Arnold C. Rifkin, a Korean War veteran and pioneering WJZ-TV engineer who late in life had a second career as a chef, died of complications from dementia May 4 at his Pikesville home. He was 93.
“He died in his library surrounded by thousands of cooking, engineering and TV books, and other mementos from his life,” said a son, Alan Rifkin, of Clarksville. “He was a self-taught and self-made man.”
Another son, Dr. Scott Rifkin, who lives in Lutherville, described his father as “an honest, hardworking guy who had a fascinating life.”
“Arnold Rifkin was an engineer’s engineer, and a pioneer in TV as we know it. He was the first in TV to mount a camera, and that was the beginning of mobile TV, ” said Richard Sher, a longtime WJZ-TV news broadcaster and current host of the online show “Square Off.”
“There was nothing Arnold couldn’t fix, and he was very smart. He really was. I remember we gave him a TV to fix and it came back 2 1/2 years later,” Mr. Sher said, with a laugh. “He really was the best of the best.”
Arnold Charles Rifkin, son of a Russian immigrant tailor, Isadore Rifkin, and his former wife, Sara Rifkin, an immigrant from what was then Odesa, Russia, who was an office worker, was born in Baltimore and raised near Patterson Park by his single working mother after his parents divorced.
He was a 1947 graduate of City College High School, he worked as an X-ray technician for the Baltimore City Health Department.
When he was 17, he met and fell in love with the former Sally Conn, who was 14. The couple married in 1949.
“I fell in love with Arnold on our first date. We danced and talked and gazed at each other,” Mrs. Rifkin wrote in a family memoir. “I could see the love in his eyes.”
“She couldn’t wait to turn 18, so she could marry my father,” Alan Rifkin said.
In 1949, Mr. Rifkin enlisted in the Marine Corps where he studied radar engineering, trained as a sharpshooter, and took up photography and became the camp photographer at Camp Lejeune.
Mr. Rifkin won an award for “being the best sharpshooter in the division,” his son said. “Because he enjoyed photography, my mother made a sign that said, ‘We shoot Marines.’”
He was about to be shipped out to Korea when the armistice was signed.
The couple returned to Baltimore and he studied radio engineering on the GI Bill. With the coming of commercial television, he began working in Baltimore at WAAM-TV, an NBC affiliate, that went on the air in 1957, and later became today’s WJZ-TV.
Throughout his three decades at the station, Mr. Rifkin covered gubernatorial elections, sports events, storms, fires and President John F. Kennedy’s funeral in 1963. After a hostage crisis in 1978 at University Hospital, now the University of Maryland Medical Center, he was presented an award for helping ensure the safety of those around him.
Always an innovative thinker, in 1974 Mr. Rifkin had the idea of fixing a TV camera to the roof of a minivan.
“He had that idea in the early 1970s, that you could news out into the streets because cameras were fixed in the studio and heavy,” said Alan Rifkin. “His idea was to bolt one to the top of a minivan that was also equipped with a videotaping equipment that could be driven to wherever news was breaking. The film was then driven back to the studio where it was aired.”
Mr. Rifkin was recognized for creating the mobile TV minivan in 1980, when he was given an award by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers.
Mr. Sher recalled working with Mr. Rifkin at a noontime parade in downtown Baltimore that celebrated the Orioles winning the 1983 World Series after beating the Philadelphia Phillies four games to one.
“Arnold was a little quirky, and you never wanted to do anything that ticked him off because he’d stand his ground. He was the engineer and I was reporting on the parade,” he said.
“Through our earpieces, I could hear him screaming and cursing at the techs in the field. I mentioned it to him and he gave me the Rifkin treatment by screaming and yelling at me,” Mr. Sher recalled, with a laugh.
In 1987, while working on equipment in a confined area, an explosion left Mr. Rifkin with a 95% hearing loss that led to his retirement the next year.
During his last night at the station, WJZ-TV news anchor Denise Koch gave Mr. Rifkin a rousing tribute while he stood next to a mobile news truck that he had invented.
“A stirring retirement: Looks like Arnold Rifkin, cameraman extraordinaire at WJZ-TV, will be trading in his Ikegami for a Cuisinart,” The Sun reported at the time. “But none of this sitting-around stuff for this sprightly 58-year-old. Rifkin has enrolled in the Culinary Arts Institute and plans a second career as a chef. Break a chicken leg, Arnold!”
For a man who loved talking to others and singing, the accident was a devastating and life-altering event, but Mr. Rifkin had the resilience and resolve to reinvent himself.
He had always enjoyed cooking and decided, at the age of 58, to become a student at what was then known as the Culinary Arts Institute of Baltimore. The school became the Baltimore International College and was later acquired by Stratford University.
In 1989, his three sons sent Mr. Rifkin and his wife to Paris, where he enrolled and studied French cooking at the Institute Culinary De Paris, and where he developed his lifelong affection for the City of Light.
Thereafter, each summer, he and his wife returned to spend a month while exploring and experiencing the local restaurant scene, and he enjoyed quiet moments sitting in Luxembourg Park snapping photographs.
After graduating from culinary school, he worked as a line chef in various local Baltimore restaurants, including Linwoods in Owings Mills.
“He loved making anything French, especially crepes, and even brought home to Baltimore a crepe machine from Paris,” Alan Rifkin said. “He continued cooking professionally until retiring when he turned 70.”
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Renowned and revered throughout his family for his culinary artistry, he could always be counted on to bring challah or other gourmet dishes to family events, his son said.
Because of his situation growing up in a single-parent household, Mr. Rifkin’s family was the center of his life.
“He always wanted to have his own family. It was a lifelong quest,” Alan Rifkin said.
Family members said he took thousands of photographs of pictures “showing his pride in his wonderful family.”
Funeral services were held Friday at Sol Levinson & Bros. in Pikesville, with interment in the Hebrew Young Men’s Cemetery in Gwynn Oak.
In addition to his wife of 73 years, a public school educator, and two sons, Mr. Rifkin is survived by another son, David Rifkin of Jacksonville, Florida; a half-brother, Leonard Rifkin of Boca Raton, Florida; 12 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
This article has been updated to correct where Alan Rifkin lives and how Leonard Rifkin is related to Arnold Rifkin. The Baltimore Sun regrets the errors.