot what he saw and heard in his reporting career: the chilling details of war that were the first words many Americans heard of the Allied invasion at Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge and the discovery of Nazi death camps.


COURTESY OF BILL SHADEL

Bill Shadel, pictured with Richard Nixon, left, moderated one of the Nixon-Kennedy debates in 1960. Shadel kept this photo in his Renton home.

Near the end of his life, as he lay in bed at a Renton assisted-living home, he lost his sense of taste, too. But there was enough memory of a certain smoky taste that he'd talk friends into pouring him a few fingers of single-malt scotch.

He enjoyed critiquing the 21st-century political-media machine, making frail fists to punctuate his commentary with soft jabs in the air.

He recently recalled a conversation with a BBC correspondent in a London pub right after World War II. The reporter told him no country had risen as fast as America and no country would fall as fast.

"That may be old age talking, but by God I believe it," Mr. Shadel said in September. "You compare socially, financially, militarily, 20 years ago with where we stand today, good God, your kids are not going to be able to pay the debt. ... Look where we stand in the world.

"Is that old age talking?"

His voice carried the timbre that Americans heard from wartime Europe, along with Edward R. Murrow, Eric Sevareid and Howard K. Smith.

"Just to be listed on that team was a mark of a particularly successful journalistic practice, and he was certainly one of the very best," Cronkite said.

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Mr. Shadel began his career as a musician in silent-movie theaters before taking his marimba to live radio. He edited magazines published by the NRA, or as he put it later, "If you'll forgive the expression, the National Rifle Association."

In 1943, he dispatched himself to Europe to cover the war, where he was quickly recruited by Murrow. Of more than 500 U.S. reporters in Europe, Mr. Shadel was one of 28 to cover D-Day firsthand.

He and Murrow were the first reporters in the German concentration camp at Buchenwald. They came by jeep and were swarmed by the starving and dying. Mr. Shadel said it was the memory of the living, not the multitudes of dead, that stayed with him most.

"Even this last week, he said to me, 'I remember that atrocity as if I was there yesterday,' " said his son, Doug. "It's almost as if nothing else happened."

In 1990, he was given a "Witness to the Truth" award by the Simon Wiesenthal Center for his reporting.

After the war, Mr. Shadel reported from Washington, D.C., and tried his hand at the new world of television.

"I never looked up. My old bald head was all you could see," he said recently.

A producer for the Arthur Godfrey television show told him he couldn't be taken seriously until he did something about his appearance. So he was outfitted with a toupee.

At WTOP-TV in Washington, D.C., he worked as a reporter for Cronkite, who was then anchoring the local news.

"He was a very bright reporter and a darn good writer," Cronkite said. "He'd hunt stories that I thought were quite remarkable, and we were just a great team."

Mr. Shadel kept a low profile among the burgeoning celebrity around broadcast-news stars.

"He was my favorite correspondent," said Shirley Wershba, a former CBS copygirl and news writer. "He never put on any airs.

"Some of them were stars and acted like stars and celebrities," she said. "Bill never did. He just brought everybody into his aura."

Wershba's husband, Joseph, recalled that on more than one occasion, Mr. Shadel stepped in and delivered Sevareid's radio commentary when Sevareid had a bout of stage fright.

Each week on WTOP, a local department store sponsored a fashion show; Mr. Shadel met and fell in love with one of the models. She became his wife of more than 56 years, Julie, who survives him in Renton.

Mr. Shadel was the first host of CBS' "Face the Nation" before jumping to the upstart ABC to anchor the evening news. It was in that role that he moderated the third presidential debate between Vice President Richard Nixon and Sen. John Kennedy.

He left the news business in 1963, then taught at the UW until retiring 12 years later.

Mr. Shadel suffered from prostate cancer and two years ago had gall-bladder surgery. His health worsened in December, said Doug Shadel.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Shadel is survived by three sons, Gerald of Oak Harbor; and David and Douglas, both of Seattle; and two grandchildren, Nicholas and Emily.

David Postman: 360-943-9882 or dpostman@seattletimes.com

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