440: Satisfaction - In depth
From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
June 29, 2002
By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer
Staff writer Ron Weiskind contributed to this report.

He ranted. He railed. He really let 'em have it.

Al Julius scorched officeholders, practitioners of political correctness and anyone or anything else that ticked him off during his tenure as a commentator on KDKA-TV.

But his most enduring legacy may be the annual Thanksgiving turkey drive that began with a $10 donation from a Washington County woman who asked him, "Would you see that a needy family gets this?" and grew into an enterprise that has raised more than $8 million.

Mr. Julius, 73, died yesterday at Kindred Hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He had been diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer in February, 13 years after he quit smoking.

"He had that gruff exterior on the air, but he was a sweetheart," Ray Tannehill, his former KDKA-TV colleague, recalled yesterday. "He said what he believed. And it came across on the air."

Mr. Julius, a native of Brooklyn, agonized over the five commentaries he delivered each week and often rewrote them in light of breaking news, Tannehill said. "He was very, very dedicated."

That devotion extended to the turkey drive.

The first "Julius' Turkeys" drive in 1982 raised $90,000. Through the years, the campaign evolved into KDKA's Turkey Fund. Families receive supermarket vouchers, purchased by the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, from their local food pantries.

Nothing about Mr. Julius was modest in size or tone, from the full beard he once sported to the length of his commentaries and sharpness of his opinions.

He didn't let people or institutions have it with both barrels so much as he aimed a cannon their way. That was true whether he was dissecting fashion dictators from Paris and Rome or suggesting that not all offhand comments are meant to be insensitive. He once growled, "The golden rule of politics is he who has the gold, he who spreads the gold, wins."

For a special on KDKA-TV's 50th anniversary, Mr. Julius said: "Bill Burns brought integrity to the station. I brought maybe a kind of spice and garlic and cayenne." But even while giving the pompous and powerful heartburn, he was compassionate enough to suggest that the station open its lobby to the homeless overnight when temperatures dipped below freezing.

"He was a kind man in his heart, regardless of all the bluster," his friend and former KDKA producer Jim Esser said. "He loved the community, the people and the audience, and he deeply respected them."

People would walk up to Mr. Julius on the street "like he was a friend," Esser said. "They'd tell him their problems, and he was always willing to listen."

In early 1991, KDKA-TV told Mr. Julius he no longer fit in with the station's plans. His departure came in the midst of a cost-cutting campaign at the station that resulted in 14 layoffs. Mr. Julius said he would have taken a pay cut to remain.

"I was willing to make a lot of changes, but I'm not going to change who I am," he said at the time. "We had a difference of philosophy about the function of a commentator. I thought my function was to give people what they don't get in the news."

Mr. Julius returned in May 1995 for one final commentary. He did almost five minutes live on the 6 p.m. news, opening with the question, "Where was I before I was so rudely interrupted?"

He thanked Sue McInerney, the executive who fired him, and saluted the city he called home. "If you think that I am bitter and I look back in anger, you are wrong, because I would not have had these past four years of travel and enjoyment" with his wife, Kat, his children and granddaughters, he said.

He added that he might have dropped dead on the set if he hadn't been pushed out the door and toward white-water rafting, camping, canoeing and other pastimes. But in characteristic Julius style, he also railed against the "bean counters" who have turned newscasts into "fluff and puff" by telling viewers what they want to know instead of what they need to know.

Although Mr. Julius never lost his New York accent or bluster, he had come to consider Pittsburgh home. "He was a Brooklyn boy, but he had pride in Pittsburgh probably more than many of the native-born," his wife said.

He arrived here in 1947 to attend what was then Carnegie Tech. After graduating from the drama school in 1951, he went to Israel, where he was a member of the resident acting company of the famed Habimah Theater. Returning to the United States after six years, Mr. Julius switched from stage to radio.

He started in Denver, moved to Pittsburgh's KQV as news director and then to WCAU in Philadelphia, where he worked as a talk show host. He had two stints at KDKA-TV -- from November 1973 to July 1978 and September 1981 to January 1991 -- sandwiched around a gig at KABC-TV in Los Angeles.

He was a walking, talking advertisement for the annual turkey drive, which survived his tenure at KDKA. Whether he was walking Pittsburgh streets, shopping or standing in the Benedum Center lobby during intermission, people handed him cash after acknowledging his name.

"They say, 'You're Al Julius,' and they walk away; that makes you feel good," Mr. Julius told the Post-Gazette in 1990. "To me, that's like saying, hey, you're doing good work. That's about as close as you can get to approval in my business. You don't get applause."

In addition to his wife, Mr. Julius is survived by a son, Rabbi Ethan Julius of San Jose, Calif.; a daughter, Gari Weilbacher of Merion Station, a Philadelphia suburb; a sister, Elanor Reiter of Chicago, and four grandchildren.

Memorial contributions may be made to Chabad Fort Lauderdale, 3500 N. Ocean Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, FL 33308.


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