JOHNSON CITY, Tennessee (WJHL) – When WJHL-TV signed in October 1953, men held most managerial positions in America.
But the founders of the station Hanes Lancaster Sr. and his son Hanes Jr. had a different plan.
âI have been fortunate enough to work with both,â said Patty Fulton. “Fellow!”
The Lancasters hired Fulton – then Patty Smithdeal – to be WJHL-TV‘s first production manager. The Johnson City native had received radio training in college, and had previously worked for WJHL radio and taught college radio courses.
The Lancasters’ bold move meant Smithdeal had a powerful job of overseeing what viewers would see on air when the WJHL began broadcasting homes.
âI remember being in the studio with Mr. Lancaster, Sr.,â Fulton recalls. “And I was like, ‘I’m going to do it. I’ll put some draperies here. And he said, ‘Do whatever you want to do. I do not care. He was wonderful.
Fulton was racing downtown in early October 1953 when the WJHL broadcast tower fell on the original studio building on Tannery Knobs, delaying the stations’ planned launch in mid-1953 and shaking the nerves in the city.
âWhen I came back there was a big crowd at the bottom of the hill,â she said. âI said, ‘What’s going on? And my daddy was there. He said, âOh Pat! He was so glad to see me.
âDaddy said, ‘They said something fell up there. And that’s when the tower fell, âFulton said.
But a few weeks later, WJHL staff defied all odds and the station was broadcasting live from October 26, 1953.
âYou have to attribute a lot of our time on the air to a genius named OK Garland,â she said. âHe was the chief engineer. He was kind, dedicated – a genius.
Fulton says this point cannot be emphasized enough: The unsung heroes of the early days of local television were the people viewers had never seen or heard. It was the engineers who determined the mechanics of the brand new medium, often developing the technology as needed.
âHe (Garland) and these engineers worked and got us on the air in record time,â she said.
Fulton said she was standing behind the show’s program director when the button was pressed and the station signed on. She even remembers the first voice heard on WJHL.
âI remember Herb Howard signed us,â she said. Howard, originally from Tri-Cities, became Dr. Herb Howard, a legendary teacher and administrator at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
âWell, I was just thinking – ok! Here we are. We are on the air!
The manager remembers her approach to work.
âYou just do it and you don’t get hysterical,â she said. âYou just go to work and you get the job done. Period. That’s all. Nothing to do it. “
The direct and pragmatic approach served him well when a new assignment arrived. One day the station management needed a backup host for a live cooking show on WJHL-TV.
âWell, they just needed someone to do it, and I was there,â Fulton said.
This led to his own program called “Mix and Fix”.
Fulton said she’ll never forget an episode featuring an on-air disaster with a cream pie. âGood recipe, but I cut a piece of it while it was hot, and it went all over the place,â she said. “I’ve known better!”
Fulton decided that “Mix and Fix” would be more than just cooking lessons. She has hosted guests and conducted interviews with a focus on her viewers – the growing number of women with televisions in their homes.
âI decided I wouldn’t just do a cooking show because there were other things that women would be interested in,â Fulton said.
Soon, work took her away from Johnson City. Then came a family after her marriage to Johnson City doctor Dr Lyman Fulton, with whom she had three children.
But Fulton said she remained a loyal viewer of the television she helped launch and remained grateful to have been fortunate enough to have experienced what she did in the North East. Tennessee.
âThe citizens here are exceptional,â she said. âIt’s a wonderful atmosphere to experience in this region. And being able to communicate by television or radio is a blessing. It really is. “