George Putnam’s Career Touched Lives for Almost a Century

Penny Starr
By Penny Starr | September 15, 2008 | 6:46 PM EDT

George Putnam’s famous voice was silenced on Friday when the news icon died at a hospital in Chino, the California city where he lived for decades on a sprawling ranch he shared with more than 60 of his beloved race horses. He was 94.
If George hadn’t lived such a long life, I may never have had the chance to make his acquaintance, although I’ve known him since early childhood.
In fact, he was an institution in our home – and millions of others – and one you could set your watch by. At 6 p.m. sharp we gathered around the television for the evening news with George Putnam. His eyes twinkled as he presented the news of the day, and it was clear to me, even as a child, that he was passionate about his work.
I grew up in California, not far from the Santa Anita race track, where many of George’s horses raced over the years. My grandmother lived in a hotel on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena, and I watched George and his beloved horse trot down the street in many a Rose Parade – a journey he took for almost 50 years. Even from the fire escape where we stood and watched the parade go by I could see the twinkle in his eye.
In the 1950s and 60s, George became perhaps one of the first celebrity newscasters. His newscasts were shown on four Los Angeles television stations, and aside from a high salary, he was given a Rolls Royce to drive. In addition to his ranch in Chino, George also had a home in Beverly Hills. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
But while television made him famous, George’s career came full circle behind the radio microphone. His first job, at age 20, was at WTGY in Minneapolis. A Minnesota native, George switched to TV and began his Los Angeles career in 1951.
I had left my hometown of Arcadia, Calif., before George was replaced in 1975 by Hal Fishman, another Los Angeles news icon and one who George always claimed didn’t deserve to follow in his footsteps.
The connection between my journalism career and those halcyon days in Southern California watching TV news didn’t happen until I started working at and I was told George Putnam wanted to interview me for his radio program.
The name was immediately familiar, but it couldn’t possibly be the same George Putnam whose face has glowed across our shag carpet all those years ago, could it?
Yes, it was, and he was behind the radio microphone again, this time on his syndicated show “Talkback With George Putnam.”
There were a lot of things I didn’t know about the man with whom my family spent every evening during his heyday. The late actor Ted Knight reportedly used George as inspiration for his Ted Baxter character on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
Bates College bestowed George with an honorary doctorate degree in 1985.
I told George when he interviewed me on his radio show about my dad’s admiration for him, a fact George repeatedly mentioned in the other interviews I did with him before he became ill last spring.
George’s final hour on the air was on July 14, the day he turned 94. Dozens of well- wishers called in to wish George a happy birthday, including his dear friend Doris Day. I was supposed to be one of those callers, but unfortunately the hour came and went without my picking up the phone.
But I know George has forgiven me. I was, after all, on deadline.
George, on the other hand, never forgot in his 70-plus-year career the importance of getting the story for his viewers and his listeners.
And now it’s his life story we are telling -- a story that ends with the lasting legacy George leaves behind for both his fans and his colleagues.
He will be missed.