Broadcaster Rich Funke leaves legacy of coverage, community and caring

Written by Jim Mandelaro, Democrat and Chronicle, December 2012

 

Rich Funke is 22 and eager to prove he belongs in broadcast journalism. It’s September 1971, the Vietnam War is raging and Funke is the first reporter on the scene at the Attica prison riots.

He lives six miles away, next to the state police barracks in Batavia with his wife and infant son. He has driven side by side with trooper cars in his beat-up Volkswagen and now is face to face with them.

“I’m Rich Funke from WHAM radio,” he says. “Let me in there.”

The police are aghast.

“Let you in?” one bellows. “We’re not even going in. Get across the road.”

For four days, he camps out at a house near the prison and sleeps on the grass. When the standoff ends in a haze of tear gas and gunfire, more than three dozen people are dead.

Funke shakes his head at the memory.

“I grew up a lot that day,” he says.

Funke turns 64 next month and long ago proved himself as a newsman. He was sports director at WHEC (Channel 10) from 1974-2005, except for one year in Miami. Since 2005, he has been the station’s main news anchor.

This Friday at 6:30 p.m., he signs off after a Hall of Fame 38-year run, having lost nothing off his fastball.

“I think I’m in denial that Rich is retiring,” says Jennifer Johnson, his former co-anchor at Channel 10. “I think he is the voice of reason in this community and in a newsroom.”

Sports roots

Funke was born in Batavia on Jan. 30, 1949, and grew up in nearby Pembroke. His dad, Alan, drove an oil tanker, and Rich and his two older brothers worked on their grandparents’ fruit farm.

Rich’s mom, Betty, turned him on to sports. He’d come home from school and find her keeping score of World Series games on TV. Alan died of a heart attack at 57. Betty is 93 and lives in a nursing home in Warsaw.

“And she still plays the football pools,” Rich says proudly.

Funke played football, basketball (his first love) and baseball at Pembroke. Chuck Platt broadcast a game on Batavia’s WBTA one day, and Funke noticed him during a timeout.

“I thought ‘How cool is that, to be able to do that!’ ” he says.

Funke met Pat Fragnito, and the two married after high school. A son, Rich Jr., came along in 1971. A daughter, Melissa, was born in 1974. Funke headed to Adelphi University on Long Island, in part to play Division II football. He had his own campus radio show.

“I was Richie Rae,” he says. “I spelled it R-A-E to be cool.”

An awkward start

Not yet 22 and with a wife and son, Funke graduated a semester early from Adelphi and landed a job at WHAM in Rochester in January 1971. Eight months later came Attica. A few months after that, he moved to WAXC and then landed his TV gig.

Funke grew up idolizing Mickey Mantle and Walter Cronkite. He jokes about ending Friday’s final broadcast with Cronkite’s trademark line, “And that’s the way it is.” Then he chuckles when recalling his first awkward night on Channel 10 in 1974. When he finished his sportscast, he said “And that’s as far as I go.’’

One problem: That was the line used by Channel 13 sportscaster George Beahon.

“I knew it was his line,” Funke says. “I was nervous. I didn’t know what to say. But everyone thought I was throwing down the gauntlet as if to say ‘I’ve arrived.’ ”

Minutes later, Funke’s phone rang.

“This is George Beahon,” the voice said. “You know that’s my line, right?”

Funke never again used a catchphrase. Like Cronkite, he put viewers at ease with his smooth delivery and honest approach.

“There’s not a phony bone in his body,” says retired WHAM newsman Gary Smith, Funke’s neighbor in Perinton. “The guy you see on TV is the same guy you run into at Wegmans. He’s real, he’s genuine, and people can see that.”

Funke is beloved by viewers and rivals.

“Rich always put the story or athlete above himself,” says Channel 13 sports director Mike Catalana, who often attended Catholic Mass with Funke while traveling with the Buffalo Bills. “Sometimes in our business, people spend so much time promoting themselves that they think they are the story. That was never the case with Rich Funke.”

Host with the most

Funke has emceed the Rochester Press-Radio Club and Children’s Miracle Network telethon for a quarter century. He hosted the Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon. He’ll do anything to raise a buck. Once, he hit the floor for some impromptu breakdancing during the United Negro College Fund telethon.

“He got down on his back and spun himself in a circle,” co-anchor Janet Lomax recounts. “And he was pretty good.”

Funke laughs.

“They took my legs and spun me around,” he says.

In 1993, he shaved off his trademark mustache on the air during the final hours of a telethon to honor a pledge goal. The next day was Monday. Back then, a taped voice would say “Now, News 10 NBC Sports with Rich Funke!” with video of him. There hadn’t been time to record new video without Funke’s mustache, so when his clean-shaven face appeared immediately after, it was a shocking contrast.

Not missing a beat, Funke smiled and said “Good evening, Rich is on vacation. I’m his younger brother, Skippy.”

The newsroom exploded in laughter.

Colleagues cherish memories of pool parties at the Funke home or dinner and drinks at a restaurant after a long week covering the annual LPGA Tournament.

“Rich would be the one to organize it,” says Steve Dawe, former WHEC news producer. “And he’d be adamant about including everyone: bosses, producers, photographers, even wet-behind-the-ears production assistants and interns.”

Each December, someone fills the WHEC newsroom with enough holiday trees, lights and ornaments to make Clark Griswold blush. It’s Rich Funke, truly the most decorated man in town.

Off to Miami

By 1980, Funke was the top sportscaster in town.

