For 45 years, Riverside resident Don Farnham’s day job as a TV cameraman and technical director for ABC television took him across the globe.
The two-time Emmy-winning Farnham was the network’s technical director for the first-ever Wide World of Sports program, and he served as a cameraman at two Winter Olympics, Lake Placid (1980) and Sarajevo (1984), and the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
He manned the camera at countless games for Monday Night Football and Monday Night Baseball, when ABC broadcast baseball weekly. In 1972, he was picked to be part of the crew that accompanied President Richard Nixon on his historic trip to China.
Closer to home, Farnham also has been instrumental in opening up to residents of Riverside the way its local governmental agencies operate. In 1996, Dr. Robert Novak and Farnham were the founding members of the Riverside Cable Commission.
Since that time, interrupted by a two-year hiatus, in the early 2000s, Farnham’s been a member of the commission, now known as Riverside TV.
But approaching his 91st birthday, which is just a few days away, Farnham has announced he’s retiring from the commission. On Thursday, Oct. 6 at 7 p.m., the Riverside Village Board and Riverside TV will honor Farnham’s years of service during the board’s meeting at the Riverside Township Hall, 27 Riverside Road.
“I’m too old,” said Farnham, “and the technology is so much different. Plus the board [overseeing Riverside TV] is really good and dedicated and the program assistants from RB and Columbia [College] do good jobs.
“I will not be missed.”
While typically self-effacing, Farnham’s assessment of the situation leaves out the fact that, if not for his expertise, Riverside TV would probably look a lot different today than it does now.
For one thing, both Farnham and Novak thought of the then-fledgling cable TV operation as a real news source — one that the village board of the time downplayed. The village was collecting cable franchise fees, which were supposed to go toward the formation of a cable news outlet.
Instead, Farnham said, the $20,000 or so per year was getting funneled into the village’s general operating fund. Three years after he’d retired from his job at ABC, Farnham threw himself into getting the Riverside Cable Commission up and running.
With his background in TV production, Farnham chose the equipment and devised just how they would cover village board meetings.
“I knew enough about studio operations and lighting,” Farnham said. “I bought the equipment and we started televising trustees [meetings]. We’re still doing things the way we set it up. That says something. We gave them a show every time we were supposed to.”
Riverside TV has moved beyond trustees’ meetings, though covering the village board remains a staple of programming. The commission also broadcasts meetings of the Riverside Township Board and Riverside Elementary School District 96, along with a slew of annual community events, one-time special events and some original programming.
According to fellow Riverside TV Commission member Steve Wojcik, Farnham brought “professionalism” to the operation.
“He was a camera guy, and you go out and shoot the show,” said Wojcik. “He passed that along to the students. He made it a point that you’re supposed to be here. You’re the press.”
Wojcik remembered one incident back in 2012 after the Hofmann Dam was removed and then-Gov. Pat Quinn held a press conference to mark the occasion. As a student from Riverside TV was setting up a camera to broadcast, one of the local network crews pushed her camera out of the way.
“Don said, ‘She’s the press. She lives here,'” Wojcik recalled, and Riverside TV claimed its spot at the press conference.
Farnham got his start with ABC in 1948, at first in the radio division. Within months he was part of ABC’s new TV division, working as a sports cameraman, shooting the Chicago Bears and Cardinals football teams and, in 1949, the Chicago Cubs.
He won the first of his Emmys in 1959, when he was named Best Cameraman, TV Programs. He got his second for his work at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, where he was responsible for shooting the downhill skiing competition.
He had to be airlifted each day to the top of a mountain, where he’d jump out of the helicopter about six feet from the ground because the helicopter couldn’t land where he needed to be.
One night, with poor weather scrapping all flights, he had to walk down the mountain about a half-mile, guided by a rope.
And while he was in Sarajevo as a cameraman for the Olympics four years later, Farnham got to have a couple of beers with Vinko Bogataj, the Slovenia ski jumper whose 1970 wipeout became forever associated with “the agony of defeat” during the opening credits of Wide World of Sports for all those years on ABC.
Farnham was the downhill skiing cameraman in Sarajevo and Bogataj worked was a starter for the event.
“He didn’t speak English very well, but good enough to understand each other,” Farnham said.
Baseball was his most enjoyable sport to cover but he never got to cover a Chicago team in a major championship. He was a cameraman at the 1985 Super Bowl, a year before the Bears won it.
He also worked the 1983 World Series, the year the Baltimore Orioles knocked out the Chicago White Sox in the American League Championship Series.
Asked who might replace Farnham on the five-person Riverside TV Commission, Wojcik answered, “That’s a good question.” In part because of the technical nature of the commission, it has had trouble attracting members in the past. What Wojcik said he’ll miss most, is Farnham’s even-keeled nature.
“He’s the voice of reason on the commission,” Wojcik said. “That will be missed.”