Lake Norman & Mooresville

Anchorman, 88, recalls 'way it was'

Local icon Doug Mayes has reported on more than a half-century's worth of local and national news.

Walter Cronkite once paid a compliment to North Carolina's first television news anchorman, thanking him for his ability to gather local viewers - viewers who eventually would watch Cronkite's national evening news broadcast on CBS. The two even became friends.

"You and your buddies on Channel 3 here in Charlotte deliver to me every night at 6:30 the largest local audience that I get," Mayes said, recalling the conversation with Cronkite. "'So, I owe you a debt of gratitude.' And I said, 'I appreciate that, but I'm just delighted to get to shake your hand because I really like the way you operate.'"

Born and raised in a log home 40 miles north of Nashville, Tenn., the country-music-loving, WWII Navy veteran and Country Radio Hall of Fame broadcaster is 88. He has lived in Denver for nearly four decades. He said he chose to make the Westport community his home because it reminded him of Westmoreland, the small town where he grew up.

He is still involved in broadcasting as a commercial spokesman for a variety of clients and remains an active member of the community. He was married to his late wife, Ruby Vaughn of Stokesdale, for just over 65 years. She died in February 2006. He has a son, a daughter and a granddaughter.

A household name

Mayes' no-nonsense delivery and sharp, distinctive voice helped make him a trusted news source for many throughout the 1950s and beyond.

His 30-year career with WBTV helped make him a household name. He anchored the news for 22 years, including a 15-year stint on a show called "Your Esso Reporter." His segment, "On The Square," in which he solicited opinions about current news topics from viewers throughout the Charlotte area, also was a big hit.

"It was the most popular thing," Mayes said. "People would ask, 'What's going on down there with the ratings? How are you doing it?' I said, 'Putting people on the air.' There was no secret, nothing mysterious about it. No brain surgery thinking at all. I loved what I did. I worked 17-hour days, but I couldn't wait to get to work, five days a week, for nearly 50 years."

In 1982, loyal viewers followed him when he switched to WSOC-TV to host "Mid-day with Mayes," which became the top-rated noon newscast in the Charlotte market. He retired from anchoring in 1988 but continued doing special reports for the station for several years after.

Robin Whitmeyer, news director at WSOC-TV Channel 9 since 2002, worked with Mayes since he walked in the door in 1982, she said. At the time, Whitmeyer was associate producer for the noon broadcast.

"I grew up with Doug professionally and personally," she said. "He was the first anchor I worked with. He was a funny, professional and smart guy. He taught me a lot because he's been through a lot and he knew a lot. He had a great sense of humor and he would always make you laugh throughout the day. I had a lot of respect for his TV savvy. He cared a lot for people in the newsroom."

Those who worked with him called him "Uncle Doug."

"It felt like a family in the newsroom," Whitmeyer said. "He created that kind of atmosphere, and I think that's what the viewers saw, too. And that's natural when you have someone who's respected. A lot of times, it's not about the station, it's about the person. Doug was one of those people, and they don't come around that often. He set the stage for what we're about in this community. He was the first. It was a big deal when he came to Channel 9, and we knew that."

Music sparked career

Also a proficient bass fiddler and singer, Mayes began his broadcasting career as a musician in Nashville, but he had dreams of becoming an announcer, and his initiation into the business was a bit intense. He was being taught how to read news and commercials at WKPT in Kingsport, Tenn., when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Lucky breaks are a theme throughout his life.

"I'm the luckiest broadcaster you'll ever meet, because where an obstacle jumped up in front of me, somebody would come along and say, 'Hey, Doug, I'll open the door for you.' A lot of breaking news stories are luck. You gotta be at the right place. So, if I had enough sense - and sometimes I did and sometimes I didn't - to recognize a story, I'd jump on it."

Later in his broadcast career, Mayes would spread news of Kennedy's assassination 25 minutes before national networks, getting it via the wire, he said. Before his 15-minute program on WBT radio at 1:30, he went by the newsroom to see what was happening.

"I'm standing there over the UPI wire (machine) and it starts banging," Mayes said. "Flash, flash, flash, flash, flash, flash. You know, bells ringing: Kennedy shot in Dallas, and I hollered it to the newsroom proper."

Jon Edgerton, who later became manager of WBTV, was typing up a story for the 6 p.m. news that Mayes would later anchor.

"I said, 'John, Kennedy has been shot ... the president's been shot in Dallas," Mayes recalled. "John jumped over the desk - this long, tall guy. I said get the mike over there, I'll get in the control room and put you on the air. We were hooked up to the wire room and I got him on the air and he started reading the stuff that was coming in, and Walter (Cronkite) came on just before 2 o'clock, interrupting the network. I can still see him with his horn-rimmed glasses, taking them off. All I tried to do was give the public what they wanted. If you listen and put you're ear to the ground, they'll tell you."

He also informed folks of Elvis' untimely death, and he covered local people's reaction to Watergate. Locally, he covered the Lincoln County iron industry, which produced cannonballs for the War of 1812, and helped pave the way for the region's once-booming textile industry, he said.

"A lot of young people don't know who I am or have never heard of me, but, man, the identification factor is terrific - still," he said. "I can be in a Food Lion food super market up here and hear somebody in the isle across, 'Sounds like Doug Mayes over there in that next isle.' I couldn't rob a bank and get away with it because people still remember my voice. If you've been on the news for five days a week for 30 years and nobody notices you, you're in trouble because your ratings are dead."

Mayes also has done the twist with Minnie Pearl, "picked" with Earl Scruggs and played bass fiddle on stage at the Grand Ole Opry.

"What a break, man," he said. "There were people coming from everywhere, staying in Nashville for weeks, bumming around, trying to get on the Grand Ole Opry. I didn't appreciate that at the time like I do know. But there I was. I just lucked out."

Some of his proudest achievements stem from the ratings he'd garnered while on air, as well as staying in tune with his audience.

"I tried to never let them down," he said. "They can spot a phoney a mile away. I'm not proud of everything I've done, certainly, but I've tried to be fair to people. Because when you're doing the news, you're dealing with people's lives.

"An old journalism professor at Chapel Hill once said, 'Remember, you can't un-ring the bell.' The thing that I'm most in awe of is the responsibility. When you're 29 years old, like I was when I came to Charlotte in '52, you don't recognize that as much as you do when you're 59 or 69. It's a great responsibility."