David Otis Ives cultivated an eccentric Yankee image as a WGBH pitchman that endeared him to New England audiences and helped fuel the Boston station’s emergence as a national production powerhouse. His enthusiasm for the station seemed boundless as he demonstrated pledge premiums, performed songs and skits, and even rode an elephant on camera.
Beneath the madcap persona, WGBH’s fourth president was a stickler for good grammar, deportment and intellectual rigor — standards he set with “great humor and grace,” recalled Brigid Sullivan, VP of children’s, educational and interactive media.
Ives, 84, died May 16 after becoming ill while visiting family in San Francisco.
Henry Becton, who succeeded Ives as president in 1984, called Ives “a national leader, a Boston institution and a wise and generous mentor. He combined the best of Yankee character with showmanship, journalistic integrity and self-deprecating humor.”
Before going into public broadcasting, Ives worked briefly as a reporter for the Salem, Mass., Evening News and rose through the ranks of the Wall Street Journal as a reporter, editor and a bureau chief in New York, Detroit, Washington and Boston. Faced with the prospect of being assigned to another bureau, Ives opted to remain in his hometown and work in electronic media. He wrote editorials for WBZ-TV and radio before joining WGBH in 1960 as development director.
“His contribution at that point was to professionalize the raising of money,” said Michael Ambrosino, a former WGBH producer who created the science documentary series Nova. Ives’ success at generating community support helped move WGBH from financial dependence on academic institutions and provided the means to launch ambitious national projects.
Ives became WGBH president in 1970 — the same year that Nova and Masterpiece Theatre debuted. During his 14-year presidency, WGBH refined the how-to genre with Julia Childs’ cooking series, imported suspenseful British dramas for Mystery! and launched the investigative documentary series Frontline. WGBH Radio introduced The Spider’s Web and Morning pro musica.
His philosophy of community service also valued local productions such as La Plaza and Say Brother, ongoing WGBH series designed for minority communities.
Ives was a personable leader, knew staff members at all levels by name, and took the time to interact with them, according to WGBH veterans.
“By the third day that I was at the station, I think he knew who I was,” recalled Paula Apsell, Nova executive producer. Her first job at WGBH was as a log typist, and Ives spoke with her when she delivered the log books to his office. “He was very friendly to me as a newcomer, and he did that to everyone,” she said.
Until the last couple of years, Ives sent notes to Apsell suggesting Nova topics, and she would call him to discuss his ideas. “He was an interesting mediator between us and our audience,” she said. “He was always out meeting people in the community to whom WGBH meant a lot, and he brought back what they did and didn’t like.”
His notes were also a means of setting standards, said Sullivan. “It makes a difference when the person at the top knows the difference between a good program and a bad program and is articulate and takes the time to write it down.” His support through the early uncertainties of big projects was especially valuable. “He was willing to stand by you when you went through that and root for you and be in your corner,” Sullivan said.
Members of the top management team were expected to be “well read, well spoken and well mannered,” said Sullivan. “You didn’t go in in the morning without having read all the newspapers.”
His greatest skill, however, was in bringing in financial resources. Broadcasting magazine once described him as “public broadcasting’s super salesman.”
“That’s where he was really good because he was unabashed and charming, knew that it was his job and did it with gusto,” said Sullivan.
As a public broadcasting leader, Ives was vice chairman of the PBS Board of Managers and chairman of the National Association of Public Television Stations, now APTS. Ives also was a trustee and one-time chairman of the Eastern Educational Network and helped lead its expansion into a national program distributor now known as American Public Television.
Ives was born in Salem, Mass., in 1919, and educated at Harvard, where he earned both a B.A. and M.B.A. He served in the U.S. Navy for six years.
Ives is survived by his wife, Patricia Howard Ives; two sons, documentary filmmaker Stephen Ives and Dr. David Ives; five grandchildren; four stepchildren; and seven stepgrandchildren.