Richard Florea · 2019
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 similarity, it may have 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 retired from WKJG-TV (then NBC33) in 2001 after a 48-year broadcasting career in Indiana. Born in New York City on May 22, 1937, Florea and his family (his parents were originally Hoosiers) moved to Columbus, Ohio, then Cincinnati before landing in Marion, Indiana, when Florea was in seventh grade. 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. At Purdue he started out in engineering, like his Yale graduate father. But he switched to industrial management before graduating in 1959.
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. After interviewing in 1966, he first said no. But WKJG – which was a small radio-and-TV operation run by another eventual Indiana Journalism Hall of Famer, Hilliard Gates – needed a backup, and Florea fit the bill. Gates offered more money after first being turned down, and Florea is glad he did.
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 filled in as interim at times, while continuing his career there as public affairs and community relations director and as the host of “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 said, 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, International Harvester leaving town, the blizzard of 1978 and 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 Lyn Letsinger-Miller. “He also enjoyed the competition, and we all shared the satisfaction when we broke a big story.”
Letsinger-Miller spent a year after graduating from Indiana University in 1972 trying to find a job in TV news.
“Finally someone gave me a break,” she said. “It was Dick Florea.”
Letsinger-Miller went on to become the first female news producer in Indianapolis, “battle tested,” she said, “on the streets of Fort Wayne. Being cool under fire and focused on the facts are two qualities that I learned from him, and they have served me in every pursuit I have followed.”
Kathy Hostetter is another success story, growing under Florea’s tutelage when she went to WKJG as an intern in 1991. She returned to the station in 2002 to become news director, and although Florea was technically retired by then, as news director emeritus, Hostetter said she “leaned on him considerably for guidance and advice.”
Hostetter went on to become news director at NBC affiliate WTHR-TV Channel 13 in Indianapolis and then took the position at CBS affiliate KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh.
“Many have drawn comparisons that Dick Florea was Fort Wayne’s Walter Cronkite,” she said, “with a nose for news and documenting history in accurate and
Florea has been a committed citizen in Fort Wayne ever since moving there in 1966. He 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 a member of the board of the Embassy Theatre Foundation, as well as the board of the Alzheimer’s Association, which he joined 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 was also president of the Indiana Associated Press Broadcasters, vice president of the Indiana United Press Broadcasters and president of the Indiana
Broadcast Pioneers. He was a member of the Radio and Television News Directors Association. In 2001, the year he retired, he was honored as a Sagamore of the Wabash. 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.”
By Kerry Hubartt