Television personality Bill Markham is undoubtedly a man who surrounds himself with people during his career and away from his career, making each person a friend.
Odis and Estelle Markham had visions for their son William knowing he would make a difference and touch peoples' lives, but as his mother Estelle came from a very biblical upbringing in the Church of Christ, her hopes for her son was to become a preacher. “She dragged me to church every time the doors were open,” Bill said. “I have a well-rounded, biblical education from her, but I joined the Navy instead.”
As soon as Bill was out of high school he and his buddy Louie Costabile enlisted. Having the personality of marching to the beat of his own drum, Bill says, “If you got drafted, you went into the Army, so I just wanted to do something different.”
A high school friend, Mike Christian, also joined the Navy about the same time. It was mentioning this friend in years to come that would give Bill a story he needed. “The Navy asked us if we wanted to ship over. Mike went, but Louie and I didn’t. They had given us a test to measure what we would be good at and I was supposed to be a jet engine mechanic,” Bill says, “I had no use for that. I was out on the flight line and became a plane captain; my job was to make sure everything was ready for the flight to go out. If it didn’t have a full load, I would go with them. We had a great time and we flew to a lot of different places.”
Bill’s childhood dream was not to make a career in the Navy; he wanted to be a radio announcer. Bill used to listen to radio programs such as the Lone Ranger or Dragnet before television came to every household. “I was in the fifth grade before we got a television set. We were one of the first families on our block to get a television. Huntsville didn’t have a television station and you had to put a 40-foot antenna on your house so you could get three stations from Nashville and two from Birmingham - that was it,” he attests.
Bill also listened to music on the radio enjoying his favorites such as Elvis, Bobby Darin and John Lee Hooker. Bill still recalls his favorite song from that era, “Hey Baby” by Bruce Channel.
Bill liked being an only child and enjoyed his childhood but always wanted to work. His first job was a paper route when he was about 10 years old. “I delivered the Birmingham News in Huntsville – which was a lot bigger than other papers,” Bill says. “In the fall it got dark earlier. I went all around the east part of Huntsville delivering these papers and there was a huge cemetery there called Maple Hill Cemetery. If I was a little late, I would ride and go through that cemetery to go home, but I was scared to death! It was spooky; it had graves probably from the early 1800s,” Bill exclaims.
After Bill’s stint in the Navy, he moved to Montgomery, Ala., and worked in radio. He became "The Morning Man" at WCOV in the State Capital. “It was a cool job. They had a television station there too. I had been in radio for about five years and had moved as far as I could go so the next move for me would have to be television. When someone went on vacation they would let me take their place. I decided I liked it, so when the news director, who was also an anchor, quit, I wanted to apply for the job.
“They told me, ‘No way, you are much more valuable on the radio’ but I really wanted to do it,” Bill said. Headstrong and not one to be held back, Bill gave them the ultimatum that if they would not consider him, he would quit. He drove to Huntsville to WAAYTV and he was hired as their main anchor - a job he would hold until he was hired a few years later at WPSD in Paducah, Ky . to be their main anchor.
Bill worked at Ch. 4 in Nashville, Ch. 12 in West Palm Beach and Ch. 2 in Baltimore and he worked at WSMV twice. WSMV had hired him when he returned to be a back-up until they were sure how long their anchor would be there. Bill traveled and did what he called ‘quirky stories’ that he loved to do.
One story that was a favorite of Bill’s is the mummy story. Charles Henry Atkins, known by admirers as “Speedy,” drowned while fishing and was sent to Hamock-Bowles Funeral Home in 1928. At that time, funeral homes were known to keep the bodies for poor families while they raised the money for a funeral. Mr. Hamock came up with a secret embalming fluid to preserve Speedy as an experiment. It turned Speedy’s body into a wooden-like statue and turned his black skin a reddish color. It preserved his facial features and he remained recognizable. Mr. Hamock put Speedy on display at the funeral home.
Hamock died in 1949 and never revealed the secret embalming fluid. In 1937 Paducah experienced a flood and Speedy was swept away. He was returned to the funeral home as a flood victim. Velma Hamock took over the business (and Speedy) when her husband passed.
