For five decades, TV anchor Larry Hatteberg stayed innovative, kind – and close to home

Larry Hatteberg and co-anchor Susan Peters wait for their final segment to being during the 10 p.m. broadcast in the KAKE Television studio on Tuesday. Hatteberg anchored his final show after working at KAKE for 51 years.
Larry Hatteberg and co-anchor Susan Peters wait for their final segment to being during the 10 p.m. broadcast in the KAKE Television studio on Tuesday. Hatteberg anchored his final show after working at KAKE for 51 years. The Wichita Eagle

He turned down an offer to work for a national network. It cost him buckets of money to do that, he says.

Some of the country’s better photojournalists say he could have been a star.

Instead, photojournalist and anchorman Larry Hatteberg retired on Tuesday from a 51-year career during which he never worked at any place other than KAKE News.

Hatteberg got lucrative offers to work for ABC or much bigger stations in Dallas and elsewhere, said Fred Shook, a television news authority who has written textbooks about the industry. “He turned them down,” Shook said. “And I’d ask him: Why?”

Hatteberg agonized over those decisions, wondering whether he was sabotaging his career. He felt insecure, especially after some KAKE bosses (from past ownership) tried at times to kill his signature creation, the “Hatteberg’s People” feature.

But as it turned out, he said, those decisions weren’t mistakes.

As he might say, before a commercial break: “More on that in a moment.”

‘A summer job that went on’

Hatteberg grew up in Winfield an only child. His father, Merle, would walk out the back of the bakery he owned whenever he heard poor people rummaging in the garbage cans.

“Any time he saw that, he’d bring that person inside the bakery and give them anything they wanted – bread, cakes, cookies – particularly if they had kids,” Hatteberg said. “Because he could not stand to see anybody doing that. I will never forget that. He showed me humanity.”

Hatteberg told this story the other day in his living room, with his wife, Judy, sitting near. She knew the story, but when she heard him tell it again, she teared up.

Any understanding of her husband and why he passed on those network jobs begins with family, she said. “He turned down those opportunities because he did not want us to take our daughters away from our parents,” she said. “It was important to us.”

By age 12 Hatteberg was shooting still photos so much that his father built a darkroom in the bakery basement. By 18, in 1963, Hatteberg had a job at KAKE, “a summer job that went on for 51 years.”

The ‘subjective camera’

Early on, Hatteberg began to pioneer ideas that reshaped broadcast news.

“Television back then was often just guys walking into studios and reading newspapers into a microphone and calling it journalism,” Shook said. “Images and everything else was an afterthought.”

Most TV journalists were either camera people or reporters or editors or producers or script writers or audio people. Hatteberg became all of those.

A few years later, when he began developing “Hatteberg’s People,” he talked bosses into running those stories at what is still an almost unheard of three minutes – “an eternity in television news,” he said.

He never criticized the who-what-when-where news stories, he said. But he thought doing those stories alone left viewers feeling cold.

So for his subjects he chose not athletes or government officials or famous actresses but seemingly ordinary people: farmers, grandpas, aunts, car tinkerers, painters of pictures, little old ladies who picked up aluminum cans.

He created what he named the “subjective camera.” He asked story subjects to look directly into the camera as they talked. “Many journalism schools to this day teach that the subject should look off to the side, at the reporter,” said Darrell Barton, a photojournalist who worked for "60 Minutes" and "48 Hours." “That’s stupid.”

“It’s stupid because I think any viewer who sees a television anchor or reporter talking – they don’t really believe everything he says,” Barton said. “But if I interview a western Kansas farmer, who looks right into the camera, and speaks directly from the heart – I think everybody believes what he says, and that he speaks the truth.”

An innovator

Hatteberg’s national reputation took hold decades ago, Shook said, after Hatteberg began showing his innovations to photojournalists gathered annually in Norman, Okla., for a week-long training camp, the National Press Photographers Association Television News Workshop. Hatteberg wasn’t the only instructor, but he was one of the few who captivated everyone, Shook said.

