- Welcome to this website honoring the memory of Russ Tornabene
Russ was born in Gary Indiana, the son of a Sicilian immigrant who served as a Gary police officer. He married the lovely Audrey Shankey on June 21, 1952. They have 4 children: Joe (in Lyon, France), Leigh (in Shoreview, Minnesota), David (in Hoboken, NJ) and Lynn (in Brooklyn, NY).
Russ was instrumental in the development of television news, starting his 30 year career at NBC in Washington in 1951.
His NBC positions included:
*News editor, WRC AM TV 1951-1955
*News supervisor, washington bureau, 1956-1961 (often working at the White House)
*Manager of news operations, NBC NY bureau, 1961-1965
*Manager of NBC radio news including NBC-owned stations, 1966-1967
*Director of news for NBC-owned TV stations, 1967-68
*General manager NBC radio news, 1968-73 (in 1972, he was part of the team that was awarded the Peabody Award for the Monitor radio news program)
*VP/GM NBC Radio 1973-75
*VP Public Affairs NBC News 1975-81
After NBC he became the Executive Director of the Society of Professional Journalists in Chicago (1981-1987), then he started a career in consulting, working with many corporate executives and NASA astronauts, training them to give presentations and deal with media interviews. He was also always service-oriented, serving on the boards of such organizations as Africa Genesis and the Lifeline Pilots of IL.
At NBC, he was the NBC news radio and TV coordinator on President Eisenhower’s trip to Asia and Europe in 1959 and South America in 1960; President Kennedy’s meeting with Latin American leaders in 1963; President Kennedy’s four-nation tour of Europe in 1963; and traveled with President Nixon to Russia and China as well. He told us he was the timer on the first Kennedy/Nixon debate. He also produced NBC coverage of the space program and political conventions.
A few stories from his time at NBC:
When at WRC Washington, he hired Jim Henson and the Muppets before they moved on to New York. They had a show on after the news. He became friends with Jim and his future wife.
Also at WRC, Willard Scott served as his intern.
He related that one evening when he was on the news desk at WRC they received a call that there was a huge fire in progress in Washington. Russ had the idea of sending a truck with batteries and a television camera to film the event live for TV. He cut into the normal programming and broadcast the live event – as we understand, it was the first live news event broadcast in the country.
Going to Ireland for pre-tour production meetings for President Kennedy’s visit, the networks were faced with a coverage dilemma – Kennedy wanted an open agenda in Dublin and the surrounding area. In a cab from the airport to the hotel, Russ was wondering how he could provide minute to minute coverage – and the idea hit him – who knows Dublin and surrounding areas better than anyone, as well as possessing two-way radios for instant communication? Taxis. So he hired an entire taxi company and NBC had the most up to date coverage of Kennedy in Dublin.
Russ was also with Kennedy when he went on to Berlin in 1963. NBC was hated by the East Germans because of its famous documentary entitled The Tunnel – which aired in Dec. 1962 – documenting the making of an escape tunnel under the Berlin Wall. Russ wanted to see the East – so he left his NBC identification documents at his hotel and ventured across the boarder as a tourist, risking being identified as American news personnel.
When traveling with Eisenhower, Russ had to cross the border from Afghanistan into Pakistan with the film from the President’s visit so that it could get back to the states. He had to meet up with an airplane that would then take the film to London, so that it would then be cabled over to NYC to get on the Today show the next day.
Russ was instrumental in setting up the coverage of Cape Canaveral for NBC by enlisting local Florida newsman, Jay Barbree – making NBC a prime source for Space race news in the 1960s. After retirement, he taught classes of Astronauts how to be present for the media as a media consultant to NASA. He was honored in 2007 at Cape Canaveral for his service to news coverage in the Space Program.
Regarding the Today show, Russ was one of five execs that reviewed the tapes of candidates for Barbara Walter’s replacement and chose Jane Pauley.
While serving in WWII (22 months, 5 tank crew), Russ was dispatched from his unit to get information about a camp which had just been found, and he became one of the first American soldiers to enter the Concentration Camp at Dachau. He found a damaged camera discarded on the ground. Having the film developed when his unit reached Austria, he saw what were probably some of the first photos discovered by allied troops taken inside the camp – most likely taken by a former guard.
While serving in the Korean War, he served as the Chief Reporter for Stars and Stripes, based in Tokyo, Japan. He interviewed such luminaries as Jack Benny and General MacArthur — he slept in the base hangar to be there when MacArthur was leaving so that he could get the interview.
After the war, he received his undergraduate and master degrees in journalism from the Indiana University School of Journalism.