Aye, Skipper!

The chairman of CBS was not happy. Delegates to the 1968 Republican National Convention in Miami Beach were preparing to name Richard Nixon their candidate for president, and William Paley, relaxing in the Bahamas, wanted news. From his vacation home, Paley could pick up CBS affiliate WTVJ, Channel 4 in Miami. But when he switched on his television one morning, he didn't see anchorman Joseph Benti and the CBS Morning News. He saw: Skipper Chuck.

Although the network's morning news show was based in WTVJ's own town during the convention, the station chose not to run it, opting instead to air the homegrown, enormously popular children's show. Even NBC's Today program, which dominated the morning slot throughout the rest of the nation, couldn't begin to compete with the balloon-drop game on Skipper Chuck's Popeye Playhouse in Miami, and WTVJ executives, delighted with the show's immense success, saw no reason to run anything else.

Until Paley picked up the telephone. "He called Mitchell Wolfson, who was the chairman at WTVJ, a little bit incensed that he couldn't follow the convention" on his own affiliate, recalls Ralph Renick, WTVJ's former news director and long-time anchorman. "So for one week the station did carry the network morning news and supplanted the Skipper Chuck show. But then it went back to the old format."

And it stayed that way. Through Vietnam and Watergate and the Iran hostage crisis, WTVJ did not carry the CBS Morning News. Instead WTVJ's hour-long morning show featured Skipper Chuck, Scrubby, the Word Bird, and Squeezix the Mouse. Through 23 years - nearly 6000 shows - 50 kids per day bounded into Channel 4's Studio B, where Chuck Zink, the Skipper himself, held court with songs and cartoons, games and lessons. And birthdays. To the Miami area's elementary-school set, celebrating a birthday on the Skipper Chuck show was cooler than ice-cream cake.

Although Skipper Chuck hasn't been on the air in ten years, the Skipper remains a South Florida institution, part of Miami's childhood. But Miami outgrew its collective childhood - urban sprawl, riots, and drugs, among other things, have seen to that - and the town outgrew the Skipper, too. In 1980, the year of the Mariel boatlift and the McDuffie riots, WTVJ canceled the program. Chuck Zink spent the next thirteen weeks at Channel 4 as a quizmaster, hosting Superstakes, a game show for youngsters, but the station discontinued the program. From there Zink moved to WCIX-Channel 6, then an independent station, where he introduced movies and provided on-air chatter before commercials. And in 1983 he retired. But retirement did not suit the ebullient Zink, so he did what thousands of other sixtysomething Americans have done: he headed for Century Village, where he recently ended a five-year stint as a celebrity spokesman.

It's a long way, Zink acknowledges, from Skipper Chuck, where he began each day with the Pledge of Allegiance and the word for the day, played games, aired cartoons, performed puppet shows, and sang songs. At Century Village, he reflects, "I was having to do too many eulogies." But ever the entrepreneur, Zink has kept his hand in the kid business, and he intends to profit from his venture into the adult market as well. He owns two Dade day-care facilities - Skipper Chuck Child Care Centers - and is also associated with American Adult Day Care, an organization that plans to open two Palm Beach sites for elderly people in early 1991. Quite a switch from the farm in South Bend, Indiana, where Charles D. Zink was born.

"I was a farm kid," says Zink, who at 65 is tanned, fit, and casual - except for the gray hair, he still looks every bit the Skipper. "All I knew was how to milk the cows and slop the pigs, but the first time my dad brought home a radio, I listened and said, `That's what I want to do.'"

He did. After a three-and-a-half-year tour as a Marine tank driver in Iwo Jima and Guam during World War II, Zink began applying for jobs at radio stations back home. "I didn't go to college, but I really majored in rejections," he says. But finally in 1946, the rejections stopped and a 44-year broadcasting career began. First stop: WHVR-AM - 1280 on your dial in Hanover, Pennsylvania.

"It was a perfect place," Zink recounts with sentimentality. "I should've never ever left there." He signed on as a disc jockey and "general personality," using his lack of formal training to his benefit. "Back then everybody talked with a dulcet tone and e-nun-ci-a-ted every word," he recalls. "I just talked to the people at the barber shop." He also hosted a Saturday-morning remote program from the Victory Restaurant, carrying on conversations with whoever happened to be there, occasionally airing people's complaints about their families and other such dirty laundry. "Forgive me," he says. "I'm an old fart now, but I see the Donahues and the Geraldos and the Winfreys. I did that stuff when those people weren't born, and I didn't create it." The plain-guy technique was a success, and after two years at WHVR, television - WGAL in Lancaster - came a-calling. "My so-called reputation spread," he says, "and a TV station - this was the beginning of TV - asked me. God, was I impressed. The general manager hired me to the dismay of the program director, and said, `All I know is that everybody in Hanover likes him.'"

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