What Jon Rice gave to viewers and to friends

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A colleague of Jonathan Rice from San Francisco’s KQED in the 1970s, producer Nat Katzman, gave this eulogy at a memorial service for Rice Aug. 19 [2001] at the station.

There was a small viewing port of safety glass, two or three inches in diameter, through which came a bright orange glow of flames, briefly broken by what they consumed. My very last image of Jonathan Rice was his face, waxen and peaceful in death, looking like the Roman senator he sometimes claimed to resemble. His corpse was in a linen shroud within a plain brown cardboard box just the right size for a man. Bill, the attendant, pulled the lid closed, opened the door to the retort, and rolled the box inside.

Bill was solicitous . . . amazingly enough, he recognized me from pledge nights years ago. He knew who Jon had been. The button was pressed, the cremation process began, and all you could see was that orange glow.

Jonathan Rice was born to privilege, but he chose not to live a privileged life. He chose a life that put him in the line of fire during the Second World War. He chose journalism. He chose community service. And if the gods would make Jon intelligent, respected and successful in his calling, the gods would also take loved ones from him before their time.

The details of Jon’s biography, though, are less important than his legacy — who he was and what he left with his passing. He didn’t want and doesn’t need a tombstone or a mausoleum, although in his “Roman senator” phase he might have liked a statue.

He was lovable and he was proud. When a group of us tried to think of a fitting 80th birthday present for a man who had everything, Greg Sherwood suggested “adulation.” So we gave him awards for the Nobel Peace Prize, the Pulitzer, the Peabody, the Grammy, the Heisman Trophy, the Davis Cup, Five Michelin Stars and many others, including Mr. Blackwell’s Ten Worst Dressed — which he may have actually won at some point in his career. Jon enjoyed the tribute.

Jon might say that his prime legacy is this television station. What Jim Day and Jon Rice created from nothing more than a dream is an enviable monument. He loved KQED without reservation. He loved it with a passion that didn’t waver for 47 years. Even as he lay in his bed during his final illness, he would brag that we just got a record grant or that we are No. 1 in programming.

He was idealistic and he was pragmatic. In the early days of KQED, Jon set the tone and standard for the entire public broadcasting industry. He taught a generation of programmers to embrace the controversial, to air unpopular opinions, to break conventional molds, to take chances. He was my mentor and my friend. Decades later, it seems absurd, but few at the time had Jon’s courage to have a woman anchor a news program, or openly refer to homosexuality on television, or air a debate on the utility of nuclear weapons. And when there was not enough money to keep the station on the air, Jon and KQED invented the notion of auctioning off items and using airtime to ask for pledges of support. He may have created a monster. Even so, his dream brought this community together — thousands of volunteers and hundreds of thousands of contributors — to support this unique source of information and culture.

He was a steadfast friend, and he was a flirt. Jon’s other living legacy is the circle of friends he brought together. From the several young men who are named Jonathan in his honor to the young surrogate grandchildren who have lost him this month, many bear the stamp of his friendship, loyalty and support. He extended his family beyond ties of blood. He often remarked that one of his greatest gifts to himself was to bring his friends together.

He was well informed and well educated, and he had an intense childlike curiosity and love of gadgets. Why did five of us observe Jon’s cremation in that industrial building in Emeryville? We knew that it was something that Jon would have wanted to do. He wanted to see and experience everything he could. He traveled, and he filled his home with mechanical wonders. It is more than fitting that the St. Louis house in which he was raised has become a science museum.

He made delicious chocolate truffles and he grew old, as we all must. Three hip replacements, two heart bypasses, eye surgery, experimental prostate cancer treatment — Jon was the bionic man . . . and I skipped the facelift. He thought a bit about his death and often said he wanted it to be quick and dignified. Again, he was denied the easy path. A few years ago he actually noted that on his death he wanted his friends to gather, celebrate and have a good time. Frankly, I think he didn’t entirely mean it. I think Jon would want us to have fun, and he also would be upset if we were not saddened by his passing.

There is a toast by Noel Coward that Jon often appropriated:

Here’s a toast to each of us, and all of us together
Here’s a toast to happiness, and reasonable pride
May our touch on life be light as a seabird’s feather
And sorrows as we pass, politely step aside.

Rest in peace, Jon. We will miss you.

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