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Dick Stratton: 1927-2005

Long time Jacksonville television personality and social pioneer Dick Stratton died on Sunday 11/06/05 after a lengthy illness. He Was 78. Sam remembers his long-time friend and mentor below.

Dick Stratton: 1927-2005 Jacksonville’s First “Star”

Dick Stratton There’s a plaque on the wall in the press box of the stadium that reads:

“Dick’s career spanned thirty-five years as a television and radio sports pioneer and personality in Jacksonville. An innovator of the college football coach’s Sunday highlights show, he started the concept with Florida Head Coach Ray Graves (1969-1979). Stratton also stepped away from sports, hosting the first daytime talk show on television. He was Chairman of the Greater Jacksonville Open and President of the Gator Bowl in the same year, 1972. His unselfish dedication extended well beyond sports and made Jacksonville a better place to live.”

I know that’s how Dick thought of himself. Tidy, neat, simple accomplishments. I know because he wrote those words in 2004 when I told him we needed a bio to put on the plaque. “That’s enough,” he told me. “The rest is just stuff.” But we know he was much more than ordinary, or simple. In fact, Dick was extraordinary. Full of energy, always upbeat, glad to see you with a firm handshake and a booming voice that let everybody know that you, and he were in the room.

He was, through his many parts, what we all aspire to be. He was good. He was kind. He was gentle. He was generous. He was loyal. He made you feel better about yourself.

As a professional he brought his best, and expected the same of you. As a friend he was unfailingly on your side. Cajoling, prodding, expecting you to be as good as you could be.

He always was larger than life. A celebrity in a time when it meant something to be a celebrity. In fact, you could call him Jacksonville’s first celebrity. And he took that seriously. Always a gentleman, neatly turned out with his hair and clothes classicly stylish. He could tell a story, and loved to be the storyteller.

When I first started in Jacksonville I was fortunate that Dick took a shine to me. He litteraly took me under his wing and introduced me around town. We spent hours together as he filled me in on who was who and how they got there. He regailed me with stories about Van Fletcher’s Green Derby, and the comings and goings and the shennanigans at the Roosevelt Hotel. He talked about the early days of sports broadcasting when he would hold up a still picture two days after the fact and consider it a “news flash.”

He talked often of his days as the host of the “Midday” show and his time with Virginia Atter-Keys. “Boy can she sing, she’s a songbird,” he would always add when talking about Virginia. His relationship with Virginia was typical of Dick. It didn’t end when he walked out of the door of the television station. It didn’t even end when their show went off the air. It stayed. If you were Dick’s friend, you were his friend for life.

Sometimes when we think of Dick, we think of him as the host, as the facilitator of other people’s notions. But Dick was full of ideas. He had ideas in his head constantly, roaming around like a composer has tunes trying to get out. We were fortunate that Dick had a canvas for his ideas, a way to express himself that always made those around him and the place he lived, better.

Being on television and being “a star” Dick was in demand. Always asked to host a luncheon or MC a dinner, having Dick Stratton at your get together made it an “event.” I never heard him say “no” to any request, big or small except for two reasons: His mother and His church. Dick was available as long as he didn’t have a commitment to his Mother, who he took care of and loved deeply. And he was committed to his church. He had strong faith, and often when we’d talk in recent times I’d ask him what was he doing and he’d usually say, “Reading the Bible. Job, pretty inspiring.”

I always found it facinating that a man who’d life was tied to the clock in television and who’s calendar was filled with commiitments to the minute, not days, read about patience and it’s virtues when looking for guidance.

Dick’s long time foil, Rex Edmonson, was, in many ways his counterpart in the print media. Rex years ago told me that he thought his career was complete one day at a luncheon where they honored him for his contributions. Rex was asked to the podium where he said, “I’ve reached just about all of my goals, I was introduced by the Mayor to Dawtry Towers and nodded to in public by Dick Stratton.” I told Dick that story a few years back and he said, “Rex said that? That crusty so and so.” And he paused for a few seconds and added. “That Rex, he’s a really good friend of mine. ”

Among his two most tangible achievments were when he was President of the Gator Bowl and Chairman of the GJO, the two crown jewel events of the time in town, both in the same year. Dick had a life-long committment to both events, reminding me early in my career how important they were to the city and the people who lived here. For many years after his presidency of the Gator Bowl he stayed close to the game, organizing the thousands of high school musicians who would fill the field at halftime. “You outta put that on TV,” he’d say to me, “That’s where the real action is.”

He reminded me that he helped put together the framework for the GJO sitting at the lunch counter at Silver’s Drug Store at the beach with John Tucker and other friends. John confirmed that to me once, saying “We had a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of energy and could probably put some money together but we were amatuers. Dick brought it all together and put a professional face on it. He made it happen.”

As we know, much of the culture of Jacksonville is woven around the sporting events we attend. Dick formed and molded the culture of the town around the events he was involved in. They were sporting contests, but Dick saw them as much more. They were events, celebrations. Thousands of people who have moved to North Florida in the last 20 years might not know who Dick Stratton is, but if they attend any event around here, Dick Stratton’s fingerprints are on it.

Many can say, “I’m better for having known him.” A few of us can say “I am able to be who I am because of him.”

Dick litterly invented the job of sportscaster. There was no template, no guideline, he figured it out as he went along. He started the coaches show with Florida Coach Ray Graves. Shot the film, brought it back to Channel 4 and slept on the couch in the lobby while it was being processed. Stayed up all night splicing the plays together for the live broadcast of the highlights the next day.

He was never prouder then when he would tell me “We never had a broken splice. Ever. Not once in all the shows we did.”

He and Graves would then travel back to Gainesville for the second showing of the show, locally in the Gators home town. He was funny, witty, with the perfect blend of bravado and kindnes to those who knew him. I do have this lasting image of how he could turn on the charm as his back would straighten while he smoothed out his tie and buttoned his coat.

Dick was proud of his friends and proud of the people he knew. A picture hung on his wall for the last 40 years, where ever he lived of Jack Dempsey, Joe DiMaggio and Dick. I asked about it and he nonchalantly told me, “Oh, we did a telethon together once.” It seemd huge to me, but I finally realized that in Jacksonville, with Dempsey, Dimaggio and Stratton smiling together, Dick was the celebrity in the picture.

I thought he was pulling my leg as a young reporter when he told me about his friendship with so many of the famous and influential people of the time. Until I saw Gary Player at the Masters in the early ’80’s and he immediately asked me how “Randy” was doing. Dick was especially pleased that Player had a “pet” nickname for him.

I’d call him up with a question and he’d say, “Call John Tucker and ask him or I’ll just call George Olsen and get the answer.” My head would spin. The calls would be made and the job would get done.

I’d hear this alot when I answered the phone, “It’s your Uncle Dick,” the voice on the other end would say whenever he was on the line. He’d call and critique my performance regularly, “You did good,” he’d add, mocking the language he so carefully crafted everyday. Then he’d add, “Don’t ever wear that tie again, it doesn’t look right.”

In the last five years, he ended our conversations the same way each time:
“I love ya Sam”
he’d always make sure I heard before he hung up.

Don’t worry Dick, we loved you too.

RIP: Dick Stratton: 1927-2005