Recently, I had lunch with Bob Johnson, Darrell Patterson, and Don Welch. If those names sound familiar, you’ve watched a lot of Chattanooga TV during the past four decades. They often refer to themselves as “The Three Musketeers” of local television. Although they haven’t worked together in more than a decade, they’re still widely known. Why is their popularity so enduring? First, let me share a little history, and then I’ll provide an update on their lives.
In 1975, Channel 9’s manager wanted to get the station out of last place, where it had been since it signed on in 1958. The station had selected Patterson, an Athens, TN native who had worked in radio, to be sports director. They then hired Johnson, a former Marietta, GA deejay and Atlanta TV personality to be news anchor. They needed a weather forecaster to complete the team. Patterson and Welch had worked together in radio, so the connection was made. Welch was hired away from Channel 3, and suddenly the last-place station started getting some attention.
The new team clicked immediately. While the other channels stuck with their “just the facts” style of delivering the news, the Channel 9 crew poked each other like wayward frat boys. Some called it “happy talk,” but Bob, Darrell and Don just chalked it up to natural chemistry. “I’d talk about wooly worms and Grandpappy’s weather lore, and I’d get it right more often than the meteorologists,” Welch laughs. “One time Bob asked me if it would rain tomorrow, so I got out my lucky quarter, flipped the coin, and tails said no. It didn’t rain, so we kept using that quarter.”
“I had never anchored the news,” Johnson said. “We started out in third place. It took a few years, and then we were ahead of the other channels.” In contrast to Welch’s folksy forecast style and Patterson’s evangelical energy, Bob was the authority figure, trying to keep everything under control. From 1982 on, their newscasts were always at or near the top of the ratings
Johnson’s last few years on the air were marked by tragedy and illness. MaryEllen Locher, his co-anchor of 17 years, battled cancer for much of that time. In June 2005, she passed away at the age of 45. Bob spoke at her funeral, paying tribute to “My buddy. She had such a good heart.”
Not long after MaryEllen’s death, Bob began to have some problems of his own. He said, “I’d be standing, and suddenly my leg would just freeze up. I couldn’t move it. I didn’t know what was wrong. My brain would tell my body to move, and nothing would happen.” The stiffness was diagnosed as Parkinson’s Disease.
“Nowadays, I get out as often as I can,” he said. “It’s about the same as it was a few years ago. Most of all I miss going to work. I get bored. I miss doing the news, and I miss the people I worked with.”
He said people still recognize him, and he loves the interaction. “Some of them get my name mixed up, they think I’m Don Johnson or Bob Welch,” he laughed.
Patterson recalled the first time he met Johnson, in the WTVC lobby. “We hit if off right then, we had so much in common. We both started out as disc jockeys, and had the same sense of humor. We stood around that day, and talked for hours. He’s been my best friend ever since.” In retirement, Patterson stays busy on the golf course, and doing commercials. Patterson and Johnson have both been inducted into the Tennessee Journalism Hall of Fame in recent years.
Welch, a Dayton, TN native, first made his mark in Chattanooga broadcasting in the 1960s, as a disc jockey.
After leaving radio in 1968, he became an announcer at Channel 3. He soon worked his way into the control room where he learned to direct newscasts. “Yep, I told Mort Lloyd and John Gray what to do,” he laughed. One day, they needed somebody to fill in doing the weather, and Welch figured, “I can talk my way through anything, I can do this too.”
Like Johnson, Welch was diagnosed with Parkinson’s around the time of his retirement in 2014, but he stays active. When I commented on his own series of TV commercials, I asked if he was following in the footsteps of Patterson. He said, “Absolutely! I’m not letting Darrell get ahead of me!”
Welch’s wife Sammie recently posted this on Facebook: “My wonderful husband, Don, has Parkinson’s. Some days are great and some days are awful. If I had a dollar for every time I hear people whisper, “There’s Don Welch and he’s drunk.” People, educate yourselves! Just because he jerks or has a hard time walking it is due to Parkinson’s. We hear the whispers, and it hurts his feelings.
I wouldn’t wish this disease on my worst enemy. Please, think before you speak. This could happen to you or your loved ones.”
To read my previous story about Bob Johnson, click here
To read my previous story about Darrell Patterson, click here
To read my previous story about Don Welch, click here