Wanda Ramey Queirolo · 2010

ramey

With the lipstick red “On the Air” sign flashing, Wanda Ramey took her co-anchor seat on San Francisco’s KPIX-TV Noon News set. It was literally a red-letter day in 1959: Ramey broke broadcasting’s gender barrier by becoming the first woman news anchor in the western United States, and only the second female anchor in the country.

“I didn’t consider myself a pioneer. We were all pioneers,” said the humble history-maker in a 1990 interview. “I was just doing my job.”

It would be one of Ramey’s successful jobs that eventually propelled her into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame.

Billed as the “Girl on the Beat,” Ramey was relegated to delivering soft news while co-host John Weston read hard news. But not wanting to be beat on a beat, she was determined to be treated equally.

By spending nights riding in police cruisers to cover crime stories, she earned a new station slogan: “Woman on the Beat.”

That woman was born Feb. 18, 1924, in Terre Haute, the eldest of five children to Hiram and May Stuart Ramey. Her sister, Dr. Vanita Gibbs, an Indiana State Professor Emeritae of Education, recalls: “Recognizing her speaking talents, our parents provided elocution lessons for her in her early teens. That training served her well. She was in several plays in high school and again at Indiana State. While in college, her talents were further developed by writing regularly for The Indiana Statesman.”

Before receiving a bachelor’s degree in radio journalism in 1945, Ramey hosted a children’s show called The Story Princess of the Music Box. She was regularly featured on WBOW, which had a campus studio.

Her leadership skills surfaced early. She was junior class secretary, president of Kappa Kappa sorority, and a member of Alpha Phi Gamma journalism honorary and Theta Alpha Phi theater honorary. She was also treasurer of Pamrista, the women’s scholastic honorary.

“As a senior during WWII,” Gibbs said, “she assisted her professor, Dr. Clarence M. Morgan, in teaching V-S Navy officers-in-training the use of radio equipment and giving them instruction in articulate speech. Her own voice qualities were valuable in this responsibility.”

Before Ramey was graduated from what was then Indiana State Teachers College, her father was transferred by his company, The Railway Express Agency, to San Francisco. Knowing that she wanted to work in radio, Wanda applied to be a contestant on a local radio amateur hour immediately after rejoining her family.

“I went with her to the studio for the broadcast,” Gibbs remembers. “She read poetry because she wanted her voice heard more than she wanted to win an amateur show.”

Her rhyme time worked. With her mellow, alto voice and persistent personality, she landed her first job at radio station KPIK in San Luis Obispo, Calif. She returned to the Bay area in 1947 and worked at several stations, including KSFO, where she interviewed celebrities at the Hearst Ranch near Pleasanton, Calif.

In 1948, she was hired as the secretary to Oakland’s KWBR Radio’s program director. She soon assumed his duties when the post became vacant — at no extra pay. A year later, she jumped at the chance to be an on-the-air interviewer at KROW.

Crowing at KROW, she joined a star-studded broadcasting team that included Art Linkletter, This Is Your Life’s Ralph Edwards and poet/composer/singer Rod McKuen.

Striving for bigger things, Ramey moved to San Francisco’s KGO-TV in 1952, where she briefly hosted a news and interview show, Midday with Wanda, aimed at housewives. With her down-home, Indiana warmth, wit and sensitivity, she interviewed the wives of famous men on her show, The Woman Behind the Man.

According to her daughter, Kristi Queirolo Steadman of Novato, Calif., the petite, personable Ramey interviewed more than 1,200 famous personalities, including such imposing figures as John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Eleanor Roosevelt.

At KGO-TV, Ramey became life-long friends with comedienne Phyllis Diller. “I was a secretary at the station and Wanda and I shared an office,” the 92-year-old Diller said in a telephone interview from her home in Brentwood, Calif. “We were two little girls from the Midwest. She was from Terre Haute and I was from Lima, Ohio, so we gravitated together and became bosom buddies. Because she was already a big celebrity in the Bay area, she got free tickets to every event and took me along.

“We drove in Wanda’s little black MG sports car. She was a great driver, but she couldn’t park. On the other hand, I was a great parker. So she drove and I parked! We were like Abbott and Costello,” Diller added, laughing.

