George W. Collins, a pioneering WMAR-TV broadcaster who earlier had been editor-in-chief of the Afro-American newspaper and covered the civil rights movement and political corruption in Maryland, died Thursday of renal failure at Union Memorial Hospital. He was 88.
"George was an important figure in Baltimore's struggle for fairness for everybody. No one was more influential in the African-American community when it came to voicing their concerns," said Moses Newson, former executive editor of the Afro-American. "He was a great man who did a lot of good."
"George was a pioneer and a significant on-air talent," said Dale Wright, who was manager of WMAR-TV. "He was one of the old-school news people who had the ability to write their own stories, get the facts, and make sure what they were saying was accurate."
"George had guts. He knew the power he had as a reporter, and he used it courageously to help right wrongs," said Andy Barth, a veteran broadcaster who worked at WMAR-TV. "He was brave and tough and a loyal friend."
The son of the Rev. Will Cook Collins and Elizabeth M. Collins, a homemaker, George Washington Collins was born in Bennettsville, S.C., and raised in Statesville, N.C. He graduated from Laurinburg Normal and Industrial Institute in Laurinburg, N.C.
Mr. Collins served in the Air Force in communications and logistics in Wichita Falls, Texas, from 1945 until being discharged in 1947, when he began his career in New York City as a reporter for The People's Voice.
"My father went to the North to escape the racism he had seen firsthand in the South, and he also wanted the enlightenment of the North," said his son, Ronald B. Collins of Chicago.
In 1950, he joined the staff of the Afro-American in Baltimore, and through his 18-year career advanced from reporter to city editor and finally to editor-in-chief.
One of Mr. Collins' more memorable feats during his Afro-American years drew national attention and became known as the "Route 40 Caper." It was spurred after African diplomats traveling between New York City and Washington on U.S. 40 were refused service at restaurants in northeast Maryland in 1961.
While Maryland Gov. J. Millard Tawes apologized and suggested they select restaurants with a more liberal policy, the incidents inflamed the administration of President John F. Kennedy.
Mr. Collins and two other Afro-American reporters then made a daylong trip along U.S. 40. Herbert Mangrum, dressed in a colorful gilded robe and turban, pretended to be "Orfa Adibuwa," finance minister from a fictional African country. Mr. Collins and another reporter dressed in morning coats and top hats. The trio traveled in a limousine. Nowhere were the "diplomats" refused service, though black Marylanders at the time would have been.
"The unprecedented bigotry exhibited by these restaurateurs triggered a national response to its absurdity, resulting in passage of new public accommodation laws in Maryland within two years," his son said.
Maryland became the first state south of the Mason-Dixon Line to ban discrimination against African-Americans in restaurants and hotels.
Mr. Collins went on to cover the major civil rights-era stories that defined the movement.
In 1968, he joined WMAR-TV as a prime-time anchor and associate editor. He became a familiar presence to Baltimore viewers with his heavy framed black glasses, carefully trimmed mustache and no-nonsense on-air demeanor.
Mr. Collins, who was the second African-American hired by WMAR, held numerous roles during his 20-year career, including news editor, political analyst, investigative reporter and editorial director.
"He was a newspaperman who made the transition to TV and was just as effective," said Tim Tooten, WBAL-TV education reporter, who began his career at WMAR and looked to Mr. Collins as a mentor.
Mr. Collins was the moderator of "Man-to-Man" and "Straight Talk," two programs that highlighted issues facing African-American communities.
Mr. Collins covered political corruption, including the downfalls of Vice President Spiro T. Agnew and Baltimore County Executive Dale Anderson.
"He was always fair, but he was George Collins," said Mr. Tooten.
"He was the best of the best," said Richard Sher, a veteran WJZ-TV reporter. "George took his work very seriously and was highly regarded by all of us in TV and radio news. He was also a fun guy."
Mr. Sher recalled covering a home invasion in Northwest Baltimore with Mr. Collins, who had a microphone in one hand and a Popsicle in the other, as they waited for a police major to give them a group interview.
"George was the first to get to him, asking, 'Major, tell us what happened,' but instead of putting the mike up to the officer's mouth, he stepped forward with the Popsicle. Great laughs," recalled Mr. Sher.
After leaving WMAR in 1988, Mr. Collins owned and operated GWC Media Consultants and hosted a biweekly public-affairs show on WEAA-FM at Morgan State University.
Even though he retired in 2012, he occasionally appeared on local radio and TV shows. In 2003, he was jointly cited by the Library of America, the National Committee for Excellence in Journalism and the Smithsonian Institution as "one of the best American journalists of the 20th century."
Mr. Collins, who lived in Cross Keys, spent 40 years vacationing on Cape Cod. He was an Orioles and Baltimore Colts fan.
Mr. Collins was an active member for more than 40 years of New Shiloh Baptist Church, 2100 N. Monroe St., where funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday.
In addition to his son, Mr. Collins is survived by his wife of 65 years, the former Eloise Ross; three daughters, Vanessa C. Pyatt and Valerie D. Collins, both of Baltimore, and Barbara C. Rhodes of Dover, Del.; four grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun