Dominic Massa / Eyewitness News
Frank Davis, the iconic New Orleans broadcaster and writer whose cooking, fishing and “Naturally N’Awlins” feature reports for Channel 4 made him a local favorite for more than three decades, died Monday night. He was 71.
In May 2013, Frank and his wife Mary Clare revealed to Channel 4 viewers that he was battling a rare autoimmune disease that robbed him of the use of his arms and legs. The disease, CIDP, or Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy, caused his own immune system to see his nerves and the insulation around them as foreign invaders, attacking and destroying them.
Frank retired from WWL-TV in 2011, after 30 years on the air, so that he and Mary Clare could move to Texas to be closer to family. Only no one knew how much he would need the love and support.
Despite the diagnosis and life-altering symptoms that struck Frank in just a matter of months, he remained upbeat and positive, with his optimism encouraging even his own doctors and physical therapists.
"Thank God in heaven that I've got that happy personality, that I can see something bad and smile about it,” he told medical reporter Meg Farris for the May 2013 interview. “Believe me, I don't want to smile about it because it bothers me. It's a roller coaster ride. I'm good one day. I'm bad one day.”
In that Channel 4 story, the love between Frank and his wife of more than 45 years, Mary Clare, was clearly on display, even during their emotional ordeal, which stole the retirement dreams they shared.
"We still can communicate as much as we did before and show our love for each other. It gets stronger and I'm always going to be there for him," Mary Clare said.
The viewer reaction to the story was tremendous, an outpouring of support for someone enduring the fight of his life – a life filled with happy memories of a uniquely New Orleans character.
During his long career, Frank always said that his was the best job in local television, and his fans would no doubt agree.
His weekly appearances in the kitchen on the Eyewitness Morning News, his “Fishin’ Game Report” and “Naturally N’Awlins” features brought him into thousands of viewers’ homes over the years, where he was welcomed like family.
To the casual observer, it looked like anything but work, but colleagues knew the gift he had for capturing the essence of a story, while putting his story subjects at ease and making the job look like second nature.
“I learned a long time ago, if you want to be a success in life, first you have to find something you like to do, then you have to do it better than anybody else, and third, find someone to pay you to do it,” he said in an interview. “I was fortunate to be able to do that at WWL.”
A New Orleans native, Frank Davis’ long association with WWL began in 1974, when he began making occasional appearances on WWL Radio, for fishing and outdoors segments. Program executives knew Frank from his writing columns and articles on the outdoors for magazines, newspapers and the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
“Tom Krimsier, who was program director at WWL Radio at the time, said, ‘Hey, can you do that on radio? We’ll give it a try, do it for four weeks,” Davis explained in a 1989 WWL-TV interview with Angela Hill. “We did the radio show and the phones started ringing off the hook.”
That brief stint led to even more opportunities, including a marathon radio show on the weekend, called “Weekend Live” – with Davis hosting live call-in shows for nine hours on Saturdays and six on Sundays.
“It was a great opportunity to do what I do best and that’s talk to people,” Davis said.
In 1980, he stepped in to a full-time radio role, and in 1981, he made the switch to television.
Davis’ television appearances began with weekly fishing reports and then grew to include feature segments that the station termed “Naturally N’Awlins.” 30 years later, the term has become a local catchphrase, and three decades’ worth of stories on the colorful people and personalities of this area – enhanced by one of the most colorful of them all, Davis himself – became viewer favorites.
Three of the most popular holiday ones, produced nearly 20 years ago with musician Benny Grunch and his “12 Yats” of Christmas, continue to make annual appearances.
“I try to make it real,” Davis explained. “Someone said, ‘What part of the Midwest are you from, Frank? Are you from New York?’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘You’ve got to be from New Orleans to do this kind of stuff.”
In the stories, Davis played up the “N’Awlins” aspect so much - reveling in the local characters and dialect - that many viewers may have been surprised to learn he majored in English in college at the University of New Orleans.
In addition to the English courses, his resume’ read like that of few other broadcasters in the country, including training as an x-ray technician, and time spent as an outdoors writer and editor before entering broadcasting.
His interests in fishing and cooking both came early, with young Frank learning to cook at the age of seven, and make his first fishing trip at about the same age.
“I went out with my dad when I was about seven years old. We used to fish every Saturday & Sunday and go to Irish Bayou when it was a bustling community. We rented a boat and fished all day long, catching croakers,” he said in a 1989 interview with Angela Hill.
Once he established himself as a television personality, Davis soon began making Tuesday morning appearances on the Eyewitness Morning News, which over the years became must-see TV for thousands of viewers. Appearing each Tuesday in the kitchen, Davis, who was a distinguished member of the American Culinary Federation, created and demonstrated hundreds of recipes. Many of those recipes and his hundreds of others also formed the basis for five successful cookbooks, from Pelican Publishing Company. He would often be joined in the Channel 4 kitchen by his wife, Mary Clare, friend Mike Sanders and former chef’s assistant Nora Dejoie.
In 2008, Davis, who did hundreds of cooking demonstrations and appearances throughout the area, was honored with the Lafcadio Hearn Award from the Chef John Folse Culinary Institute at Nicholls State University.
Over the years, Davis also published books on fishing, pursuing one of his other great interests – the outdoors. His weekly fishing reports were a regular segment on Channel 4’s Eyewitness News for close to three decades, now continuing with Don Dubuc, a longtime friend of Davis’ and fellow WWL broadcaster.
Davis may have been the only television reporter in the country honored with a permanent fishing spot. Located under the Seabrook Bridge on New Orleans' Lakeshore Drive, "The Frank Davis Fishing Pier" was built by Orleans Levee Board engineers to be handicapped accessible, and with special lighting for night anglers, useable 24 hours a day.
Davis, who was equally comfortable as a writer as a broadcaster, always described himself as someone with “broad interests,” and that came through over the years, in his knack for capturing the essence of a recipe, the uniqueness of someone’s colorful personality or the nuances of the fishing tips being shared by one of his fishing guides.
In addition to being a best-selling author, he was also a successful businessman, with a line of spices and cooking products. He was also sought after as a speaker, and made countless personal appearances for local charities and non-profit groups.
In addition to his wife and daughter, Amanda, Frank is survived by his son-in-law, mother and four grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements are pending.