“If people keep telling you enough, you start to believe that maybe you should be in a larger market,” he says.

Funke sent out tapes, and WTVJ in Miami offered him a job as No. 2 sports anchor. The Funkes left in June 1980. They returned 11 months later. Rich was disenchanted being No. 2 and didn’t care for his neighborhood or school district. He sent out tapes, Channel 10 asked him back, and he agreed. The station began a huge “Funke’s back” promotional campaign, and the night he returned in May 1981, Channel 13 sports anchor Simeon Smith tried to steal viewers away by doing his 6 p.m. report nude from the waist up.

“There were no overnight ratings back then,” Funke says, laughing, “so we’ll never know who won.’’

One week later, Funke received a job offer from a TV station in Chicago. This time, he stayed put. He was where he wanted to be.

Local, local, local

When Funke was playing sports at Pembroke, he remembers Buffalo sportscaster Van Miller mentioning his team on TV.

“I thought that was the coolest thing,” he says.

When he began at Channel 10, he remembered that feeling.

“He was always pushing for us to cover local sports like a major market,’’ former colleague Rick Hager says.

The crew traveled everywhere. Hershey. Seattle. Ottawa. Manitoba.

When Greece Athena graduate Tommy Kress bowled on the PBA Tour (1980-93), Funke called the press room or Kress’ hotel room.

“If you were from Rochester or nearby, Rich was your biggest fan,” Kress says.

When Kress was elected to the Rochester Bowling Hall of Fame, he asked Funke to sit next to him. Funke stayed the entire night.

Dark days

On June 3, 2001, Funke worked the Children’s Miracle Network Telethon at Greece Ridge Mall. Then, he and Pat drove to Rich Jr.’s house to babysit their three grandchildren. Rich Jr., who had survived a battle with Hodgkin’s disease a decade earlier, was going to play in a hockey league, and his wife Jennifer also had plans.

“I said goodbye to Rich,” Funke says. “And then I got the call.”

Rich Jr. had died of coronary artery disease. He was only 30.

“When you lose a child, it leaves a hole in your heart,” Funke says. “But there are three things you can do: Move forward, move backward, or bury your head in the sand. Pat and I made the decision to move forward.”

Funke made his charitable work almost a second career.

“He has been a true angel to the children and families we serve at Camp Good Days and Special Times,’’ said camp founder Gary Mervis, who lose his daughter to cancer in 1982. “He is always there whenever we need him.’’

Each time Funke helps a charity, he thinks of Rich Jr.

“Losing a child is like losing a limb,” he says. “In time, it grows back. But you still have a limp.”

Funke is a friend and confidante to colleagues. Former Live At Five co-anchor Donna Dedee gave birth 18 years ago while Funke was on the air.

“I had Eddie at 5:22 p.m., and Rich was standing by our hospital bedside by 6:02 with a teddy bear in hand,” Dedee says.

Johnson was midway through her pregnancy with her second daughter last year when she learned the baby had a major birth defect and might not survive.

“It was so emotional that my husband and I didn’t tell many people,” says Johnson, who’s now at Channel 13. “I confided in Rich. Having lost his son, he was able to provide suggestions and advice. There is no way to say ‘thank you’ for that.”

WHEC sports director Robin DeWind says Funke is genuine.

“Rich shows up for games because he loves sports. He host telethons because he’s inspired by children. And he comes into work every day trying to make our broadcasts better. He’s the perfect blend of professionalism, humor and humility.”

Former Channel 10 sports anchor Mark Gruba was working at a small TV station in West Virginia in 1999 when he applied at Channel 10. He called Funke at midnight, and they talked for an hour.

“When I hung up the phone, I remember thinking ‘Please God, give me the chance to work for him,’ ’’ Gruba says.

Saying goodbye

Frustrated with cuts to his staff and looking for new challenges, Funke told Channel 10 execs in 2005 he’d be open to doing news full time. His career came full circle. The decision to retire took root two years ago, when older brother Chuck died of cancer.

“It really reinforced in me how important family is,” Funke says. “I’ve done this for four decades. That’s a lot of holidays and weekends away. Pat is a saint. It’s time to go home and be around.”

On June 21, Funke told viewers he was retiring. The 17-handicap golfer is a member at Monroe Golf Club and has six grandchildren. He hopes to continue as emcee for charity dinners, host some specials for WHEC and work some play-by-play. When he picked Dec. 21 as his last day, he didn’t realize it was the last day on the Mayan calendar — the supposed end of the world.

“It’s everybody’s last day,” he quips.

He’ll be gone from the air, but not forgotten.

“Pat and the rest of his family can have him back full time,” Dedee says. “But to all of Rochester, and most especially his friends and co-workers, a little bit of Rich Funke will always be ours.”

On the top shelf in Funke’s Channel 10 cubicle is an old dial radio.

“That radio was once on for 21 consecutive years in this place,” Funke says. “We had to unplug it to move it.”

The radio is retired. Soon, Rich Funke will be. Pardon his colleagues and fans if they truly feel like the world is ending.

Funke’s daughter, Melissa, lives with her husband and three sons in Raleigh, N.C. The boys know their grandfather is famous, but he’s just “Papa” to them. He has nicknames for each grandchild, makes his trademark sauce and meatballs, plays “roof ball” and takes them to the mall.

“He leaves a pair of slippers at our house so my kids know he is never far away,” Melissa says.

Come Friday, when Funke signs off, fans and colleagues will wish they had a pair of his slippers, too.