Russ Tornabene

  • 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.

 

26 thoughts on “Russ Tornabene

  1. Russ was my mentor for striving for a college education at Indiana University.I think he was proud of that fact. It is sad that the great communicator had to develop a disease that took that away from him. He will be missed by all the family. Audrey, you are in our prayers.

    1. Russ and Audrey were not only wonderful neighbors but Russ was a valuable volunteer at Friedman Place, a Residence for visually impaired adults where I worked as an Activity and Volunteer Coordinator. He was ready “at the drop of a hat” to guide residents to theater, to read, to discuss politics…….oh yes, he loved to talk and the residents loved to listen.

      Russ will be missed.

  2. As a former television producer and writer for PBS, NBC and CBS, I salute Russ’s pioneering work in this vital communications field. He was a witness and a participant in the history of our time!

  3. To Audrey, the beautiful and charming life companion, a hug, from a distance, at our loss. We can focus on the warmth and talent that emerged continuously from this extraordinary guy, and be glad we were able to share it. From the bungalow in Skokie, the lakeside apartment in Evanston and all the points previous and after, Russ shone a wonderful personality, a brilliant mind and a generous spirit through all the many years we shared: NY network news life, the SPJ adventures in NY and Chicago, including his public spirit and professional elan. Many stories could be told but bottom line: he will be sorely missed as he is totally appreciated. My thoughts go out to the entire family and thank you for sharing your one-of-a-kind husband, father and mensch.

  4. In 1968 I moved from the NBC Radio Network to the television network as a Regional Director (then “manager”) in Affiliate Relations. In 1973 Russ became VP/GM of the Radio Network and called me over to be Director of Programs. It was a tough decision but Russ was so persuasive I accepted. He was a wonderful boss…gave me so much support and confidence in a job where I occasionally felt in over my head.
    We had known each other from past news coverages along with other of the NBC News editor/producer greats…Jim Holton, Len Probst, Jim Quigley and many, many others. Audrey and family, please know you are in my thoughts and prayers as you have been over these past difficult months.

  5. In life, one meets an unforgettable personality and considers herself/himself touched by that indescribable essence of the unusual. In 1950 I was fortunate enough to have Russ Tornabene as my Journalism teacher in the USAFI program n Tokyo, Japan where the class met at the Ernie Pyle Theater. I think all his students wanted to fulfill Russ’s glowing passion for “Breaking News” and to exhibit the same “live wire” obsession with the happenings of that time period. To follow his career was an opportunity to see what that “unusual and unforgettable personality” was achieving. Such a loss, Audrey. To me and my family, Russell Tornabene, his lovely wife and four gifted children are forever in our memory of wonderful days gone by. Words are not enough to pay the tributes he deserves. Love and prayers to all of you.

  6. The Noblest Knight

    Through this man and Audrey, hath all this life been wrought, and the death of the most noblest knight of the world; for through their love that we have all loved together is their gift of the too short hours –from IU and beyond– that I was blessed to have spent with them.

    With apologies to Sir Thomas Malory

  7. We met Russ and Audrey in later life. Our relationship began through business
    when I hired Russ to train our Motorola senior executives for television appearances. Later, with Audrey and Norma, we were together for lunch and occasional “field trips” to
    interesting Chicago sites.

    We enjoyed our times together until Russ and Audrey moved to Minnesota.

    We send our sympathy to Audrey and the children on their loss and ask them
    to reflect on the wonderful life they had with their husband and father and be
    proud of his outstanding career.

  8. So sad. My profound condolences to Audrey and the rest of the family. Russ will be recalled as a journalistic coiled-spring, waiting to unleash on the news his broad know-how and discernment, faster, better and more accurately than “the competition.” A true professional, an enriching role-model and a warm friend. His character and assets were well encapsulated in his family name: Tornabene = a turn to the good.

  9. I am proud to say Russ was a colleague and friend at NBC News. His talent, his enthusiasm and great personality served as a guiding force for the News organization and every one of it’s members. Russ never left executive titles get between him and others, it was all about generating excellence, being very competitive and having fun doing it. What a guy !!!!

  10. Although I was Russ’ kid sister by 19 years, we shared the same father, he taught me many things when I was a small child. I will never forget his graduation gift to me from high school was of my first trip on an airplane to Washington DC where he took me to see President Kennedy at a news conference. Russ had a beautiful loyal wife and 4 great kids. His spirit will be missed. My love to you Audrey and thanks for taking care of Russ all these years. You truly are an angel!

