Editor’s note: Philadelphia sportscaster Don Tollefson recently pled not guilty to charges of fraud, and his trial date has been set for August 18th.
To be a sports-obsessed kid coming of age in the Delaware Valley in the late 1970s and early 80’s was to revel in a sparkling era of Philadelphia professional sports.
From 1975 to 1983, three of the four major franchises – the Flyers, Phillies and Sixers – won championships and the Eagles made it to the 1980 Super Bowl. During that stretch, Philly teams always seemed to be in the hunt for a title. They were exciting and stacked with hall of fame talent.
In that pre-internet era, if you were hungry for the latest scores or breaking news about your favorite teams, there weren’t many options.
This was in the days of ESPN’s infancy (cable television itself was in the crib) so the fastest source for information about the night’s big game – and video clips, if you were lucky – was the evening’s local TV newscast.
In most households in greater Philadelphia, that meant you were tuning in to WPVI Channel 6 Action News, and waiting anxiously through 20 minutes of often unfortunate news (“a fire in the Kensington section…”) to get your sports fix from the station’s boisterous, energetic sports anchor, Don Tollefson.
Tolly was young, and he had a kind of cocky, jaunty manner. A reporting wunderkind, he was hired by the Associated Press as a Stanford University student to cover the blockbuster Patty Hearst trial in San Francisco. After a brief stint as part of ABC’s impressive, youthful college football sideline duo with Jim Lampley, his broadcasting ambitions took him east and he joined WPVI at the age of 23. Just a year after joining Channel 6, Tollefson was named the station’s sports director.
Tollefson, weatherman Jim O’Brien and lead anchor Jim Gardner formed the holy trinity of Philadelphia local TV news.
Tollefson’s career at Channel 6 lasted from 1975 to 1990, when he unexpectedly announced he was walking away from a several hundred thousand-dollar salary to devote himself full-time to the charitable work that increasingly consumed his time outside of TV.
He was still young and in his prime and the move didn’t seem to make much sense at the time. Within a few years, Tollefson was back on the air at the local Fox affiliate, a stint that did not end well.
Along the way, Tollefson was dogged by whispers about shady dealings tied to his charitable work and money or other troubles. Then, this past February, his old station regrettably reported on Tollefson’s Bucks County indictment for allegedly ripping off hundreds of people who had been promised tickets or trips he never delivered. The television carried images of a wan, but still boyish-looking Tolly doing the perp walk instead of reporting on Doc and the Sixers.
Much has been said about the special kind of intimacy formed between viewer and TV host in the days when there were only three or four options on the dial. At the peak of his influence in the late 1960s, Walter Cronkite was famously deemed the most trusted man in America and there was talk (on the left, at least) of a presidential run. Local anchors and TV personalities used to have the same kind of standing (regardless of what kind of shambles their personal lives may have been).
Certainly, as a youngster, Tollefson connected with me. I liked and trusted him.
It turns out that some Philly old-timers apparently never cottoned to his brash, jocular style, but for a generation of boys and young men, he was our go-to guy for all things sports.
Now, disgraced, Tolly awaits trial in a cramped North Philadelphia apartment and not a few well-meaning people and organizations have been caused some real harm. It is a strange and sad story that leaves one searching for a redemptive conclusion.