Harry Porterfield was a fixture on Chicago TV for more than 50 years as a reporter and news anchor at WBBM-Ch. 2 and WLS-Ch. 7.
Porterfield was believed to be the first Black weekday news anchor in Chicago TV history, and also was known for his regular feature, “Someone You Should Know,” in which he would profile sometimes-unsung community members.
“Harry exuded trustworthiness when he was on the anchor desk,” said Channel 7 media manager David Fell, who worked alongside Porterfield for nearly 30 years at both Channels 2 and 7. “Viewers felt they could rely on him.”
Porterfield, 95, died of natural causes Monday at the Hartsfield Village assisted living facility in Munster, Indiana, said his son, J.J. A Munster resident, he previously lived in Gary’s Miller Beach area for more than a half century.
Born in Saginaw, Michigan, Porterfield received a degree in chemistry from the University of Michigan. He later picked up a law degree from DePaul University in 1993 while working full time in broadcasting. He was in the Army and stationed in Germany in the early 1950s.
In the early 1960s, Porterfield was working at a daytime-only radio station in Saginaw, WKNX radio, where among his duties was hosting a jazz show called “Sounds from the Lounge.”
Tired of working long hours and considering going back to a job in the sciences, Porterfield was close to quitting broadcasting. However, he still felt the pull of the business, particularly in a larger city.
While in Chicago visiting relatives in early 1963, Porterfield applied for a job at WBBM “as a lark,” he told the Tribune in 1986. He heard nothing from the station for a year. Then, in January 1964, he received two job offers almost simultaneously.
“I don’t know how that came about,” he said in the 1986 Tribune interview. “Never will know that. But I know it was the damnedest thing.”
Porterfield signed on at Channel 2 as a news writer. But one day when no reporter was available to cover a story, he simply “just walked out the door with the crew,” he told the Tribune. “I don’t think management liked that. They were surprised see me on the air,” he said.
Several years later, Porterfield began on-air reporting more regularly. He wasn’t Channel 2′s first Black on-air member of Channel 2′s news team — that distinction had gone to Ben Holman, several years earlier. But he did encounter racism early on, with some all-white camera crews refusing to work with him.
Before long, Porterfield established himself as a key part of the station’s news team. He signed his first contract as a reporter in 1971, and he began anchoring the Saturday evening news the following year.
Porterfield was reported to be the first Black weekday news anchor in Chicago history when he started co-anchoring the station’s 6 p.m. newscast with Bill Kurtis in 1978. Porterfield also would alternate as co-anchor of the station’s “Two on 2” weekly newsmagazine show along with Susan Anderson and the show’s anchor, Bob Wallace.
“I must admit it felt pretty good,” Porterfield told the Tribune in 1979, referring to his weekday pairing with Kurtis. “I’m enjoying it because it’s fun to work with Bill Kurtis and also because that 6 o’clock show gets better every day. It’s all beginning to fit together like the pieces of a fine watch.
“I think it took me a while to get used to the idea of working with a co-anchor. You become very accustomed to doing a solo act on weekends. But Bill makes it easy. I think the fact that we’re good friends also helps a lot.”
At Channel 2, Porterfield also served as the news anchor for the station’s daily “Noonbreak” talk segment that was hosted by Lee Phillip.
Porterfield gained a new co-anchor in 1982 when Kurtis left to host the CBS network’s morning show in 1982, partnering with Don Craig on the 6 p.m. newscast.
In 1985, when Kurtis returned to Chicago to resume anchoring Channel 2′s 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. newscasts, Porterfield lost his anchor spot, although he continued co-hosting “Two on 2″ and several other features.
“I suppose I have to be philosophical about it,” Porterfield told the Tribune’s Clarence Page in 1985. “After all, I could be out of a job completely.”
In September 1985, he jumped to Channel 7. His demotion and departure sparked protracted picketing by the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH, which the following year hailed Channel 2′s hiring of a young, Black newscaster from New York, Lester Holt, to join the station’s lineup of anchors.
At Chanel 7, Porterfield continued the “Someone You Should Know” segments he had started developing while at Channel 2.
“Harry could put any interview subject at ease, showing them respect and asking thoughtful and intelligent questions,” Fell said. “His (Someone You Should Know) segments introduced Chicago to some of its most interesting people. I particularly enjoyed the ones about dedicated hobbyists and the detail they’d put into their model railroads, dioramas, musicianship or a thousand other things.”
Former Channel 7 political editor Andy Shaw said Porterfield was “the preternaturally calmest and most relaxed broadcaster I’ve ever known, sensitively celebrating common folk and eschewing political royalty.”
Former Channel 2 news writer David Finney recalled working on Porterfield’s first two “Someone You Should Know” segments.
“The first one was about an anti-social guy who lived in a cave — dirt floor and fire pit for warmth,” Finney said. “And the second one was about a retired opera singer who lived in a tiny house and decorated her walls with colorful pieces of broken glass. It was wonderfully nuts.”
Finney said that when Porterfield told him that a script he’d written for “Someone You Should Know” was good, “I thought I’d won the Pulitzer.”
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“The man was grace personified,” Finney said.
Porterfield left Channel 7 in 2009 and returned to Channel 2, where he began co-anchoring the 11 a.m. newscast. He left Channel 2 for good in 2015.
During Porterfield’s career, he was awarded many honors. In 1982, Porterfield was named outstanding broadcast journalist by the Chicago Association of Black Journalists.
Porterfield also is survived by his wife of 55 years, Marianita; a daughter, Allison; a stepson, Eric Shropshire; a stepdaughter, Gina Shropshire; a granddaughter and a great-grandson.
Services are pending.
Goldsborough is a freelance reporter
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