Name it. If I don’t have it to give, I’ll hock my latest artificial knee and make the down payment. My dear, dear friend Bill Markham is dead and, while it is only fitting this rascally character died on the very day he needed to write a check to his beloved IRS, no monetary amount in the world could cover the cost of a ringside seat to watch with glee when he had to stand before St. Peter at the Holy Gates. You think Tim Conway and Harvey Korman were a riot on the old Carol Burnett show … I’ll guarantee you St. Peter needed oxygen before he let my boy Bill through the big gate.
About 25 years ago managing editor Lee Meredith and Tom Tolar, the ever-dynamic station director at WRBC (TV3), got this crazy notion of putting me on live TV. For several years I was the 6 o’clock sports anchor in addition to being in charge of sports at the former Chattanooga News-Free Press and, as I have said many times before, working with the WRCB “family” rivaled working for my own.
No one quite knew how this experience would turn out, and I went into it with some trepidation, but from the very start it was fun and – with Bill Markham – every day was hysterical. I’ll admit mischief can get a grip on me when the timing is right, but in Markham the candle never dimmed, and my presence brought out the best and the worst in each of us. I can’t tell you how many times I laughed myself to sleep back then.
When I went live for the first time, Markham shows up in a beautiful coat, a snappy tie with a pocket-square to match, and we go in front of the mirrors to put on our make-up. He also wore some cut-off blue-jeans and flip-flops that were stamped Property of Panama City jail. “Always remember this business is just from the waist up or it’ll drive you crazy.”
In TV the bright lights will make you look bloodless so plastering down make-up was a new road for me. Bill showed me it is easy to do but then he got this black paint-stick and started in on his “receding hair line.” I told him I was shocked, that everybody in town knew he was “a Toupee Teddy.” I said all the Hollywood types used dark brown to fill in and, so help me, he dashed out and got some brown between the 6 and 11 broadcast that made him look like a zebra of sorts.
Trust me, the gamut was thrown and I’m hardly ashamed to say he got me more times than the cops issue citations on the Olgiati Bridge. What I didn’t know at the beginning was that Markham had “a kill switch” to his microphone beneath the desk and he could handle it better between camera takes than Don Quixote could a sword. Because he’d been in TV since before technicolor was invented, his gift of patter was undefeated and, so help me, he could leave you gasping if you didn’t know about that switch.
For example, he would “toss the mike,” to Paul Barys right before a commercial where Paul would be live coming back on the air. Bill would tell viewers: “Next up our Paul Barys says this weekend will be perfect and you might think about grilling outdoors,” which would trigger the engineers to cut to the commercial. Of course, “Cindy Lou” Sexton and I were unaware the commercial was being aired and Markham, so help me, could continue the same sentence without a pause “ … actually it is Barys who ought to be grilled because all he can do is guess the weather … at least he’s right half the time.”
Oh my goodness, there were nights I nearly bit my thumb off to keep from laughing. Some nights his ad-lib could get a little crusty with words sailors are said to use and I was certain the police were gonna’ raid the studio and lock up the lot of us. Very rarely could I ever trap Bill … he loved it when I did … and if you think St. Peter had a laundry list waiting for Markham, Cindy Sexton is just the opposite – long ago she was certified as an angel.
She had worked with Bill for years and, seriously, to see the two of them work a story, batting the key points back and forth, was a symphony. Cindy is the consummate news anchor and she is such a lady, through and through, my grandmother once told me I should marry her. I told my Mammaw I didn’t think Gil (her husband) would come to the wedding, or my funeral, if that happened but of all the news pros I know, Cindy has been one of the hallowed greats in the South for years and part of it was due to her innate ability to cover up for Mr. Mischief.
One more about Markham. Back in the infant days of WRCB hosting “Share your Christmas,” it was just before dawn when Clark Schaefer and I – bundled up against the river wind – were greeting the long line of cars dropping off mounds of groceries for the Food Bank when here comes Markham.
Faith and begorrah, he’s got on ear muffs! Black faux-mink ear muffs and I couldn’t contain myself. “Ear muffs! Bill, nobody cool wears ear muffs. You send those home to put back with your grandad’s things! You look like a freshman! Where’s your pride! On this most special of days, you come out here looking like yesterday’s clown!
“Look, Bill, people are staring. It ain’t because you are some sort of celebrity but because you are wearing your pet cat on your head! Oh my heavens … I’ll be surprised if some people don’t take their gifts back home!”
I was giving him the dickens and the more he laughed the heavier it got. “You know those little go-carts you race? I’m coming to your next race and I’m going to tell every other driver you wear ear muffs! You’ll see … one of those manly types will flip you on the first turn!”
As I was delightfully ragging Bill, out of the dark stepped an old lady. She was obviously overweight – she wore those heavy grey stockings on her swollen legs, and the Christmas tree pinned to her coat had long ago lost its luster but, believe this on a freezing morning, not one bit of its joy. From under her coat she handed me a worn paper sack with three cans of food in it. I managed a “God richly bless you” when Bill grabbed me in a hug, the emotion instantly stifling our chatter.
Markham grabbed me by the nape of my neck, drawing my ear close as he said, “That’s Christmas. I’ll bet that’s all she could give … she walked here … never forget this … this is what Christmas really means.”
Somewhere I think I’ve got an old picture, the tears streaming down my face next to an ear muff, and I’ll never see a Share of Christmas poster, pass the WRCB studios, or spend a Christmas Eve that’ll I’ll not remember that lady. Or who I was with that made it all the more precious.
Come to think of it, there was a whole lot of Christmas past and future in Bill Markham and I’ll cherish his many gifts to the WRCB family forever. My gracious goodness, what a delicious ringleader he turned out to be. This ain’t goodbye, just so long ‘til next time.