March 31, 1975 12:00 PM

As interviewer and news announcer on the Today show for 23 years, Frank Blair became as essential a part of American wake-up rites as frozen orange juice. Five days a week he rose at 4 a.m. to report to the NBC studio in mid-Manhattan, causing golfing pal Bob Hope to crack, “Frank is the only man on the block who goes to bed before his own kids.” His bland and unbiased broadcasts somehow made crisis and tragedy compatible with breakfast, and 10 million Americans started the day with him.

Now, after more than 20,000 newscasts, Blair, 59, has retired, and his departure did not go unnoticed.

On his last day, March 14, the entire Today show was dedicated to Blair. Many of his old cronies were there—in person or on tape—and the tears flowed as freely as the Bloody Marys at a party following the program.

Paying him tribute were Jack Lescoulie, a sidekick from the 1950s, and actress Estelle Parsons, Today’s first “girl.” Onetime host John Chancellor and correspondent Edwin Newman were also at the studio, along with seven of Blair’s eight children and his wife, Lil, 58. There were videotape messages from Dave Garroway, the show’s first host, Hugh Downs, Dean Rusk, Hope and Gen. Mark Clark, topped off by a letter from President Ford. “Your integrity has set an example for those who will follow you,” it read.

His colleagues described Blair as “solid,” “dependable” and “believable.” But during his last show, viewers saw another side of the man who rarely cracked a smile. A quick and witty Blair emerged, and there was a hint that more was going on behind the camera all those years than met the eye—like his relationship with Barbara Walters, which Blair described as “everything but sexual.” On the final show, Walters laughingly recalled a tip Blair had given her: “His advice was not to talk so fast. Frank now says what he meant was not to talk so much.” When Barbara started getting mushy about his departure, Blair interrupted with: “Oh shut up, Barbara.” (Later he admitted, “She irritated me at times, and I often told her to shut up. I also have great admiration for her.”)

“It’s the serious things you remember,” Blair reminisced over pre-lunch martinis in his Manhattan apartment. “The coronation of Queen Elizabeth, the day Stalin died, the Kennedy assassination, and Martin Luther King.” He reported them all and actually went out and covered some. A staunch Catholic, Blair never took his job or his “six-figure” salary for granted. “I went to mass on the way home every day,” he says. “If I missed the service, I dropped in anyway to pay a little visit.”

After a Florida vacation, Blair and his wife will return to their home state of South Carolina, where they are building a house at Hilton Head—”so we can live the rest of our lives together without the interference of NBC.” He has already been asked to write a book about his years on the show and will do a few TV commercials and film documentaries that his NBC contract had prevented. “I might regret my decision,” says Blair, “but it was about time I did it. I want the people to know that I cared as much as they did.”

Blair will have some light moments to remember, too, such as the time he was doing a dog food commercial and the dog had an accident on Blair’s shoe. Frank looked down at his foot, then up at the camera and exclaimed, “Now, that’s news!”

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