CAPITAL REGION Donald “Don” Decker had silence for dinner every night.
The longtime television news director, who died Monday at his home in Rotterdam at age 79, needed quiet when he watched the early evening news, sports and weather.
“We used to sit through silent dinners,” said daughter Deb Pearce of Glenville, who added her father’s chair was positioned with a clear line of sight to the living room television. “We didn’t talk, we all watched the news from start to finish. He would breeze into the house about 30 seconds before it began every day every day and sit right down. … We’d eat, we’d be quiet and then he heard about our days later.”
Pearce and former colleagues remembered Decker on Tuesday as a man who cared about his family and his vocation.
The Amsterdam native began his career in radio, at WCSS in Amsterdam. He eventually moved into television at Niskayuna’s WRGB and was promoted to news director in 1968. He remained in that position until 1987. He also worked as news director for WAMC and spent eight years as news director for WTEN in Albany. He retired in 1998.
Liz Bishop, longtime anchor at WRGB, said Decker had the ability to see a “hidden light” in the people he hired. She was one of those hires, joining WRGB in the mid-1970s.
“He never gave up on people,” Bishop said. “I look back on myself and say I was just a kid doing weekend sports and there weren’t any women doing that. It was tough, it was hard, all these guys who didn’t want a woman delivering their sports news or writing angry letters. The potential was there for Don to say, ‘You know, I don’t know, this may be offending or annoying more people. It may not be working.’ But he never did that. He gave me time to learn the business, he gave me time to get good. He believed in me, and because he believed in me, I made it. … He invested so much in the people he hired. They weren’t just employees, they were his friends, they were his family, his TV family.”
Ernie Tetrault, another longtime WRGB reporter and anchor, remembered Decker’s ability to quickly recall the dates of major news stories. And he was dedicated to the job.
“Of all the people I ever worked for or worked with, I never met anyone who worked as hard as he did and had so much natural ability,” Tetrault said.
Tetrault also said staffers routinely called the boss after news broadcasts had ended.
“We’d say, ‘Did you see this, did you see that, what did you think of this?’ ” Tetrault said. “If we didn’t call, we knew he was going to call.”
Jack Aernecke was another reporter Decker hired, in 1972.
“What I always admired about him and what I remember is his absolute integrity,” Aernecke said. “He just cared deeply about the work that we did as journalists, a responsibility to let folks in the community know what was going on and did it with complete honesty. And that honesty and integrity passed over to how he treated all of us. He could be a difficult taskmaster, but he was just wonderfully honest and just a really good human being.”
Bob Peterson was program director and business manager at WTEN when Decker arrived in 1990. Peterson was promoted to general manager shortly afterward.
“As a new general manager, I could not have asked for a better news director,” said Peterson, now vice president of station operations for the 10-station Young Broadcasting group in Nashville, Tenn. “I didn’t come out of news, so it wasn’t an area that I was very familiar with. But Don was patient with me and just really taught me great journalism.”
Not all of Decker’s broadcast proteges stayed in television. Phil Alden Robinson worked at WRGB during the early 1970s, but made his mark as a film writer and director, including the 1989 hit “Field of Dreams.”
“Don is hugely important in my life,” said Robinson, now editing his latest film, “The Angriest Man in Brooklyn.”
“He was a real mentor at a time when I needed one and taught me a ton I still call upon today. I remember writing things for him where he would read it and say, ‘Who cares?’ I would start to explain why someone should care and he would say, ‘Don’t tell me. Put it in the piece.’ ”
Pearce said her father was an avid sports fan. He and his wife, Monica, enjoyed trips to the beach in New Jersey and Rhode Island and visits to Atlantic City. He liked spending time with family, which included seven grandchildren.
Decker was concerned with news in the Capital Region — and with breaking news in his family.
“He was the perpetual newsman,” Pearce said. “He needed answers and details to everything, whether it was news or whether it was our lives — where we had been, what we were doing, who we were doing it with — he just had to know everything about everything, always.”