After Bill explains the story he recalls, “I said in my story, ‘He drowned for the second time’,” he chuckles. “I thought it was a good story so I did it and it was just hilarious. At that same time there was a producer out in Hollywood who had a program called, ‘Real People’. He wanted to do a spin off and that show was called ‘Speak Up America’. I did a lot of stuff on that show,” Bill confirms.
ABC started a show called That’s Incredible. He sent the video of ‘Speedy’ to the network and they called Velma and flew her and Speedy to Los Angeles. “They had him standing up by her, after they showed my story and they introduced Velma and Speedy,” Bill laughs.
Being a man who really enjoys people, Bill is caught up in the moment when he is with someone and did not take the time to have his picture made with a lot of the people he had met over the years. “One of the biggest regrets in being in the positions I have been in is that I never asked people for pictures. I wasn’t timid but I didn’t want to impose. I have met so many people. The only ones that I have pictures of is me with Jack Benny, John Wayne and George Lindsey, who was a good friend of mine. In Nashville, a lot of people came through, it really is a celebrity-driven town,” Bill insists.
Bill knew how to get his angle and to get his foot in the door one way or another. He was the first person to interview James Earl Ray and the first person to interview the returning POWS from Vietnam.
Bill remembers his Navy buddy Mike Christian. “He got shot down and he was a POW for six and a half years. When the first guy came back, we went to Memphis. They flew these people from Guam to Memphis on four flights. They had a bunch of Navy brass at a press conference and when people would ask the POW something they said, ‘No, you can’t talk about that,’ - I got tired of it and I told my photographer, ‘Let’s go out. This guy has to come down the hall’,” Bill said. “So we went around where the other door was - where he came in and we set up right next to the hall. When it was over, they were ushering the men out and I said, ‘I need to ask you one question’, and a Navy official said, ‘No questions, no questions’, and I said, ‘Do you know Mike Christian?’ and POW just stopped. He asked me, ‘Do you know Mike Christian? And I said, ‘Yeah, he is one of my best friends’. He said, ‘What’s your name?’ I told him and he said, ‘I have heard him talk about you’.”
Tears well up in Bill’s eyes and gets emotional as he recalls the story. “I asked him, ‘Can we talk?’ The Navy guy told me no and this guy said, ‘No, I’m talking to this man’ and he told me when Mike was coming back,” Bill said.
Back when President Carter gave the draft dodgers amnesty Mike was the one that threw all of his medals on the grave of the Unknown Soldier and quit the Navy. “It was a big, big story. I called him up and said, ‘Do you know what you’re doing?’ He said, ‘I know exactly what I am doing.’ He became a hero to all those people who wanted to do the same thing but couldn’t. He built a big restaurant there called Michael’s. Then he was killed in a house fire. As firemen were performing the rescue, they saw Mike at the window of his bedroom and they firemen had turned the hose on the window and the blast killed him.” Bill says.
There is a serious side to Bill Markham and there is also a lighter side. “While I was working for Speak Up America, they asked me to go to New Orleans to cover a story. Magic Johnson was there; it was right after he graduated from college. Don Cornelius who did Soul Train was supposed to be an emcee with Magic Johnson. Magic was afraid to go out there, he was too scared. So they told me I was going to have to go out there with him. He was petrified to get in front of a crowd - there were thousands of people. Don had on this white suit and shirt with a big collar that came up to here…” Bill gestures, “and when they introduced us, I took my microphone and said, ‘How did you break your neck?’ The audience just roared, and he said ‘That’s not funny’. I said, ‘they think it is’,” Bill laughs.
Even if Don Cornelius didn’t enjoy Bill’s humor, his family certainly did. His daughter Mandy, declares, “My dad has a huge and magnetic personality. He's funny and adventurous, so there's rarely a day spent with him that doesn't leave a story to be shared, a physical scar to show off or a memory to be cherished. His laugh is infectious. His sarcastic wit is lightning-quick. He's the king of the practical joke. He's as smart as he is handsome. For all these reasons, he's my most favorite person in this world.”
The New York Times bought WHNT-TV in Huntsville and called Bill asking him if he were interested in working there. Bill moved to Huntsville and was paired with Cindy Sexton. He notes, "Cindy and I did a promotion with Dan Rather for the CBS station, Channel 19 in Huntsville. I have met Walter Cronkite and Tom Brokaw. Gail and I went to a party with Tom. He stayed with us about the whole time,” Bill said.
