Dominic Massa / Eyewitness News
NEW ORLEANS - It looked and felt a lot like a family reunion inside the WWL-TV studios Monday, with good reason. The man in the center of the room, former Channel 4 general manager J. Michael Early, has been called a father figure by many, along with mentor, innovator and broadcasting industry giant.
On Monday, he returned to the station he led for a remarkable 37 years, for the unveiling of a specially-commissioned portrait which will be on display in the WWL-TV lobby on N. Rampart Street, once multi-million dollar renovations to the building are complete.
Mr. Early, now 97, was joined at the unveiling ceremony by all ten of his children, many of his 30 grandchildren, and dozens of the Channel 4 employees and former employees who give him and his team the credit for building WWL into a broadcasting powerhouse.
At Monday’s event, he was lauded by current company executives as a man of leadership and vision, but also humility and dedication to helping his employees be the best.
“When you ask people what Mr. Early was like ‘back in the day,’ you will be told over and over that he wasn’t just a General Manager. He was a teacher, mentor and friend to everyone he worked with,” said Dunia Shive, president and chief executive officer of Belo, WWL-TV's parent company, which purchased Channel 4 from Mr. Early’s employee-led and locally-owned Rampart Operating Partnership in 1994.
Shive was joined at Monday’s ceremony by Robert Decherd, Belo chairman of the board, who was chief executive officer when the company purchased WWL from Rampart Operating Partnership in 1994.
"Mr. Early is a very shrewd negotiator, but we had a common interest to put together these two great companies," Decherd said. "The similarities between Belo and its television stations and the traditions that Mike had deeply rooted at WWL were very great."
Decherd and current general manager Tod Smith shared stories of Mr. Early’s talents both in broadcasting and the business world in general, and in particular the care and concern he showed for his employees, which he believed deserved the credit for building the station into the powerhouse it became.
“When speaking of his beloved Channel 4, he always said it’s bigger than one person,” Smith said. “And that is something he truly believed. He never sought personal recognition, but if you strip away (everything)…at WWL’s foundation you will find one man and one vision – J. Michael Early.”
Mr. Early's son Brian spoke eloquently on behalf of his father and family at Monday's ceremony, explaining how Mr. Early's station family felt like members of the Early family as well.
"My dad always had a real affection for his employees," Brian Early said. "He worried about them, he thought about them. It was sort of engrained that they were an extension of us."
A native of New Orleans, Mr. Early joined WWL-TV in 1961, after serving for over 20 years as labor attorney and consultant to the Jesuits who owned the station and WWL Radio.
He retired in 1998 after a remarkable 37-year career as general manager.
The portrait unveiled Monday is by Dallas artist Cindy Shute, a former sales executive at Belo's Dallas TV station, WFAA.