The horse story says it all.
It was Thanksgiving 1950. Betty Cope, then working for WEWS (Channel 5) in Cleveland, was supposed to direct a telecast — her first such job, and one that put Santa Claus on the air. But a snowstorm had buried the city, stopping traffic and making it nearly impossible to get anyone to the station.
Cope was determined. “How do you tell the kids Santa Claus isn’t going to make it in a snowstorm?” she later said. She got a horse from a riding academy near her Shaker Square home and made it to work that way.
That image not only of determination, but of a hardy pioneer on horseback fighting past wintry obstacles, summed up Cope, who died Saturday in her Bainbridge home at the age of 87.
She was one of the first people to work at WEWS as it went on the air in 1947. She was the rare woman director in a male-dominated field. When the station needed more daytime programming, she turned a struggling sportscaster named Ron Penfound into TV host Captain Penny. Later, while managing WVIZ (Channel 25), she would put on TV another man who’d become a local broadcasting legend: Fred Griffith.
But it was the broader achievement of WVIZ that stands out even more in her career. She was the manager of the station at its founding in 1965. Until her retirement in 1993 she could be seen and heard, on the air and off, building support for noncommercial, educational, informational TV.
“People in northeastern Ohio believe in having a community station that’s not commercially supported,” she would say, adding that “sponsorship is automatically censorship.”
Most TV, she argued in one ’70s speech, is “totally controlled by commercials” and in the Nixon era she was part of the fight to keep public TV free of government control. Instead, she welcomed and lobbied for direct viewer support of programs through donations and on-air auctions, to the point that a 1974 story said that, “When you see her on the boob tube, Betty Cope is usually asking immodestly for money.”
But she asked well, increasing the budget sixfold in less than 10 years on the job, and doing it with a strong sense of humor. Before one auction, she happily noted that a big seller the year before had been llama dung — “very good for tulips, you know.”
And she did it in a time when the expectations for women in television were not great. A WVIZ account of Cope’s life notes that in 1953, while still at WEWS, she appeared on the TV show What’s My Line, where panelists tried through questions to guess people’s professions; no one figured out that she was a TV director. When The Ed Sullivan Show was including a broadcast from Cleveland, Cope said a Sullivan staffer in Cleveland asked to speak to the director; when Cope explained she was, “there was this long pause.”
Even in the late ’60s, a newspaper story referred to her as “a slim copper-headed gal who looks more like she ought to be out playing a round of golf than managing a television station.” Yet manage she did.
Not that public television held firmly to the vision she had for it. Her comments about the perils of commercials predated the rise of so-called underwriting announcements. And she worried in the ’70s about stations doing too much “artsy-craftsy stuff,” since “what we don’t need is a whole bunch of those how-to-do-it shows.”
But she still won a place in the hearts of viewers who prized public-TV offerings, and the people who worked with and for her, whom she often singled out for praise while downplaying her own efforts. Talking about her work ethic, she simply observed, “Some of us have a higher metabolism than others.”
Born in Cleveland, Cope grew up in Shaker Heights. She graduated from Hathaway Brown, then was attending Marjorie Webster Junior College and working for a Cleveland advertising agency when someone suggested she try TV.
“Huh? What’s that?” was her reply. But she gave it a shot, first as what was then called a “girl Friday” for an operation that was feeling its way through new territory, before moving up to director and producer. After a stint running her own company, she took on the launching of WVIZ.
Twice married and divorced, Cope had no children. She is survived by four nieces and two nephews, 11 great-nephews and six great-nieces, and four great-great nephews and three great-great nieces.
A memorial service will be at 2:30 p.m. Oct. 12 at the West Woods Nature Center of the Geauga Park District.
Some material in this story was drawn from the Plain Dealer, WVIZ and WEWS. Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.