In 1984 WRCB in Chattanooga hired Bill, while Cindy had gone to Las Vegas. Bill had a chance to go to CNN Headline News but he chose WRCB and soon Cindy came to partner up with him there. The duo was the longest running anchor team in Chattanooga.
In 1984, Bill helped launch Chattanooga’s award-winning Crimestoppers Program. “Every Wednesday I would re-enact a crime and we offered a reward for solving it. We solved about one a week even if it wasn’t always the one on TV. People would turn them in. One a week is not bad.” Bill says.
Bill stayed with WRCB for 26 years and retired in 2009.
David Carroll of WRCB says, “We miss Bill and fondly recall our ‘Bill stories’ every day. He is a great storyteller and has a quick wit. Bill and I are both from Alabama, we both started in radio, and we share the same values and sense of humor. He made me feel welcome the day I walked in the door, I felt like I'd known him forever. To this day, if my car broke down, he would have one in my driveway within 30 minutes and he'd say, "Use it as long as you need it." I was very lucky to work with him for 22 years.”
Bill met his present wife, Gail, in Huntsville and they married in 1984. He had children from a previous marriage; his children are Mandy Johnson, Marianne Criswell and Matt Markham along with step-daughters, Veronica Pettus and Stephanie Greenlee.
Mandy says of her father, “I learned early on that his being a local celebrity meant there were many times I had to share him with others. Often a quick trip to the grocery store turned into a long conversation with a stranger who simply said, ‘We watch you on the news.’ Daddy would immediately ask the person for their name, and thank them for watching. But he didn't stop there. He would ask where they worked. Did they have children? Did they grow up in Chattanooga? In a matter of minutes he had a new friend. My dad's genuine effort to take the extra time to connect with people from all walks of life even when he really needed to be somewhere else at the moment made a lasting impression on me.”
Bill has left an impression on many people; his family, friends and his community. Who made an impression on Bill? Aside from his obviously supportive family, Bill mentions Alex Dreyfoos who made a great impact on his life.
“Alex was really a father figure to me. I met him when I moved to West Palm Beach; he is the smartest man I ever met in my life. He became like my best friend - my mentor. He invented the things called the Photo Analyzer and ended up licensing it to Eastman Kodak. He became a multi-billionaire - not sure what he is worth now, but he is one of the guys I miss. I worked for him about seven years. Everything I learned from him, I put into play,” Bill says of his friend.
“I have wanted to write him a letter for the last 25 years to tell him just how much he meant to me - and I just can’t write it. I don’t want to write a mushy letter, but I would like for him to know how much he helped me throughout my life,” Bill acknowledges.
Bill does spot commercials for Holiday Vacations, a big tour company in Wisconsin. “They like to be affiliated with retired anchors and weather people. People will sign up for the trip and Gail and I go on the trip with them. We have been to California a few times; we would go to Chicago and ride a train to California. We’ll go up and down the coast stopping in hotels - really high scale stuff. We have been to Alaska and the Canadian Rockies. We are going to Hawaii in August and then a New England trip in autumn,” Bill says.
Bill learned early how to treat the people he meets. “When I was about 14, our family moved to Birmingham. There were only two stations at that time. I loved to watch Channel 6. We went to the zoo one Sunday and all the people from Channel 6 were there. I walked up to my favorite guy and said hi to him. He kind of shuffled me aside - it broke my heart, I was devastated. I never liked him after that. When I got in this business, I told myself I would never ever do anything like that to anyone. If someone recognizes me, I take time to find out their name - people like that. They are doing you a favor by watching you on television,” Bill insists.
Daughter Marianne has witnessed how her father has no pretension or arrogance. She shares, “The one thing that I have always just loved about my daddy is that he would rather eat at some hole in the wall than ANY fine restaurant in town! He knows every diner, lunch counter, mom and pop dive that there is in ANY town and their entire menu by heart and whether the mashed potatoes are homemade or instant! He was touring America’s best joints long before Guy Fieti was born!” she laughs.
Bill used to drive legends cars and did some racing, but he gave that up recently. What has he done since he retired? “I haven’t done anything,” he laughs. “I have really been blessed. I have been all over the world. We have a house in Florida and we go down usually in the winter, we go fishing, golfing – my golf game has really improved,” Bill says, “I have gone from awful to average – that’s a big improvement for me.”