  11. Our mother, Beatrice Hyer, often told us about our cousin Audrey and her husband Russ.
    Alas, we lived too far apart for visits. Then came the day when we didn’t live far apart;
    it’s been a joy to have had many happy times together with such a wonderful couple
    over the years. We’ll miss Russ, his vibrant spirit and zest for life. We loved him and we love Audrey. Geographically, we’re far apart again, but we’ll find a way to be with you, Audrey.
    Thank you so much for the website, Dave. We’re learning things we never knew. What a great guy…we’ve always known that!
    With much love, tender thoughts and prayers……

  12. Our mother, Beatrice Hyer, often told my sister and me about our cousin Audrey and
    her husband Russ. Alas, we lived too far apart for visits. Then came the day when we didn’t live far apart. It’s been a joy to have had many happy times with such a wonderful couple over the years. We’ll miss Russ, his vibrant spirit and zest for life.
    We loved him and we love you, Audrey. Now we’re far apart again but we will find a way to be with you.
    Thank you for the website, Dave. We’re learning things we didn’t know. We’ve always known Russ was a great guy!
    With much love, tender thoughts and prayers…….. Jane and Ann

  13. Russ was a force of nature, a man of endless intellectual curiosity and good humor, and an inspiration to me as a toiler in television news. He would unfailingly remind me of how important and how much fun good journalism is, at times when I needed most to hear it. We particularly treasured the times we spent together at Ravinia, sharing food and fun conversation with Russ and Audrey, and the times we enjoyed their warm hospitality in Evanston. Russ was a gifted and yes, indefatigable storyteller! Our deepest sympathy to Audrey and all the family.

  14. I was at the University of Kansas in 1985, where my wife, Sandy, was wrapping up a Ph.D., when SPJ hired me to edit The Quill, the society’s magazine. Sandy and I moved to Chicago and rented a place on the far North Side. As it happened, Russ and Audrey lived in Evanston, about four miles north of us. “Do you want a ride to the office,” he asked. Sure. He picked me up, and it was off to the Loop. That was my first taste of his no-quarter-given mode of driving. But that’s a different anecdote . We got to the office building where SPJ was housed on the 7th floor. There were four elevators. Russ headed to the stairwell and up we went — 14 flights, double-time. I was winded when we reached the office. Russ, who was a generation older, wasn’t even breathing hard. That was Russ, and that’s how I knew him throughout the SPJ years — and beyond, as he and Audrey and Sandy and I became cordial friends. Russ was all energy. And kindness. Endless enthusiasm. Decency. And, perhaps most important, his generosity of spirit was endless. Sandy and I were honored to know him. Audrey . . . Sandy and I send our love and our condolences.

  15. I got to know Russ through SPJ. He was executive director when I became active and eventually on the board. He was very good about getting us to do our work — prodding without making us feel guilty for what we needed to do but had not done. I am glad I got introduced to Audrey through him. My thoughts are with her and their four children.

  16. Russ was forever loyal to the Society of Professional Journalists and the Chicago Headline Club. He often showed up at our events and was willing to lend a hand. We have missed him since he and Audrey moved to Minnesota. Miss him even more today. Our deep sympathy to Audrey and his children.

  17. We knew Russ and Audrey from the time he became executive director of SPJ. He had a friendly and warm smile that quickly made you his friend for life. He never bragged about his accomplishments, but you could sense there were many and that he was prepared to take on a new assignment or adventure that had the support of his almost life-long companion, Audrey. Russ will be missed but he always will be in our mind as we recall the good times we had with him.

  18. Russ was one of several mentors in SPJ/SDX when I moved to New York in 1973. It was through his guidance and generosity of spirit–and NBC facilities–that I became the first woman president of the Deadline Club. He was a leader, cheerleader and avid supporter of and for The Society of Professional Journalists and everyone who shared his passion for the organization and the profession–journalism–he loved so much. I missed him terribly when he moved to Chicago to assume leadership of The Society, but I knew my–and other Deadliners’–loss was the organization’s great gain. He is greatly missed, and my thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends.

  19. Russ was one of those rare people who managed to combine drive and high standards with kindness and humor. He was a television news pioneer and a mentor. It was a privilege to have worked for him. My sympathies to his family.

  20. Russ Tornabene did much to shape my years at NBC. He gave me a start on the air and remained a supportive friend. I treasure his memory.

  21. I am sorry to hear of his passing; he was a pioneer, an innovator and a gentleman. Russ gave me the chance to break out of my first after-college job as an NBC News researcher by giving me a slot on the morning drive Hourlies desk. From then on, I was hooked on live news. Thank you, Russ.

  22. Russ was absolutely one of my favorite bosses! I first knew him in the late 60s when I was working for WRC. As the head of NBC radio, Russ was the one who had to clear us to “fill in” on the big network, writing and voicing “NBC News on the Hour” on Weekend Monitor. What a thrill! Later, when I joined the network full-time, he managed the radio portion of my work for many years. And after that I knew him when he was with the Society of Professional Journalists. He was terrific. A great boss and a wonderful friend.

  23. I remember Russ for his great and positive support when I was a new reporter, just off the local station in Cleveland. He believed in me even though I was young and green, and his friendship helped me make it through the rough transition from local to network. People like Russ and Reuven were the backbone of NBC News, and made it the giant it became.

  24. I remember Russ for one simple phrase he instilled in correspondents who worked primarily for television: “Remember Radio”. We were all better for it! My condolences to his family.

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