“There would be 400 of us in an auditorium, learning from a dozen or more of the top photojournalists in the world,” Shook said. “Young television news journalists slept in their cars sometimes to come for that week, from everywhere in the country, from Denmark, from New Zealand.

“They all learned from him. And so the religion spread.”

For example, Bob Dotson’s “American Story with Bob Dotson” has been a regular feature on NBC News’ Today show for decades. Dotson, a close Hatteberg friend, has traveled the world and made a career out of a series he modeled on “Hatteberg’s People,” which began at KAKE in 1974.

“I had been hired by the NBC station in Oklahoma to produce documentaries. Larry’s approach intrigued me, so I began to do the same,” Dotson wrote in an e-mail.

One of Dotson’s stories won a national Emmy and led to a job offer with NBC News.

But Dotson said he got something from the KAKE guy that was more valuable.

In a business where ego and rough treatment of others sometimes gets people ahead, Hatteberg never played rough.

“Simple, unexpected kindness could turn NBC camera crews, editors and bosses into allies who would help me carefully craft stories,” Dotson wrote in an e-mail. Hatteberg taught him that, he wrote.

Barton makes fun of him to this day, saying his over-nice manner at the KAKE anchor desk “reminds me of a television preacher; I keep expecting him to ask me for money at the end of his broadcast.”

Close to home

“In your career there are moments when people will throw money at you,” Hatteberg said.

“I would have loved to have worked for ABC and had that on my resume. But working for ABC would mean that I would have to follow the union regulations. So if I was going to be a photographer, then I couldn’t edit. Then I couldn’t light, then I couldn’t do this and couldn’t do that.”

So he always told them no.

Fans would sometimes come to him when he went out with Judy and talk to him as though Judy wasn’t there.

He didn’t like it. Judy was a teacher for 31 years in elementary schools in Wichita. Her work as a teacher was more useful than his, he said.

He’s done, at age 70, except for a few more “Hatteberg’s People” stories he’ll do when he feels like it.

Judy says she spent years coaxing him to look around at the wonders of their own neighborhood, their own family, their own house. KAKE over 40 years sent him to 14 countries to do “Hatteberg’s People.” She understood his yearning to go places and do stories across oceans.

“But I taught him to live in the moment and see what is in your own back yard,” she said. “You don’t have to go to foreign countries to see the lake by our house, or the petals on the daisies.”

Favorite stories

He hopes his stories live on. He did 1,500 to 2,000 “Hatteberg’s People” stories. You can see some of them on YouTube.

He has two favorites.

One was about Maisie DeVore, an elderly woman from Eskridge who made jam and collected aluminum cans. No one thought she was significant until the day she handed over $100,000 from selling home-made jam and the aluminum cans to build a swimming pool for the kids in town.

In “The Man Who Lived in a Hole,” Ernie Dittimore was an utterly filthy man from Doniphan County, his faced blackened with sweat-encrusted dirt. Dittimore lived for 30 years in a hole under the remains of his house after it burned.

Dittimore talks directly to the camera about love for his life and the trees and paths around his hole.

Hatteberg grins when told that people stole ideas from him. He learned much from his story subjects.

“The old man who lived in a hole in the ground told me that he watched the sun rise every morning and the sun set every night,” Hatteberg said.

“And then he looked at me and he said, ‘Hey, city boy, I’ll bet you don’t watch the sun rise every morning and the sun set.’ And I said ‘No, I don’t. I don’t have time.’

“He shook his head and walked off.

“Six months after I did that story, he died. And they found him on one of the many paths he had walked on his 80 acres in Doniphan County.

“But to this very day, every time I see a sun rise and every time I see a sun set, I see Ernie Dittimore’s face right there next to it, talking to me.”

Contributing: Travis Heying of The Eagle

Reach Roy Wenzl at 316-268-6219 or rwenzl@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @roywenzl.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle