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21Country: Former congressman writes book on first 65 years of TV in Fort Wayne

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FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WPTA21) - Former congressman Mark Souder, and two retired news anchors partnered together to map out the timeline of television in 21Country.

Souder says he’s always been savvy when it comes to using media to market.

From his family’s country store, to campaigning as a congressman, he has a history of being behind, and in front of the camera.

Souder's known for some time, he wanted to research and present the timeline of TV - from its inventor who lived in Fort Wayne, to present day - but for a while, it was only a seed of an ambitious and challenging idea.

But to make it a reality, he would recruit friends, and former legacy news anchors Melissa Long, of WPTA, and Heather Herron, of WANE.

Herron and Long would help Souder craft a book, make decision on its direction, and give their insight and perspective as journalists.

Together, they wrote “Television in Fort Wayne 1953 to 2018: A Look Back at 65 Year son Northeast Indiana History Through the Eye of the Television Camera & Stories of the People Who Covered It”.

Mark Souder

Mark Souder says, if he didn’t become a businessman and lawmaker, his other career path, would’ve been in journalism.

“From the time I was in elementary school I became an avid reader of books, and in high school I was in the school newspaper starting in junior high,” Souder told us, “and I continued that while I was at IPFW doing columns at the paper there.”

He would later earn a scholarship offer for the IU School of Journalism - an offer he turned down to focus on running the family business instead.

But the bug and interest in TV would never leave, and through his career, he would find himself in front of the camera.

Before that, he learned early on to leverage the power of television, using advertisements during Little House on the Prairie, and it’s star actor, Richard Bull (as Mr. Oleson) to boost interest in H. Souder & Son Country Store and the Grabill Country Fair.

In retirement, Souder began to plan writing down, the timeline of television, programming, and its sponsors.

But ironically, so many moments captured on film, and other mediums, were lost in time.

So he had to change directions, using word of mouth stories and pictures from those who dedicated their lives in the area.

 “One thing I learned is, we have a lot of good storytellers,” he said, “if you’re not a really good storyteller, it’s hard to last more than a decade. You have to have this love of people.”

Interviews and personal pictures and tapes would have to be collected by the likes of Victor Locke, Bill Nichols, Eric Olson, Heather Herron, Melissa Long, Linda Jackson, Terra Brantley, Dean Pantazi, old TV guides, and footage from The History Center.

Souder didn’t only focus on TV news, but also programming and commercials.

Stories from shows like Engineer John and the Cartoon Express, Romper Room, and Bozo, as well as from sponsors like Azar’s Big Boy, Blackburn & Green, Seyfert’s and the REGGIE! Bar are all included.

“This is a memory of when we had things in common, and when we were a sense of community,” Souder explained, “who you are is made up by where you live, and where you live is defined and what you know about it, by television.”

Melissa Long

Melissa Long, who retired from ABC21 in 2015, first anchored the evening news desk at WKJG in 1985, alongside broadcast legends Hilliard Gates, Dick DeFay, and Bill Foster.

In 1992, after several months off of work, and now a mother to two boys, she would accept a job offer at WPTA.

Her longevity and personality would create opportunities for exclusive interviews, including several with Bishop John D’Arcy.

“I just loved what I did, and loved doing it in my hometown,” Long said, “I just wasn’t interested in going anywhere else. And I’m really glad I didn’t. There aren’t a lot of people who get to do a TV career in their hometown… for their entire career.”

“We decided our own personal reflections, and stories as well as others who have been in television for those 65 years, would make a much more interesting book,” she told us.

Heather Herron

Former WANE anchor Heather Herron also found great opportunity at WKJG.

In 1995 she became weekend news anchor, but quickly accepted a job offer in a larger market, in the Grand Rapids, MI area at WOOD-TV.

Because WOOD and WANE shared ownership at the time (and now as well), she was able to move back to her home state after a few years of experience, in 2001, becoming the youngest evening anchor is the city.

She stepped down from WANE to work at Sweetwater in 2018, but Souder approached her to help with the book, while she was still anchoring the news desk.

Much of her career, she would compete with Long.

Now, she found herself writing a book with her.

“Melissa and I are very different and we could really play off each of our strengths,” she told us, “and we could sit down and figure out how we wanted to put the book together.”

Formatting so much information into one place, had to be well planned.

“There’s a beginning where we try to get the viewers attention, or in this case the reader’s attention, then there’s really the ‘meat’ of the stories,” Herron continued, “and then we wanted to wrap it up in a way that made sense. In a way it was like putting together a newscast.”

Where to Read

Souder’s book will be available several places locally, including H. Souder & Son’s General Store in Grabill, The History Center, Visit Fort Wayne, Hyde Brothers Bookseller, Reigel’s Pipe & Tobacco, and Carbaugh Jewelers in Auburn.

You can also buy it online at the publisher’s website and Amazon.

We're told copies should be available at libraries in Northeast Indiana soon.

“This isn’t an expose - I’m not doing a critique of television, I’m celebrating our commonality,” Souder said, “the people in this book didn’t get a dime. They shared their photos from their family albums, and what they saved for years, because they loved this region and they shared their lives with it.”

Author Profile Photo

Daniel Beals

Daniel Beals is the producer of the ABC21 feature franchise “21Country”. He is constantly on the lookout for ideas that capture the “people, places, things, and history” that makes Northeast Indiana unique. Feel free to reach out: dbeals@wpta21.com.

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