THE LAST WORD: Dick Florea, ‘Fort Wayne’s Walter Cronkite,’ inducted into Journalism Hall of Fame
Long-time television newsman Richard (Dick) Florea has been called Fort Wayne’s Walter Cronkite.
Cronkite was called “the most trusted man in America” during the heyday of CBS News in the 1960s and 1970s. Florea’s heyday, likewise, was in the same two decades during which viewers of Fort Wayne’s No. 1 television news provider looked to him in the same way.
While Florea shrugs off any comparison to Cronkite, he said if there is one it may have had to do with a sense of longevity in a business where there was a lot of turnover.
“Everybody trusted Walter Cronkite,” Florea said, seeking another possible comparison. “I sought to be trustworthy and accurate — have people coming back to you.”
Florea was one of five inductees honored Saturday at the 54th annual Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame luncheon in Indianapolis.
Florea retired from WKJG-TV (later NBC33) in 2001 after a 48-year broadcasting career in Indiana. Born in New York City on May 22, 1937, his family (his parents were originally Hoosiers) eventually moved to Marion, Ind., when Florea was a 7th-grader. His broadcasting career began at radio station WMRI while he was still a Marion High School student.
From Marion, Florea went to Purdue University, where he edited and broadcast evening newscasts for the campus radio station, WBAA. His only training in broadcast, he said, was on the job.
After that, Florea returned to Marion and became news director at WMRI as well as news director and assistant manager of WTAF-TV.
Then WKJG, Fort Wayne’s first television station, contacted him about a job opening there. It was a radio-and-TV operation run by another eventual Indiana Journalism Hall of Famer, Hilliard Gates. Florea accepted the job and made his first appearance on Fort Wayne TV screens doing the 11 o’clock news on Feb. 28, 1966. He remained on Channel 33 for 35 years, the first 20 as the main news anchor, while taking on news director duties from 1970-1987.
While others took over news editor duties after 1987, Florea would fill in as interim in between times while continuing his career there as public affairs and community relations director and as the host of the “Editor’s Desk” and “Our Town,” news shows about community issues and people and organizations making a difference.
Florea remembers the late 1960s and early 1970s as the height of his news career. “There was not one particular story that stood out so much,” he says, but it was a period of time that had “an awful lot going on.”
They were stories that drew national media to town, and he remembers the network helicopters landing on the WKJG lawn and the big national names in the media showing up to make their reports or commentaries on the historic events of the time — Robert Kennedy’s assassination in 1968 (he had visited Fort Wayne just weeks before); strikes at General Electric; the closing of International Harvester; the blizzard of 1978; the flood of 1982.
And WKJG was the strongest television news voice in northeast Indiana.
They were heady times for a newsman, and Florea led the way, directing coverage, editing stories, teaching and critiquing through it all.
“As a newsman he was totally unflappable in chaos and unmovable when it came to getting all the facts straight,” recalls former colleague Lynn Letsinger-Miller, who later became the first female news producer in Indianapolis. “He also enjoyed the competition, and we all shared the satisfaction when we broke a big story.”
Kathy Hostetter, another Florea protege, became WKJG news director in 2002 and later went on to become news director at NBC affiliate WTHR-TV Channel 13 in Indianapolis and then at CBS affiliate KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh.
“Many,” she says, “have drawn comparisons that Dick Florea was Fort Wayne’s Walter Cronkite — with a nose for news and documenting history in accurate and thoughtful ways.”
A committed citizen of Fort Wayne, Florea served as president of Habitat for Humanity for nine years and board member for 19 years. He was president of the First Presbyterian Church Foundation, president of the Allen County-Fort Wayne Historical Society, president of Quest Club and member of the boards of the Embassy Theatre Foundation and the Alzheimer’s Association after his wife Phyllis contracted the disease, which took her life in 2011 following 49 years of marriage. Florea later became a facilitator for Alzheimer’s Association support groups to help those who went through what he did.
Florea has three grown children and six grandchildren. In 2013 he married retired high school school counselor Sandra Shearer.
Florea had many honors in his profession, including being honored as a Sagamore of the Wabash in 2001. And he was inducted into the Indiana Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 2015.
Hostetter quoted former NBC News icon Tom Brokaw in a Hall of Fame nomination letter for Florea: “It’s easy to make a buck. But it’s harder to make a difference.”
“Dick Florea,” Hostetter added, “made a difference in Fort Wayne journalism, and he continues to do so to this day.”
Kerry Hubartt is former editor of The News-Sentinel and a member of the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame board of directors.