I’m curious to know whether this is a Philly thing, or if this happens in other cities too.
I’m a lifelong Philly girl. I’ve always lived within 70 miles of the hospital where I was born.
One of the things that seems kind of unique about Philadelphia is our attachment to local celebrities. I’m not talking the rare Hollywood type (M. Night Shymalan, Bill Cosby, Kevin Bacon) who hail from these parts. I’m talking about our local news reporters who we idealize just as much – maybe moreso – than Hollywood icons.
Yesterday the Philadelphia region learned of the death of Gary Papa at age 54. Gary was the sports director and reporter for Channel 6’s Action News. He’d battled prostate cancer for the past five or six years and was public about his struggles. He chaired a local fundraising walk/run event held each year on Father’s Day. “He was always upbeat, always had a smile,” is a common sentiment being expressed. It’s true.
I never met Gary, but I feel like I knew him and his death saddens me deeply. Maybe it’s his age, I don’t know. What I do know is that I’m not alone in feeling this way. “He was like a member of the family,” has been another common sentiment expressed by thousands of Philly folks.
Within minutes of Gary’s passing, my Facebook screen started filling up with comments and groups were created and updated. “Support for Gary Papa” has 14,135 members, “RIP Gary Papa” has 1,015 members and “Remembering Gary Papa” has 273 members. Of the top 10 most-viewed news stories on philly.com, eight of them are about Gary Papa.
Maybe it’s because Gary was with Action News since 1981 and as such, was a presence in our living rooms and at our kitchen tables for almost 30 years. (Let me explain Action News to you. Action News is Philadelphia. Their commercials – “there goes that Action News van again!” – are the stuff of local legend. Their set has barely changed in eons – and whenever it dares to do so, people lose their minds.)
Gary isn’t the first news person we’ve lost. People are still mourning the death this past April of Philadelphia Phillies broadcaster Harry Kalas (this city will truly never be the same) and we still reminisce about news reporters and anchors who passed away in 1983. For example, we still miss Jim O’Brien, a beloved weatherman who died in September 1983 while sky-diving with a friend (Ironically, according to the website for The Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia, Gary Papa was supposed to be the friend accompanying Jim O’Brien on that ill-fated sky-diving venture. Gary needed to cancel at the last minute, and another friend took his place.) And Jessica Savitch, who was on a competing news station and who died within weeks of Jim O’Brien, is still remembered fondly by many, despite her turbulent personal life.
So, what is it? Why are we so connected to our news personalities here in Philadelphia? Does this happen elsewhere? Or is it a unique byproduct of our town, our city of brotherly love?
All I know is this: somehow, the Gary Papas and the Harry Kalases and the Jim O’Briens of Philadelphia keep us connected. They kept us connected back when families, like mine, ate dinner with the local news and the Phillies on in the background. They’re keeping us connected now in a media age that has become fractured and splintered in the decades since our local treasures first commanded our airwaves. We saw this with Harry Kalas, with an outpouring of emotional displays in his memory. We saw this yesterday, with fathers and sons calling each other. Did you hear about Gary Papa? the calls began.
Their longevity in this media market keeps us connected with our city, our heritage, our roots and our families. Maybe that’s why we embrace them so much more than, I suspect, other towns do their news people. And maybe that’s the reason why we continue to mourn and to grieve, because we know that that connection is a fleeting one, a relic of a time gone by that is passing before us too quickly.