San Francisco’s steep, hilly streets became the scene of a comic routine starring the first female stand-up comic and the first female anchor in the West.

“I met Wanda in 1953 and we stayed close friends for 56 years until her death last August,” Diller said softly.

The two were so close, Ramey bought Diller a dress to wear for her opening night at San Francisco’s legendary nightclub, The Purple Onion, in 1955, where she perfected her act.

Now Diller plays a serious role in Ramey’s daughter’s life. “I’m her godmother,” Diller said proudly of Kristi Steadman.

“She paid lots of attention to me, especially when I was younger,” Steadman said. “I was a flower girl in her second wedding when she married Ward Donovan.”

While Diller’s career was growing, Ramey’s suffered a setback. KGO General Manager Vince Francis fired her, using the prevalent view at the time: women weren’t credible as newscasters.

Ramey didn’t sail into the sunset. Instead, she went sailing at the Lake Merritt Sailing Club, where she met the commodore, Richard “Dick” Queirolo, Sr. The two were married on Dec. 18, 1959, the same year she began anchoring at San Francisco’s KPIX-TV.

Before that post, she worked at the city’s KCBS-AM radio, hosting Meet Me at Manning’s, featuring interviews with women.

“Dad became a part-time cameraman when he met her one day at KPIX,” Steadman recalled. “They were frantically looking for a cameraman to fill in for a news story. Dad grabbed a camera and said, ‘I can do that!’”

On New Year’s Eve 1960, Wanda and Dick went to San Quentin State Prison for a story on inmate activities. That story led to their teaching an annual film and television production workshop that trained inmates in production skills. They created SQTV, a prisoner-run, closed-circuit television station that still exists.

Ramey, the first female reporter and female volunteer allowed inside the walls of San Quentin, was named “Honorary Inmate” by the prisoners in 1965.

Other accolades included a regional Emmy Award in 1958 and induction into the Television Academy Silver Circle in 1989. She was a life member of the Bay Area Broadcast Legends and received the Legend of the Year award in 2002. She was inducted into the Marin Women’s Hall of Fame in the 1990s.

In 1968, Indiana State University named her a Distinguished Alumna.

Kristi was born Aug. 14, 1962. “She stayed at KPIX until I started school,” Kristi noted. “She was one of the first broadcasters to be pregnant in public. The viewers followed her along and she had an ‘on air’ baby shower.

“Her co-anchor, John Weston, and his wife, Leslie, had a baby named John, Jr. the same month. So, Mom and John brought both babies on TV to show us off to the viewers.”

By 1967, Ramey wanted more family time. She left her anchor’s post to work for National Educational Television, the precursor to PBS.

For 10 years, Ramey, the former national vice president of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, served as the Bay Area correspondent for Voice of America.

The 85-year-old broadcast journalism pioneer died of cancer in her home in Greenbrae, Calif., on Aug. 15, 2009. Her 97-year-old husband preceded her in death on April 12, 2008.

In addition to her daughter, Ramey is survived by her step-son, Richard Queirolo Jr., of Highlands Ranch, Colo.; sisters Nina Ramey Smith of Pleasant Hill, Calif., and Vanita Ramey Gibbs of Terre Haute; her brother, Thomas Ramey of Jamestown, Calif; five grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.

On Nov. 3, 2009, Ramey’s daughter went to New York City to accept a WIN (Women’s Image Now Award) presented by the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA.) The award reads: “Wanda Ramey, American TV Pioneer and Broadcast Legend For Your Resilience, Groundbreaking and Opening Doors for Women.”

The family has established the Wanda Ramey Scholarship in Communication at the Indiana State University Foundation. “ISU has always been proud of Ms. Ramey and this scholarship will continue to honor her memory and legacy in Terre Haute,” said Anna Christensen, Director of Development for the foundation.

Indiana State University President Daniel J. Bradley said of Ramey: “Wanda Ramey Queirolo was a pioneer in broadcasting who helped break barriers for women in broadcast journalism. She had an amazing career that serves as a great example for all of our students.”

Darryl R. Compton, executive director of the National Television Academy of Television Arts & Sciences,” said: “It will be an honor to her family when she is inducted into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame.”

By Julie Slaymaker, President of Woman’s Press Club of Indiana

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