BOSTON (CBS) – Charlie Austin, a trailblazer and a reporter at WBZ-TV for more than 30 years, died early Tuesday morning. He was 73 years old.
“My first full week on the job was when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, the week of April 4th, 1968. I was a film processor,” he once said.
Charlie Austin landed a job at WBZ just after serving in the U.S. Army. He worked as a film processor, editor and sports anchor before hitting the streets as a general assignment reporter, one of the first African-Americans on Boston television, along with Sarah Ann Shaw and Walt Sanders.
“I think it was very, very important, for young people in particular, to see someone who looked like them on television,” Shaw told WBZ.
“Charlie was a trailblazer in this city,” said former WBZ-TV anchor Liz Walker, the first African-American weeknight news anchor in Boston. “Charlie paved the way for people like me. He was just an amazing journalist. He let his work speak for him and that was even more powerful to me.”
During his long career Charlie covered it all – with heart. “Trust” was his watchword and how he developed his sources and his stories.
Nat Whittemore, a legendary WBZ-TV photographer for decades, said Charlie was one of the finest partners he ever had. He said Charlie knew how to work a story for the long term.
“And that was how he made such great contacts with the State Police and the Boston Police investigators,” Whittemore said.
And sometimes it was personal.
When 11-month old Jamie Fisk from Bridgewater needed a liver transplant, Charlie traveled to Minnesota where the surgery took place and he then came home with the family.
In 1984 and 1985 Charlie traveled to Africa to cover the famine there, but also to help.
“On that second trip we had generated enough interest to fill an airplane with food and medical supplies,” he would later say.
A host of medical problems would plague Charlie – prostate cancer, a stroke and several aneurysms. He battled back from them all and, in typical Charlie fashion, became an advocate for awareness about the ailments that cost him so much.
His foundation was built on a profound faith. Charlie often said, “God is good, all the time.”
“I kind of found my faith through Charlie, and his wife Linda,” Walker said.
During her early days at WBZ, Charlie Austin invited Liz Walker to church.
“Who does that in TV?! ” she said laughing. “I was so moved by that.”
After a long career, Liz would leave journalism and become a minister.
“Charlie really helped me in my spiritual formation. He helped me find meaning in my life,” she said.
Charlie Austin also never stopped supporting the Special Olympics, mostly because of his daughter Danielle, who was born with Down Syndrome.
“When she was born they said, count your blessings, maybe six months. That’s how I get through each day. I look at Danielle and say if she can do it, so can I,” Charlie said.
But at the end, with his kidneys failing and dialysis hurting as much as it helped, Charlie and his family made the decision to stop the fight.
“They supported him. His wife was naturally upset, but that’s what happened,” Whittemore said. “You couldn’t ask for a man of finer character.”
Longtime WBZ photographer Richard Chase also worked closely with Charlie.
“Charlie could bring out the best in anybody,” he recalled. “Charlie did mean a lot to us and meant a lot to me.”
“He was sweet, he cared about people. I loved to hear him sing,” Shaw said.
“I will miss Charlie. He was a powerful voice in our community,” Walker said. “I’m sure he’s singing somewhere, because he loved to sing.”
And he had a great voice, whether he was singing in the newsroom, or on stage performing in Black Nativity.
Charlie Austin, who had a big smile and an even bigger heart, retired from WBZ-TV in 2000, after 32 years at the station.
During his retirement he continued to work towards prostate cancer awareness and he received many awards for journalism and his community work.
“Charlie was a legendary WBZ reporter, who had an impact on everyone he met,” said WBZ General Manager Mark Lund. “Guided by his strong faith, he looked to help others by his profound storytelling. He was a testament to his profession as a true, trusted journalist. Our hearts and prayers go out to the Austin family.”
Charlie leaves his wife Linda, daughters Amy, Lisa and Danielle, and several grandchildren.
The initial funeral arrangements will be a service in South Dartmouth followed by burial at the Veterans’ National Cemetery in Bourne. A memorial service will be held at a later date in Boston.