Harry Porterfield: CBS 2 retirement means ‘you’re fired’

Roseanne Tellez (CBS 2, December 17, 2015)

Roseanne Tellez (CBS 2, December 17, 2015)

Now we know the real reason Harry Porterfield wasn’t around when WBBM-Channel 2 announced his retirement last Thursday: He wasn’t buying into it.

In his first public comments on the matter, the 87-year-old dean of Chicago television news said he had wanted to continue working and was hopeful the CBS-owned station would renew his contract as co-anchor of the 11 a.m. Monday-through-Friday newscast.

Sure, there’d been conversations about stepping down in the past, but the bosses always came through with a new deal. His current contract runs through December 31.

It all ended with a call at home from Porterfield’s agent on Wednesday morning notifying him that CBS 2’s decision was final this time. The plan was for Porterfield, who had taken a few days off, to return to work Thursday and be on hand for the official announcement Friday. That would also be his last day on the air.

“I had second thoughts about going along because it wasn’t true,” Porterfield said. “As I was told, they wanted to protect themselves from something, and that it was important for me to say I was ‘retiring.’ But not important to me that way. They’re saying it. I’ve never said that.

Harry Porterfield

Harry Porterfield

“When they tell you that your contract is not being renewed, that means you’re fired. I can’t think of any other interpretation to give to that: ‘We don’t want you working here. Your contract will not be renewed.’ That means you’re fired.”

Porterfield said he thought it over and told agent Steve Mandell he didn’t want any tearful goodbyes or rousing sendoffs in the newsroom. “As I told Steve, I don’t like that. When they tell you you’re through, you’re through. And that’s the way it ought to be done, as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

So on Thursday, as Porterfield’s picture and the words “Thank you Harry!” appeared over her shoulder, co-anchor Roseanne Tellez closed out the 11 a.m. newscast by announcing the end of a legendary run that began at the old CBS studios on McClurg Court in 1964.

“After more than 51 years on television in Chicago – including more than 30 years here at Channel 2, Harry Porterfield will be retiring from CBS 2 as of the end of this month,” Tellez told viewers. “In typical Harry fashion, he’s told us that he doesn’t want to make a big fuss or throw a party to celebrate his amazing career — even though we all know he totally deserves one. . . . While Harry is retiring from CBS 2, he’ll always be a very important part of our family.”

With Porterfield out and Tellez shifted to full-time general assignment reporting, Erin Kennedy and Lionel Moise, who co-anchor from 4:30 to 7 a.m. weekdays, will take over the 11 a.m. newscast, starting December 28.

Through a spokeswoman, CBS 2 management declined to comment on Porterfield’s version of events. The remarks Tellez read on the air Thursday (and were posted online) are the only statement the station has made about his leaving.

But CBS 2 sources said Porterfield had agreed to a retirement scenario in the past, and that by refusing to show up at the end last week, he was “thumbing his nose” at his colleagues and management. “It was not the honorable way to go,” one insider grumbled.

Porterfield doesn’t dispute that he’d been close to leaving years ago and even cleaned out his desk before the station decided to retain him. “Ultimately they got me to agree on the words ‘retiring from CBS’ the last time,” he said. “I said let’s just get it over with and I’ll leave and that will be the end of it. But I didn’t think I was bound to that commitment this time.”

One thing that changed his mind was witnessing the false bonhomie around the forced retirement of legendary anchormen Bill Kurtis and Walter Jacobson from the station in 2013.

“The last time we went around on this, they wanted me to grandstand this thing,” Porterfield said. “They wanted me to stand up in front of all the employees and tell everybody how much I’m going to miss not being there. I said I’m not going to do that because I saw what happened to Bill and Walter. These guys were at the point of tears when they stood in front of everybody working there and said, ‘Well, you know, it’s time for us to leave, so forth and so on.’  I just don’t like those kind of situations. I’m not good in those circumstances.”

Harry Porterfield (1985)

Harry Porterfield (1985)

The last years at CBS 2 have been a bonus for Porterfield, who found himself out of work in 2009 after 24 years at ABC-owned WLS-Channel 7. He surprised everyone by turning up on CBS 2 again — at age 81. “The whole idea, I think, was kind of a shot at Channel 7,” Porterfield recalled. It also was meant to redeem CBS 2 for demoting him in 1985 — a disastrous move that led to his departure and triggered a boycott by Operation PUSH. “It’s pretty obvious that was the whole intention of what they were doing,” he said.

Would Porterfield ever have stepped down voluntarily? “I know I can’t go on forever, and I thought about leaving, but I didn’t have a worked-out plan,” he said. “I knew that someday I’d have to say, well, I really want to quit. I knew that was coming, to be honest with myself. But I didn’t expect it. I thought maybe in a year. But I didn’t think about it a lot.”

Still he knows he’s had a charmed life: “I think I’m kind of lucky. All the marbles have kind of come into place to fit. Even though things seem to go awry, they always settle out in my favor. . . . I don’t know what I’m going to do at this point, really. We’ll see what happens.”