JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — When WJHL-TV signed on the air in October 1953, men held most of the management jobs in America.
But station founders Hanes Lancaster Sr. and his son Hanes Jr. had a different plan.
“I was fortunate to work with both of them,” said Patty Fulton. “Good men!”
The Lancaster’s hired Fulton – then Patty Smithdeal – to be WJHL-TV’s first production manager. The Johnson City native had been trained in radio in college, and she’d already worked for WJHL radio and taught broadcasting courses at the college level.
The bold decision by the Lancaster’s meant Smithdeal had a powerful job overseeing what viewers would see on the air when WJHL began transmitting a signal into homes.
“I remember being in the studio with Mr. Lancaster, Sr.,” Fulton remembers. “And I was saying, ‘I’m going to do this. I’m going to put some draperies over here.’ And he said, ‘Do whatever you want to do. I don’t care.’ He was wonderful.”
Fulton was on an errand downtown in early October 1953 when WJHL’s broadcast tower fell on the original studio building on Tannery Knobs, delaying the stations planned launch in mid-1953 and rattling nerves around town.
“When I came back, there was a large crowd at the bottom of the hill,” she said. “I said, ‘What’s going on?’ And my Daddy was there. He said, ‘Oh Pat!’ He was so glad to see me.”
“Daddy said, “They said something had fallen up there.’ And that’s when the tower had fallen,” Fulton said.
But just a few weeks later, WJHL’s staff defied all odds, and the station was broadcasting live on the air starting October 26, 1953.
“You have to attribute a lot of our getting on the air to a genius named O.K. Garland,” she said. “He was the chief engineer. He was kind, dedicated – a genius.”
Fulton says the point can’t be stressed enough: the unsung heroes in the early days of local television broadcasting were the people viewers never saw or heard. They were the engineers figuring out the mechanics of the brand new medium, often developing the technology as it was needed.
“He (Garland) and those engineers worked and got us on the air in record time,” she said.
Fulton said she was standing behind the show’s program director when the button was pushed and the station signed on. She even remembers the first voice heard on WJHL.
“I remember Herb Howard signing us on,” she said. Howard, a Tri-Cities native, went on to become Dr. Herb Howard, a legendary teacher and administrator at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
“Well, I just thought – ok! Here we go. We’re on the air!”
The woman in charge remembers her approach to the work.
“You just do it, and you don’t get hysterical,” she said. “You just go to work, and you get the job done. Period. That’s all. Nothing to it.”
The straightforward, no-nonsense approach served her well when a new assignment came along. One day, station management needed a fill-in host for a WJHL-TV live cooking show.
“Well, they just needed someone to do it, and I was there,” Fulton said.
That led to her own program called “Mix and Fix.”
Fulton said she’ll never forget one episode featuring an on-air disaster with a custard pie. “Good recipe, but I cut a piece while it was warm, and it went everywhere,” she said. “I knew better!”
Fulton decided “Mix and Fix” would be about more than just cooking lessons. She hosted guests and conducted interviews with a focus on her viewers – the growing number of women with televisions in their homes.
“I decided I wouldn’t do just a cooking show because there we other things that would interest women,” Fulton said.
Soon, work led her away from Johnson City. Then came a family after her marriage to Johnson City physician Dr. Lyman Fulton, with whom she had three children.
But Fulton said she’s remained a loyal viewer of the TV she helped launch, and she remains grateful for the chance to have experienced what she did in Northeast Tennessee.
“The citizens here are exceptional,” she said. “It’s a marvelous atmosphere to live in this area. And to be able to communicate by television or radio – it’s a blessing. It really is.”