By Teddy Robertson
Wingwalker, actor, musician, music lover, pilot, lawyer, magistrate, neighborhood activist, and pioneering broadcaster in Flint’s glory days: those are some of the words that describe the colorful life of Roberta “Bobbi” Wray, 77.
At her Mott Park dining room table strewn with current projects, Wray, the first woman TV broadcaster hired in the State of Michigan, describes how her life evolved through a series of dares and dreams.
Her history with the city intertwines richly with its many changes and challenges, and even today, her writing and activism correspond to issues with roots in her early years and throughout the decades.
Wray says one passion started it all: theater.
“I always loved show biz,” she says.
Going through piles of old photos and newsprint, we mull her 29-year news career in radio and TV. Our friendship dates to 1986 when we met in a history class I was teaching at UM-Flint. She was finishing her BA and, as I learned later, headed for law school.
Many milestones to cover
“I caught the theater bug early from movie musicals that came to the Rialto in Grayling and the Strand in Roscommon. After I saw a movie about the life of Chopin, “A Song to Remember,” sometime in the 1940’s, my cousin and I spent hours making up plays about classical musicians and presenting them to our families in grandma’s front room,” Wray recalls. Christmas and Easter pageants at church, playing the piano, or dancing in tap and ballet recitals—Wray smiles and says, “I was always on!”
In 1942, Wray’s family moved from Crawford County to Flint where her father went to work in the war production at A.C. Spark Plug. Four different cities were “home” until finally Wray’s parents bought a house on Ohio Avenue, three blocks from her dad’s job at A.C. Her brother walked to Washington School and Wray caught the bus to ride the mile or so to Whittier, and then Central High School.
At Whittier, Wray played trombone in band and orchestra. She joined the school camera club too. Later in life, she was mentored by local professional photographers Barry Edmonds and Joe Kalush. On a camera club field trip to WTAC radio, popular disc jockey “Sleepyhead” Ted Johnson quipped that her last name (Funsch) sounded like “a mouth full of peanut brittle.” Wray vowed to change her surname for show biz. And she did.
At Central High, Wray joined the drama, stagecraft, and Shakespeare clubs and pursued her other passion, American history and politics, by serving in a model U.S. Senate.
Young musicians at Central bonded at Band Camp held at Pero Lake in Lapeer County. “We learned to play and march at the same time, and drilled for half time shows, all day every day. I still have lunch every month with band mates from those days—Grant Hamady (class of 1956) was a drummer, Pat Graff (class of 1958) played xylophone,” says Wray. Wray was rank leader for the trombone section her junior and senior years.
Wray’s theatre break came in 1959—the Flint Journal published a call for apprentices at a summer stock company called the Musical Tent. Set up on North Saginaw Road near the Dort Highway/Vienna Road split, the Musical Tent was the real thing: an Actors’ Equity company.
The season that year, as related in a 2004 Flint Expatriates’ post, opened with “Can-Can” starring French singer from the Jack Paar show, “Genevieve.” Other shows followed: “Li’l Abner,” “Damn Yankees,” “Show Boat” with Andy Devine, and “Silk Stockings” with Don Ameche.
Acting, music, building sets—Wray did it all and loved it all.
On to a famous downtown record store
When money troubles cut short the 1959 Musical Tent season, Wray got her first full-time job selling records at the Bill Lamb Record Shoppe. It was located at First Street and Brush Alley across from the Mott Foundation Building.
In 1960 the Record Shoppe was a mecca for media people. Wray reels off the names—“Jerry Schroeder, general manager at WKMF, a station for big band music and local news, and Jim Melton, a WKMF disc jockey. People from WBBC (where Bill Lamb worked at the time) and WFDF came into the shop too.” Wray met news stringers Jim Rush and Doug Smith, freelancers who provided news stories on a contract basis for WJIM TV.
“They couldn’t always get to stories, so when they found out that I was a photographer, they let me help them. Since I worked days, I was available nights to cover news,” Wray says.
In 1961, Wray became WKMF’s traffic clerk, typing program logs—the schedule of commercials, public service announcements, and program times that guides announcers. “I compiled a daily news letter with headlines of local and national news, a sports summary and a weather note distributed to various restaurants and drug stores in the morning, as well as information for the night disc jockeys for their news inserts. I didn’t start writing the copy right away, but I attended city council meetings regularly and went to accident scenes and gathered information for Jim Rush and Doug Smith,” she says.
Moving into TV, undeterred by danger
She worked part time as a stringer and landed one of her first film assignments: covering President Kennedy’s 1962 mid-term campaign in Michigan for Channel 6, WJIM. Later that November, she was an election night correspondent for NBC. In 1967, undeterred by danger, she covered the threat of spill over in Flint from the July Detroit riots, as she relates in the July/August issue of Bar Beat.
After seven plus years in radio and TV, Wray became a full-time reporter/photographer for WNEM TV 5 News in 1968—the first female reporter/photographer doing a regular news beat in the state. She was hired the same year as Hugh Semple, the first African-American reporter statewide in Michigan.
Wray and Semple became partners, taking turns behind the camera and reporting. Sifting through a stack of professional photos, she finds what she’s looking for—two great smiles with bulky camera equipment. Colleagues called the pair “the Dynamic Duo.” Wray wryly comments, “and when we got to an incident scene, people didn’t know who to talk to – the black man or the woman. They weren’t sure who was in charge.”
