"Remembering Bob Gordon"
September 23rd, 2015
Robert ("Bob") Gordon Van Horn was an unassuming man, not given to boasting, and devoid of any ego. If you spoke with him, you'd never know that he was a popular TV personality, a creative innovator, or a war hero. As our mutual friend Dave Plyler told me, "Bob saw fierce combat in World War II at the Battle of the Bulge for which he earned a purple heart and a bronze star, but he never discussed his service." Several years ago I called Bob to invite him to be a guest on my Triad Today show. I wanted to recognize him for his contribution to local television, especially as a host who entertained and influenced countless thousands of children who watched him on WSJS-TV (now WXII). Bob's wife Margaret and I tried our level best to persuade him to join me for the interview segment, but Bob politely declined. He just didn't want to toot his own horn. Then, two weeks ago I called again to see if Bob would at least agree to be interviewed by phone for one of my newspaper columns. Margaret answered the phone and broke the bad news to me. Bob was under hospice care and battling congestive heart failure. It's the same disease that ultimately took my mom's life last year, so I knew what Margaret was trying to say without saying it. A few days later on Friday, September 11, Bob died in the same way he had lived: quietly and unassumingly. Bob Gordon was 90.
Bob was born and reared in Winston-Salem and attended Mineral Springs High School before joining the Army. In 1953 he went to work for WSJS-TV as the station's first announcer. He also built sets and props, ran camera, and when WSJS needed a host for a new kids' show, Bob did that job too. Over the decades that followed, Bob's program aired at various times and days, first as a Monday through Friday entry, and later as a weekend show. Throughout his tenure on air, Bob always managed to entertain and educate his audience. As a prop master, Bob knew how to make anything, whether it was folding a dollar bill into a bow tie, or showing us the best way to put a Moravian Star together. He also had a sidekick to witness his handy work, a ventriloquist's dummy named Van (later named "The Great Scott"). But no matter whether he was demonstrating a folding trick, revealing a secret code, or introducing a chapter of Radar Men from the Moon, Bob always seemed to have fun, and he never talked down to his young viewers. His quiet demeanor and self-deprecating style was evident to anyone who tuned in, and his trademark smile came easily and often, almost as if he was embarrassingly amused at what he had just said.
Always the tinkerer, Bob is also credited with designing and building WXII's first remote truck from scratch, several years before they were commercially available. In fact, there was nothing Bob couldn't do at the TV station, including filling in for a friend. One icy morning Dave Plyler couldn't make it out of his driveway to host Today at Home, so Bob answered the call. Said Dave, "Bob had no fear. He easily made it to the television station and did a great job hosting my show." Of course, Bob could host anything. That's why on October 18, 1976, he was tapped to anchor a new morning show, called Daybreak. In addition to reporting the news and weather, Bob, a licensed pilot, also gave viewers a daily dose of aviation weather. The show aired from 6am to 7am, and was the first time WXII had broadcast live at that hour. In a 1976 interview, Bob told Jerry Kenion of the Greensboro Daily News, "I swore when I was in the Army I'd never take a job where I had to get up before 7am. Never say never." Bob would host "Daybreak" for two years, then was laid off due to corporate downsizing. That led him to take a job as a crime prevention officer for the Forsyth County Sheriff's office, a position he held until his retirement.
I always regretted not meeting Bob in person. When I worked at WSJS radio in the early 1970's, I would often sneak over to the TV studio (radio and TV were in the same building back then) and see if I could catch a glimpse of Bob. Unfortunately we didn't work the same shift, so our paths never crossed. Never the less, I felt like I knew Bob personally because I had grown up watching him on TV. I especially remember the "Halloween Spooktaculars" that he produced. Every October, Bob built spooky sets, then persuaded guys from both the TV and radio departments to dress up as famous monster characters and introduce classic horror films throughout Halloween night. The "Spooktacular" was so popular that WXII even pre-empted Johnny Carson for it. The show also kept a lot of kids off the street late, because we would collect our allotment of candy quickly, then rush home to watch the monster movies on channel 12.
Bob is preceded in death by North Carolina's other legendary children's TV show hosts: George Perry (WFMY's Old Rebel); Fred Kirby (WBT's singing cowboy); Uncle Paul Montgomery (WRAL's jazz artist); and Brooks Lindsay (WSOC's Joey the Clown). His passing earlier this month should serve as a reminder of the pioneering work they all did to make growing up just a little more fun.
Of course there's no way to know exactly how many young lives Bob Gordon touched and influenced, but talk to folks over 50 who grew up around here, and you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who didn't remember that kind, gentle man in the slightly tilted white cowboy hat, with the self effacing smile. Bob Gordon was a class act, and he will be missed.
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