Iconic sports journalist Jim McKay honored with award, exhibit at Harford Community College

The late Jim McKay’s career covering sports for television spanned the globe, just like his iconic introduction to ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” a program he hosted for many years, but no matter how far he roamed, he always wanted to get home to Maryland, their small horse farm in Monkton and his family, McKay’s son, Sean McManus, said.

“Maryland meant the most to my dad,” McManus, the chairman of CBS Sports, said. “He always went home to Maryland.

McKay, who died in 2008 at age 86, was honored posthumously Friday evening with the Robert and Anne Heighe Excellence in Equestrian Journalism Award, presented by the Hays-Heighe House at Harford Community College. The Hays-Heighe House’s mission is to preserve the social and cultural history of Harford County through educational programs and exhibits.

The journalism award recognizes excellence, quality of writing and longevity in the coverage of equestrian sports, according to museum director Carol Allen, who presented the award to McManus, his sister Mary Guba, and McKay’s three grandchildren during a program at the HCC Chesapeake Center attended by about 100 people.

Prior winners of the award are the late Joseph Kelly, the late William Boniface and Pierre “Peb” Bollocq. The award is named in honor of Robert and Anne Heighe, whose Prospect Hill Farm thoroughbred breeding and racing farm occupied the HCC campus.

Friday’s award reception was preceded by the opening of “The Wider World of Jim McKay: Celebrating His Life and His Work,” at the Hays-Heighe House.

The exhibit follows McKay’s life from his Philadelphia boyhood to his family’s migration to Baltimore when he was 13 and his start as a newspaper crime reporter through his 55-plus year career in television, during which he covered 12 summer and winter Olympics, major golf championships, Triple Crown horse races, auto races and other international sporting events.

Her father would have been “absolutely thrilled” with the Heighe award, said Guba, his daughter, who recalled how her father’s career as a television sportscaster got off to an auspicious start when he and his colleague at the old Baltimore Evening Sun newspaper, Joe Kelly, hosted the first live broadcast for their company’s new station WMAR – the fifth and sixth races from Pimlico Race Course in October 1947.

Reviewing the broadcast, the acerbic legendary columnist and pundit H.L. Mencken wrote: “I wouldn’t have given a dime for an hour of that,” Guba said. “He [Mencken] wrote it was ‘awful’ and he hoped my dad had another career planned.”

He didn’t, and he persevered in his fledgling television career, first in Baltimore, then with CBS Sports in the 1950s and, beginning in 1961, with ABC, where he became the first host of “Wide World of Sports,” the groundbreaking Saturday sports anthology program that lasted 37 years.

Guba said her father was a humble man and a wise one. When her son decided he wanted to learn to fly an airplane, Guba said she was terrified and went to her father for advice. “’Mary,’ he told me, ‘You have a brave son. You have to be a brave mother.”

She also credited her mother, the late Margaret Dempsey McManus, for keeping her father grounded in his career and his life.

After her father and mother attended the first Breeder’s Cup World Championship races in California in 1984 and his father suggested Maryland should have a similar event, Guba said, “My mother told him to go and do it.”

J. William Boniface, of Darlington, a horse trainer and breeder and close McKay friend, who also spoke Friday, said when McKay, the late Pimlico general manager Chick Lang and Boniface sat down and put together what became the annual Jim McKay Maryland Million races, McKay, because of his celebrity, was assigned the job of lining up sponsors.

“I knew Jim would get us good ones, respectable ones, no cigarette companies or – striptease clubs,” said Boniface, who also lauded McKay for his down-to-earth demeanor and humility.

“He [McKay] could talk to a [horse] groom [sitting] on a bale of hay like he was the president,” Boniface said.

Boniface’s late father was a horse racing journalist and a previous Heighe Award recipient and his late grandfather managed Prospect Hill when it was still a horse farm. Boniface’s friendship with McKay and his wife included training the couple’s small stable of horses, including Sean’s Ferrari, named for McKay’s son, that won the 1987 Maryland Million juvenile race.

“When that horse won, it was the only time I ever saw him speechless,” Boniface recalled.

Boniface said McKay was a very detailed oriented person, “He wanted to find out things; he had that old newspaper blood in him.”

McKay, Boniface said, even tracked down the skier who was shown in the opening video montage of “Wide World of Sports” tumbling head over heels down the mountainside as McKay intoned in the voice over that most historians credit him with writing: “The thrill of victory...and the agony of defeat.”

“He went all the way to Yugoslavia and found him and they became friends,” Boniface said.

Would McKay have been as successful as a sports journalist in the era of Twitter and other social media? Boniface, who’s never been bashful about waxing philosophic on many subjects, admitted he wasn’t so sure.

“Jim never disrespected a person he was interviewing...he never took a cheap shot,” Boniface said. If his friend was disbelieving or thought an interviewee was exaggerating or being less than truthful, Boniface added, “He just gave you that look.”

The exhibit

The Wilder World of Jim McKay: Celebrating His Life and His Work” is curated by Maryanna Skowronski, director of the Historical Society of Harford County.

Included are archival photographs and many of McKay’s awards, including two of his Emmys, one for sportswriting for the introductions to the 1987 ABC coverage of the Kentucky Derby, British Open and Indianapolis 500.

The other Emmy displayed is one of two he received for his 14 hours of live coverage of the hostage taking and eventual massacre of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists during the 1972 Olympics in Munich. Also displayed is the gold ABC sports jacket McKay wore on that day.

McKay’s many other awards include the Joe Hirsch Media Award bestowed this summer by the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, an Eclipse Award of merit for distinguished service to thoroughbred racing and the Olympic Order (sliver).

“I think it’s wonderful,” Guba said after touring the exhibit. “They did a beautiful job.”

Guba added that it was “a labor of love” and she had a lot of fun helping Skowronski and the others involved with putting the exhibit together.

“The Wider World of Jim McKay runs through Jan. 12. Exhibit hours are Tuesdays from 1 to 3 p.m.; Thursdays from 3 to 5 p.m.; Fridays from 10 a.m. to noon and first Saturdays from 10 a.m. to noon. Admission is free.

Harford Community College is at 401 Thomas Run Road in Bel Air. For more information, visit www.harford.edu/jimmckay or call 443-412-2144.

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