“TV 5 was a very exciting job, different every day. I covered all kinds of stories—accidents, fires, council meetings, board of education, state government . . . I visited the Police Department, Sheriff’s Office, Michigan State Police Post, and listened to police monitors. The worst stories involved the death or serious injury of children. I really liked every aspect of the job—getting the story first and right was very satisfying. I always strove for accuracy,” Wray says.
Wray did interviews too: astronaut James Irwin, candidate Jimmy Carter, scientists Carl Sagan and Werner von Braun, and David and Julie Eisenhower.
Change comes to broadcasting
The most dramatic change during her TV news years, Wray said, was the increasing number of women in the news end of broadcasting in the early 70s, perhaps because they started accessing the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) established in 1965.
“I wasn’t even aware of the EEOC when I was trying to get hired full time at TV 5 back in the 60s,” she said. The station owner wouldn’t allow the news director to hire me—no women in the production areas of the station with all those men. Somehow it was okay if I worked as a stringer and was in those very production areas all the time,” she adds tartly. “Not until the station was bought by Meredith Corporation in 1968 was I officially hired full-time.”
And then there was equipment, the tools of a camera pro. “When I started we used 16mm Bell and Howell hand-held cameras, the spring-driven kind used by combat photographers in WW II. We shot black and white film that came in 100 ft. rolls.
“A news conference meant sound-on-film camera that weighed about twenty pounds and had a separate sound box with lots of wires to the camera and the microphone, plus a heavy tripod,” she says. “In the early 70s the film gear got motorized and more portable. Then electronic news gathering came on the scene and the gear got heavy and cumbersome again.”
Taking a dare, she wing walks
In the late 1970s, Wray took up another passion: flying. Hooked as a kid after a Piper Cub plane ride at Lost Creek Sky Ranch, she says she resolved that “when I could finally afford flying lessons, I would learn to fly. After I earned my license in 1977 the guys at the flight school told me I could earn flight time by teaching ground school, so I continued studying and got my ground instructor’s permit.”
Wray volunteered with the air show publicity staff and got to fly with the Blue Angels at Bishop Airport before an air show. “We did loops, rolls, inverted flight and a high speed run up the shore of Saginaw Bay before executing a ‘carrier landing’ maneuver back at Bishop,” she says.
On a dare from her TV-5 partner Semple, Wray did a wing walk with aerobatic stunt pilot, Joe C. Hughes, on his Super Stearman biplane. “We were belted to a stanchion on the wing and our feet were in footpads. Centrifugal force kept us in place.” Was she afraid? “Well, yes,” and her eyes light up, “but it was fantastic.”
But even with an established career and an exhilarating hobby like flying, Wray decided she wanted more and left broadcasting.
To explain it, she cites drastic changes in the 1980s when “Reaganomics and deregulation were affecting many areas, including the broadcasting industry. Broadcasting ‘in the public interest’ became a thing continued by only the old time ethical owners,” she explains.
“Even they had to start paying attention to the ‘bottom line’ and the expense to present real news and important information,” she says. “It bothered me that news was becoming more aimed at exploiting emotions than providing important developments in local government. More emphasis went to ratings and less to the original concept of news programming as broadcasting in the public interest.”
The dumbing-down was just too much. Wray recalls a news director who once said, “I’d rather see pictures of ducks on a pond than a talking head!’
“It didn’t matter that the talking head was saying something important that affected people’s lives,” she laments.
On to UM – Flint, law school, court
After years of sporadically taking college classes—sometimes while working three jobs—Wray decided to get serious about her undergraduate degree at UM-Flint.
“My love was history, so I went for it, taking a whole bunch of history, philosophy, and sociology classes, until I graduated in 1990 and left broadcasting,” she says.
Her next step, law school, seemed a natural, she says, because “the law offered a way to get to help people in a more direct, hands-on fashion. I approached it as a continuation of my history degree—law is really just the study of legal history.”
After passing the bar exam, Wray worked as associate attorney with David Nickola, handling divorce cases and appointed criminal defense. “The divorce cases drove me crazy,” Wray says. “When the magistrate in Mt. Morris division of 67th District Court resigned, I took the job and served as a magistrate for eleven years.”
Still following the law and neighborhood life
Atop the tallest pile on the table rests James Madison’s Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787. The book is flagged with notes. Wray is at work on an article the Genesee County Bar Association’s bi-monthly newsletter, Bar Beat. She worries about the presidential pardon for Sheriff Joe Arpaio and the consequences for law in our republic.
We are both retirees now, neighbors in Mott Park, where Wray is an ardent supporter of the Mott Park Blight Squad. So I ask how she feels about Flint, its stresses and signs of hope? With the detail of a journalist and measure of a lawyer, Wray reflects,
I’ve lived in Flint most of my life. I’ve watched it grow to nearly 200,000 with almost the highest per capita income in the country, and I’ve watched it fall apart through no fault of the people who live here, but because jobs left and the tax base left. I love the people of Flint who have not given up and are still working hard to reinvent us. The closing of factories has had the benefit of cleaning up the air and keeping snow white for more than two days. The diversification of the economic base through expanded educational and medical facilities and the business incubators gives me hope for the future.
EVM writer Teddy Robertson can be reached at email@example.com.