Brooks Leffler

  • Years at WGBH: 1958-59
  • Position(s): Boston University scholar/intern

From Brooks Leffler

I was one of the ineptly-named Scholars ’59. Never made much out of BU, but ‘GBH was very good to me, and in fact indirectly changed the course of my life, as you’ll see if you can stick with this for a bit.

As I was one of the few in my class that had already worked two years in the medium (as a cameraman and Producer-Director at KCTS, Seattle), I plucked several plums at WGBH: camera on Louis Lyons News, the BSO, Jazz with Father O’Connor and Time to Dance; TD on Press & the People (this is a plum?); director of the infamous 1959 Christmas Show (which revolutionized WGBH’s attitude towards the use of middle initials in program credits).

But I was ready to go back west, which I did after non-graduation. As readers of the last issues of the Ille Novi may remember, I spent five months out of work, finally being employed at my last-choice station: KOAC in Corvallis, Oregon, a cow-college radio station with pictures.

I met Gretchen Bossé on a blind date shortly after moving to Corvallis. She was working as a Medical Records Administrator in Eugene, and we married after a six-month courtship in 1960. Daughter Andrea arrived in 1961, and son John was born in 1962. Andrea is now an RN in Baltimore, married to a food chemist at McCormick, with two adopted Korean-born kids; John is now a consulting engineer in Atlanta, married to a mid-level AT&T manager, with two kids of their own.

Right after Andrea was born, I moved to new sister station KOAP in Portland as Production Manager. We lived happily in Portland for 6 years, then moved in 1967 to KLRN Austin for 6 months, and then I was lured to WHYY Philadelphia by ex-‘GBHer Bob Hall with the promise of color and more money. (That’s when my ‘GBH experience changed the course of my life.)

After three years fighting diminishing Ford money and a union shop in Philly, my production career peaked directing the Pittsburgh Symphony with Beverley Sills for EEN. By then I was burned out on production and had always wanted to do Station Relations, because I loved seeing how other (mostly small, broke) stations did it. PBS had a vacancy, and we moved to DC. I was PBS employee #72.

I visited most of the stations in the system, on the road about one week a month. Though I had seen a lot of the USA on my own, PBS made it possible for me to visit all 50 states and two US territories, a great way to gain perspective.

In 1976 we got hooked on sailing, and bought a 27′ Ericson sloop, which we used cruising the Chesapeake every chance we had.

But I burned out on PBS after about 6 years. On my last station visit, I heard the same complaints as on my first: “Why can’t the promotion material get here earlier?” (because it ain’t widgets we’re making, dumdum, it’s teevee!) Fortunately, DC was the first place we’d lived which had more than one job for a guy like me, and I went to work as station liaison for the CPB/PBS Satellite Interconnection Project. When that was done, I dipped into the fed bureaucracy and hired on as Director of Planning (and Plain English Officer!) for the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program at the Dept. of Commerce.

By the time my Long Range Plan was in its final draft form, Reagan had come to power, and coincidentally I was recruited at CPB as Associate Director of Broadcast Services, an easy way out of the federal bureaucracy. My Long Range Plan was subsequently completely revised by my former assistant to fit the Reagan philosophy, published, and quickly forgotten, but it introduced me to computers.

Another thing that happened while I was at Commerce was that I discovered kiteflying as a therapeutic way to get away from the bureaucracy at lunch hour. Gretchen had brought me a kite from SF in the late seventies and I got hooked — it was very like sailing, but I could do it at lunch on the Mall. Indeed, on one such occasion, a White House cop came out on the Ellipse on his MoPed to ask me to take my kites down so President Reagan could take off in his helicopter.

At CPB, I quickly realized that I had emulated to a T the Peter Principle: I had elevated myself to my level of incompetence. I was supervising a staff of paper pushers who were making CPB grants to public radio stations — not exactly why I went into this biz in the first place. I was very unhappy, and wasn’t having any fun at all. So when the Great Reagan RIF came to pass, I was asked to make up the cut list, and put myself at the top. On April Fools Day 1982, my career in public broadcasting came to a screeching halt.

Fortunately, before I canned myself, my wife and I had already bought a kite shop in Annapolis. By the time I was through Commerce, I was deeply into kitemaking and kiteflying as well as sailing, and yearned to own a marina in Annapolis, but didn’t have the $$$. Next best thing was a kite shop, and feeling the desperate need to secure a place to go next professionally, when the kite shop in Annapolis came on the market, I jumped — even though it was in the red.

Well, after vowing I’d never be a salesman, I really dug it. The shop gave me the creative outlet as well, with de facto staging, lighting, graphics, publications as well as business administration. (The Apple Macintosh was introduced during this period, and I became an early and enthusiastic user and desktop publisher.) I managed to pull Kites Aweigh out of the red and turn a profit (lower case “p”) within 18 months, and was netting spending money within 5 years, but it never really provided a living wage.

If my wonderful wife Gretchen hadn’t been willing to be the instant breadwinner (she had worked into a position as Regional Medical Records Administrator for Kaiser Mid-Atlantic), things would have been a lot different.

Then in 1986, lighting struck. G & I are both happy as clams in our jobs, the kids are out of school (Andrea working as a Social Worker in Baltimore, John working for Bobby Rahal’s Indy-Car team in Columbus, OH) … and Gretchen’s childless invalid aunt in Pacific Grove dies after a short bout with cancer. The house is left to Gretchen and her sister, who’s married to a DC lobbyist and therefore stuck there.

Well, we had been to this lovely quiet town on the Monterey Peninsula many times visiting her aunt, and had thought it might be nice to retire there, but NOW was not the time. So we came out to close up her aunt’s affairs and make the house ready for sale … but after five minutes staring out the window at the ocean 300 ft away I said to Gretchen, “Anytime you’re ready, I’ll move.”

We returned to DC, spent two years tidying up our affairs and making our home of 17 years ready to sell, and in February 1988 moved to Pacific Grove. So here we are, happier than ever, in a free-and-clear house, living humbly on my PBS/CPB pension, our investments, and Social Security.

I brought my wholesale kite biz with me, working out of my home, and then in 1990 was hired to be Executive Director of the American Kitefliers Association, also out of my home. Finally, in 1994, I retired. Gretchen has worked mostly as a volunteer in the city planning department.

We have gotten very involved in community affairs. I’ve done media and graphics for three successful council candidates, and sing in the community chorus. On nice days we drive our collector car, a 1961 Morris Minor named Millie.

Until June of last year, I published a quarterly journal for Kite Aerial Photographers called the aerial eye, but burned out on that too. So now I’m learning German for fun and building aerial camera systems for people.

Mel Bernstein used to complain that my submissions to the Ille Novi were too long-winded, and he got tired of retyping them onto ditto masters. Mel, nothing’s changed — except the need for retyping.

Self-portrait with home in Pacific Grove, CA. (Shot from a kite: Brooks, bottom, circled)

2 thoughts on “Brooks Leffler

  1. Interesting reading! I’m ex-WGBH from the 1980s/90s. I work as a freelance producer of sorts (educational project, various media) and am currently doing short videos for MIT about the history of their campus in Cambridge (celebrating 100 yrs in 2016). One story about the days when WGBH was on campus led me to your great photo (possibly there are more?) of 84 Mass Ave. Not sure who has an original (electronically), but at least would I have your permission to use it in a video which would go on MIT’s website? Looking forward to hearing from you, and thanks for your consideration. — Barbara

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