Floyd Kalber, longtime top TV anchor, dies at 79

May 14, 2004

BY ROBERT FEDER Television/Radio Columnist

Blessed with a booming baritone and chiseled visage, Floyd Kalber was "The Big Tuna" of television news. His authoritative delivery and rock-solid demeanor were trademarks of a legendary career spanning five decades as an NBC News correspondent and top-rated anchor at two Chicago stations.

At the height of his popularity at WMAQ-Channel 5 in the 1960s, he commanded higher audience shares than anyone else on the air before or since. When he was coaxed out of retirement to help revive WLS-Channel 7 in 1984, he enjoyed another phenomenal run atop the ratings for 14 years.

Mr. Kalber, who retired in 1998, died of emphysema Thursday at his home in west suburban Burr Ridge. He was 79. With him at his bedside were his wife of 57 years, Betty, and their family.

''He was the same kind of man in private as he was in public -- principled at all times,'' said his daughter, Kathy Kinsella.

Born in Omaha, Neb., Mr. Kalber spent part of his childhood in an orphanage after his parents were divorced. He returned from service in the South Pacific during World War II and spent one semester in the journalism department of Creighton University before dropping out to work at KGFW Radio in Kearney, Neb.

In 1950, he landed his first television job as the one-person news department of KMTV-TV in Omaha. After 10 years and many appearances on Chet Huntley and David Brinkley's nightly network newscast, he was hired by NBC News as Chicago correspondent.

Within a few months of his arrival in 1960, he began a 16-year run as 10 p.m. anchorman for NBC-owned Channel 5. His solemn delivery and no-nonsense style were perfectly attuned to the public taste at the time.

Along the way, he acquired the ''Tuna'' nickname because, as local broadcast historian Rich Samuels recalled, his power in the newsroom was perceived to be as great as the power of the late Chicago mob boss Tony ''Big Tuna'' Accardo. It later came to be used as a term of affection.

When ratings began to slip by the 1970s, Channel 5 bosses forced Mr. Kalber to take on a co-anchor in the person of a 24-year-old ingenue from Indianapolis named Jane Pauley. The pairing proved disastrous, and Mr. Kalber left the station in 1976 to become newsreader for the ''Today'' show. Ironically, Pauley wound up joining him on the show five months later.

In 1981, two years after leaving ''Today,'' Mr. Kalber parted company with the network and retired to New Canaan, Conn. But when Dennis Swanson, an old friend who was running Channel 7, made him an offer he couldn't refuse, Mr. Kalber moved back to Chicago and agreed to anchor the station's 6 p.m. newscast.

Mr. Kalber proved to be a key ingredient in Channel 7's rise to first place. After little more than a year on the air, his 6 p.m. newscast became No. 1 in the ratings and never faltered.

In 1993, for only the second time in his career, Mr. Kalber was teamed with a co-anchor. But he proved more receptive to working with Kathy Brock at Channel 7 than with Pauley at Channel 5.

Although he had quit smoking 15 years earlier, emphysema caught up with Mr. Kalber and accelerated his decision to retire in 1998. Unbeknownst to viewers, he kept oxygen within close reach at the anchor desk.

''After all these years in broadcasting, the reason I am leaving is, there simply isn't anything in television news I haven't done,'' he said at the time. ''My time in broadcasting has been longer than expected and much more rewarding than I ever dreamed of.''

The winner of five Emmy Awards, Mr. Kalber was inducted in the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame and the Silver Circle of the Chicago Television Academy.

In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Kalber is survived by a son, David Michael "Mick" Kalber, and six grandchildren.

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