Ward Chamberlin Jr., Architect of Nation’s Public Broadcasting, Dies at 95
By SAM ROBERTSFEB. 27, 2017
Ward B. Chamberlin Jr., left, then WNET’s executive vice president and managing director, with Tamara E. Robinson, vice president for national programming and William F. Baker, president, in 1996. Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times
Ward Chamberlin Jr., a leading architect of the nation’s public broadcasting system who revitalized PBS stations in New York and Washington and nurtured the career of the documentarian Ken Burns, died on Thursday in Bedford, Mass. He was 95.
The cause was complications of dementia, his daughter Carolyn Chamberlin said.
Mr. Chamberlin’s four-decade television career began circuitously. A corporate lawyer at the time, he was working for the nonprofit International Executive Service Corps, where Frank Pace, a former Army secretary, was the president.
The two men were close: Mr. Pace had earlier been chairman of General Dynamics, the military contractor, and Mr. Chamberlin had worked for him there. They were also squash partners.
When Mr. Pace was appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to be the first chairman of the newly minted Corporation for Public Broadcasting early in 1968, he recruited Mr. Chamberlin to join him as chief operating officer.
Mr. Pace promptly asked Mr. Chamberlin to determine what challenges and opportunities public broadcasting presented and gave him the latitude to meet them. Mr. Chamberlin proceeded to pioneer an enduring decentralized network model of independent public stations.
He remained chief operating officer until he retired in 2003. He was also senior vice president of the Public Broadcasting Service, executive vice president and managing director of WNET in New York and president of WETA in Washington, which he transformed into the third most prolific producer of original programming after WNET and WGBH in Boston.
PBS was created in 1969 to connect local public television stations and to distribute programming. National Public Radio (now just NPR) was formed the next year under the corporation’s umbrella.
From 1975 to 1989, under Mr. Chamberlin, WETA introduced programs like “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report” and “Washington Week in Review.” At WNET, he was responsible for many of the station’s signature cultural productions and other original programming, including the series “The Secret Life of the Brain.” He extricated both stations from financial distress.
Mr. Burns was seeking financial support for his third documentary film, about Huey Long, the Louisiana governor and presidential candidate, when he arranged to meet Mr. Chamberlin to pitch it.
Mr. Burns recalled in a phone interview on Monday that he had been stunned to leave Mr. Chamberlin’s office with a check for $25,000. “They never did that before,” he said.
He was even more surprised by Mr. Chamberlin’s response years later when he learned that Mr. Burns’s series on the Civil War had grown longer than the originally projected five hours.
“Seven, eight?” Mr. Chamberlin inquired, as Mr. Burns recalled.
“I said 11½, 12,” Mr. Burns replied.
To which all Mr. Chamberlin asked was, “Is it good?”
The series, called simply “The Civil War,” was broadcast in nine episodes in September 1990 and watched by about 40 million viewers, setting a PBS ratings record.
“Ward never sought to take the limelight, as opposed to many of us who gravitate to it,” Mr. Burns said. “He was flabbergastingly generous and courageous and indispensable to my professional life.”
Ward Bryan Chamberlin III was born on Aug. 4, 1921, in Manhattan to Ward Bryan Chamberlin Jr., a corporate lawyer, and the former Elizabeth Nichols. He was raised in New York City and in Wilson Point, Conn. He called himself Ward Jr. after his father died.
Mr. Chamberlin attended St. Bernard’s School in Manhattan and Greenwich Country Day School in Connecticut and graduated from Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.
Ineligible for military service because he had lost his sight in his right eye to childhood meningitis, he left Princeton in 1942 to enlist as a volunteer ambulance driver with the American Field Service.
He was assigned to North Africa, where he was supposed to be consigned to desk duty because of a mild bout of polio. But he expunged those orders and was deployed to the front lines in central Italy instead, retrieving the dead and wounded at Monte Cassino, where the Allies suffered more than 50,000 casualties.
“That was the key to who he was,” Mr. Burns said. “After that, there was nothing that could rock his boat.” (Mr. Chamberlin recounted his wartime service in Mr. Burns’s seven-part 2007 series, “The War.”)
Ward Chamberlin described his experiences on the battlefields of World War II in an excerpt from "The War," a documentary produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick for PBS.
February 27, 2017. Photo by Florentine Films.
Mr. Chamberlin was promoted to captain, dispatched to India and returned to the United States after World War II. He graduated from Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in 1946 and then from Columbia Law School.
He then reluctantly joined his father’s law firm, left to work for the Marshall Plan foreign aid program in Europe and returned to a job at General Dynamics in 1955.
He remained active with the American Field Service throughout his broadcast career as its general counsel, chairman and trustee and helped transform it into an intercultural youth exchange program.
He was also vice chairman of Chess in the Schools, a nonprofit educational program, which has taught the game to more than 500,000 low-income New York City children.
His marriage to the former Anne Nevin, a journalist, ended in divorce. His second wife, the former Lydia Gifford, a painter and theatrical producer, died in 2009.
In addition to their daughter Carolyn, he is survived by another daughter, Margot Chamberlin, and four grandchildren.