Former Chattanoogan Landry Had 25-Year Run With Popular Appalachian Features

Sunday, August 2, 2009 - by John Shearer
Bill Landry
Bill Landry
- photo by John Shearer

Not long after well-known Knoxville television personality Bill Landry arrived at the University of Chattanooga in 1968 on a football scholarship as a quarterback from Notre Dame High, he was moved to tight end.

Despite a standout spring game his freshman year under coach Harold Wilkes, he returned the next fall to learn that two other people had also been moved to tight end.

“That told me something,” the host of the popular “Heartland Series” on WBIR Channel 10 in Knoxville recalled recently with a laugh, realizing his future probably was not in football, even though he lettered in 1969.

What eventually resulted for Mr. Landry was a theater and television career in which he received the cheers that did not seem likely to come in college football in large fashion, but a career in which he did continue to change roles and positions, just as in football.

Mr. Landry had contracted the acting bug after learning that star Moc quarterback and teammate Roger Catarino was auditioning for a university play. That aroused his curiosity.

“I always wanted to be in the theater, so I went with him,” Mr. Landry said, adding that teammate Alan Farrel joined them. “We all got cast in ‘As You Like It,’ and I was in every play after that.”

After training under drama professors Dorothy Hackett Ward and Jim Lewis and linguistics professor Dr. John Tinkler, he went to graduate school at the Dallas Theater Center in Texas. He also had some stints teaching high school and college about that time.

He later worked in energy education in Oak Ridge, putting together and performing in a one-man play on Albert Einstein.

Shortly after serving as a fictitious riverboat captain for a months-long TVA river excursion celebrating the agency’s 50th anniversary, he was shooting a commercial with a Channel 10 cameraman. The videographer mentioned a new series the station was getting ready to start to celebrate the people and land of the Southern Appalachian Mountains.

After contact with the station, what resulted for Mr. Landry was 25 years as host of the highly popular “Heartland Series.” The stories have been on Channel 10 continuously and were also on the Travel Channel for six years. They were featured on WTVC Channel 9 in Chattanooga in the 1980s.

After the recession hit recently, Channel 10 decided to end new series production, although it will continue to show taped episodes.

The decision has caused some collective sadness in Knoxville. To help offset that, a major celebration being tied in with the filming of the last episode will be held Aug. 8 at the Museum of Appalachia in nearby Norris.

As Mr. Landry reminisced about the series of which he has devoted much of his life, he admitted that saying goodbye is hard.

“There is just so much emotion,” he said. “And there is a lot of fear. What is going to happen now?”

He said the dream for the program came from Steve Dean, the creative services director at Channel 10, and general manager Jim Hart, who wanted to do a series of stories highlighting the 50th anniversary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1984.

“The idea was to take a camera and interview the last remnants of the old mountain people and go on location,” said Mr. Landry. “Jim Hart was able to find sponsors, and I had a three-month contract to do two pilot shows. Those two pilot shows turned into 1,900 episodes and 25 years.”

Mr. Landry realized early on that the series had a magical quality.

“When we did the pilot shows, then I saw the finished product,” he said. “It was amazing. I was really excited because I knew how good it was.”

An important supporting cast member, particularly in the early episodes, has been the haunting Appalachian style music, which was written and recorded for the series by four accomplished musicians.

Because the three-minute and 40-second episodes are shown twice daily during the week on the news and on a Saturday night program, Mr. Landry has became as familiar a name and face in Knoxville as some of the better-known Tennessee Vol or Lady Vol coaches.

He has also gained respect along with recognition, as both he and the series have won multiple Emmy Awards.

Mr. Landry admitted that he does sometimes feel like a coach handling the writing, directing, narrating, and some of the acting while working with longtime videographer Doug Mills and other support staff.

He joked that he received good training for the work growing up with eight siblings in a Catholic family at 1139 Mississippi Ave. in North Chattanooga. His father worked for Kayo Oil, which was headed by Mr. Landry’s uncle, Paul Kendall.

“There was always a crisis,” he said with a smile. “So we all do problem-solving jobs now.”

Among Mr. Landry’s siblings still in Chattanooga are Notre Dame high academic dean Pat Landry, Karen Loveless, the owner and operator of The Big Table restaurant along with her chef husband, David, in Mountain Creek at the foot of Signal Mountain; and Laura F. Landry, a medical technician.

Mr. Landry was also a basketball and baseball player at Notre Dame High and was an avid swimmer with the Stuart Heights swim team. Among the local swim coaches he fondly recalls are Don Waters, Dick Davenport, Ray Bussard (before he became the UT swim team coach) and Martha Bass.

Mr. Landry said he enjoyed his time in Chattanooga, just as he has being host of the “Heartland Series.”

“I’m glad to have worked 25 years,” he proudly said.

Although his work with Channel 10 will soon end, Mr. Landry has tried to remain upbeat as he looks at future opportunities, which include several offers to do related or connected work.

In fact, he is using the advice of Herb Trentham, an old mountain man he once profiled.

“He said, ‘A while ago’s done gone. You ain’t got the promise of a directly. All you’ve got is right now. Don’t spile (spoil) this day.’"

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